I became a hospice volunteer because death was on its way. A rare life, mine: no one close to me had died, and then one of my clients perished. I was wracked for how it happened (ALS finally turned off the juice to his lungs), the loneliness of his end, his end in general, and the fact that I didn’t like him that much and wished I had liked him more.
For all these reasons, I cried for days and got tired of it. Someone steered me to our local hospice organization, since obviously I needed help. Connie took my phone call and listened to me blub; Flic listened to me blub too and then gave me a book or two to read. Two months later I gratefully attended the six-week training program run by Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County here in Belfast, Maine.
Touching people professionally has led me to wanting to touch them, no matter what: to be close to them, not as a last resort but first option: to see them all the way, when everything that sparks and animates them slowly leaks out and disappears. Words fail. Touch doesn’t.
Massage therapists can make great deathbed pals. We love humans, as a rule, and so we can be there for them even as they literally fall apart, with good will and gentle humor. We see what might be hidden, and hear what isn’t said. All of these things make us natural friends for the dying.
Most MTs are okay with vast tracts of silence: this is how we get our work done: it is also how a soul unweaves itself from its body, and by bearing witness we can make it easier for someone who’s trying to let go but who is afraid. Our very presence equates wholehearted endorsement of whatever happens.
It was my hospice training and subsequent volunteering that got me linked up with Gwen. She wasn’t a hospice case when I met her: just a house-bound elderly woman who needed someone to take out her trash and bring her a gallon of milk on Mondays. Connie and Flic heard about this and in their great wisdom decided she and I might be a fine match.
When I found out she had been a Pentecostal minister I wasn’t surprised: she had the confidence and repartee of a career woman, spoke easily and well from years of presenting the gospel. I was also not surprised because it seemed just my dumb luck: I am the daughter of a minister, myself, but left it all behind me years ago. Now I was assigned to attend a saint’s needs, weekly. I implored the heavens to be spared her inevitable proselytizing and prying questions.
Her generation still knew the social grace of the classic “visit,” and when you’re doing this, you sit and talk. Despite my attempts to hide my personal life from her, bits of it came out over time. She finally found out I didn’t go to church, and that Nate and I were living together, not married. In my experience with classic evangelicals (and Gwen certainly was one of these), if you don’t behave like what a Christian is supposed to behave like, you don’t get dibs on faith. They don’t take you seriously: you look too much like a sinner. Your little attempts at following Christ are pitied. I mean, c’mon. Can’t even get to church on Easter? For shame.
I certainly didn’t think my prayers would have meant a brass farthing to her, coming as they did from the likes of me, a veritable Mary Magdalene. Maybe, just maybe, she had that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard some people had, where the Almighty was forever breathing his holy light into her heart and speaking to her constantly in a language that only someone who prayed and sought the Lord as fervently as she did could possibly understand.
Maybe Jesus told her I really was a good kid and not to give me too hard of a time. The day she said “I pray for you every day. And I am so glad you pray for me. I need it,” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I fished around inside my purse, instead, and snatched out a hanky, because I realized I had started to cry.
Last summer, she spent a week in the hospital and after she got home, confessed to me, “I thought I was a goner there for a while.” I thought she might have been too. But she rallied, and in October we spent her 85th birthday together. I got her Chinese food, per her request, even though I knew it was wretched for her high blood pressure, diabetes, edema.
This past April she developed shortness of breath that wasn’t solved through medication adjustment. “It’s just a nuisance, more than anything else,” she consoled me, after I’d given her a look of unmistakable concern. Six days later Joyce, her housekeeper, called 911: she had found Gwen practically incoherent, not knowing where she was. Fourteen days later Gwen was dead. Renal failure.
While she was in the hospital I went to see her, but days went by between my last visit and her passing, and so I never did get to see her just once more. The word “rue” fully expresses the feeling I’ve had about that and continue to feel. I may never get over it, in fact.
Joyce, however, had been with Gwen the night before. “Even then, she was still telling me about the foot rub you gave her.”
She mentioned this casually while we stood next to one another at the funeral, and it wasn’t just the bright sun and heat of the day: my mind reeled. I couldn’t remember it at all: had I rubbed her feet? When? Why wasn’t it coming back to me? Then, suddenly it did: people were in her room making small talk. I had my full attention on Gwen’s dear face, slack and losing light, as she barely maintained consciousness enough to add a few words, and then fall back into a struggle-filled sleep.
Because words didn’t fill my mouth, my hands took over, as they are wont: her feet were closest to me: I held one foot at a time, gently working every toe, muscle and bone, down to the heel and back. At one point I looked up at her, and she was staring at me almost without blinking. Then she was out.
With relief I also recalled that some of my last words to her were, “Sleep well,” and “I love you.” And I know she had said to me, “I love you too.”
Through her loss comes the startling realization that I am glad to be sad. And I am willing to let my heart break over and over again as those close, closer, and even closer to me fall away and end. Wherever they are, there is now a bottomless silence filled with light that never fades.
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail! – from the Heart Sutra