January 23, 2012

Fragile as a Bird

Some of you will remember that I am a hospice volunteer. It became official last November. Since then, all my patients have died, save one, who, while I'm assigned to her, I've never met her. Fact is, she has a network of loved family members and the only folks she needs from hospice are the "true professionals".

As a volunteer, I can only assist a trained pro, clean a house, or run errands. Or visit a lonesome patient. I'll be honest, I'm ambivalent about that role. While relatively new to the program, at times it seems I'm a burden, not a help. My first patient died the morning after I was assigned to her. My next patient, loved company and had frequent family visitors. Also, honestly, she had a horribly inconvenient schedule. It was hard to mesh with mine. Due to the medications she took, she slept most days until noon. She didn't want visitors until after lunch and yet, I needed to be home shortly after 2. I always felt I was rushing our visits, but before I could really address it with my coordinator, she died.

My latest patient really doesn't want to see me, or so it seems. I don't take it personally. She has visitors. Every time I call she has no need for my services. Were I given the choice be sick and dying near loving friends or caring strangers, I'd opt for friends, also.

But then last week, I was assigned to the local Hospice House. The turnover is rapid, for rather obvious reasons, and the house has 16 rooms. We aren't given details as volunteers. Our only job is companionship so all we are told is that they need a friend. I cannot say names as we are bound by strict confidentiality agreements. I would never compromise my patient's privacy.

My newest friend is like a bird, tiny and frail with a faraway stare. She talked a lot but rarely made sense. I don't know what her condition was but I'd guess some sort of dementia. She kept looking for someone, the entire two hours. She was strong enough to walk so she held my arm and we walked the entire building, looking for him. Him, as I understood her, was someone who was coming to visit her. Every time my little friend saw a man walk by she perked up and wanted to talk to him.

Finally a nurse explained to me that her husband had been her caretaker but fallen ill so she was admitted to the hospice house. She couldn't tell me how long she was married or how many children she had, but I understood perfectly that she was looking for her man. She got confused and even thought he was on the TV as we walked past one. The evening wore on, and it was time to get her ready for bed. Her aides came to the room and changed her into a nightgown. She hated having her legs and her increasingly swollen ankles and feet show, so they sat her in a reclining wheelchair and covered her legs with blankets.

She asked me to push her around the building again. We'd pause and visit and believe it or not, laugh. She would sometimes become so excited and animated, that the fact that she made no sense word wise was transcended,and the two of us just sat in the lobby laughing hysterically with some inside joke. So inside I didn't even know it, but I knew she was happy. I held her hand with the gnarled joints and paper thin skin, and we laughed. Her eyes shined. My shift was nearly over so I took her back to her room and held her hands in mine. I told her I would come to visit her again soon, and that I hoped the angels kept her company. In one moment of clarity, she looked at me, eye to eye, and said, I'm ready to be with them. Her clarity began to fade and I kissed her forehead. She looked at me and said, "I love you." I hope she makes it until my next shift.

You see, I love her, too.

January 18, 2012

Our Daily Black

January 17, 2012

Musical Magic

Early Sunday morning, the thermometer read 6 degrees (F) when I woke up. It was not a day to go out but we had a commitment. We had signed up to spend the morning in a soup kitchen in town that serves a weekly meal. It's in an old Episcopal church that the Minis swear is the local incarnation of Hogwarts, at least as Universal Studios imagined it. It's a beautiful old building with arched doorways, stone columns and wood beams. Banners hang from the beams and a grand piano sits in the corner of the room.

Working at the soup kitchen always throws me for a loop. Last winter, I was moved to tears when I overheard a woman talking to her friend about how she was going to take advantage of the chair and warmth the entire hour, even if she was done eating, as she didn't know if she'd be warm again the rest of the day. Over the summer, I just was fulfilling a commitment and my somewhat jaded self was more concerned with making sure my children were finding something worthwhile in our time spent there. We met a charming man dressed in a white linen outfit. His get-up was probably once the height of fashion, but it was dated that afternoon. I wondered what had happened in his world that he went from that to eating at a soup kitchen. Then I humbly realized, life is what happens, but it need not take away dignity. The gentleman in the white linen treated our hot dog lunch as if it were Chateaubriand. He greeted my daughters and I with a smile and manners and thanked us graciously for the food. He charmed all three of us, to the point that several times since then, we've mentioned "the man in his fine white clothing". Perhaps he was our angel.

But this week was different. I convinced not just my family, but also several of my students that we should spend the morning there. When we arrived, the woman in charge didn't seem happy to see us but rather was overhwhelmed. She snarled at me and said, "I wish I had known so many kids would show up." I looked at her and shrugged, "We were on the sign up sheet". She didn't know what to do with us. I found myself a bit angry. I thought she was rude and ungrateful. And yet... who was I to assume anything? Sometimes when someone does something for a really long time, they get in a routine. Our presence was unexpected, and therefore threw a wrench in her logical plan of efficiency. And maybe she didn't mean to snarl, but it just slipped out in her stress to make sure everything ran smoothly.

As I muttered to myself the different ways I needed to let it go, I wiped tables and took plates. I had the kids offer salad and cupcakes and I kept the dressing filled. Yet a cloud of resentment kept hovering. I wanted to be a joyful giver, I wanted to be happy with what I was doing. I didn't want to be seething. I didn't want to silently be cursing. I looked around the room and saw honest, yet hungry, folks. My immature resentment started to evaporate.

One of our guests must have sensed the chill in the air. Or perhaps he just needed to hear music. He wandered over to the grand piano and sat down to tickle the ivories. I paused. A few folks started to sway to his jazzy stylings. He sang in a guttural voice, as his fingers danced over the keys. A gentleman whose wife had been feeding him in his electric wheelchair began to sing along and swing his upper body that was still mobile, back and forth.

The majestic room echoed with the music, both from the piano and the voices of our guests. Suddenly our "Hogwarts" become Carnegie Hall and our performer was Louis Armstrong himself. We may not have seen Dumbledore or Harry Potter, but we did witness magic. We no longer were a soup kitchen slinging hash, but  we were transported to the finest dinner cabaret imaginable.

After about five minutes, "Louis" stood up. I began to clap wildly and the other 50 patrons did as well. I hummed the rest of the shift and all resentment evaporated.  As our distinguished entertainer left, I met his eyes and said, "Thank you for the concert, please stay warm out there."

I didn't have a chance to tell him how much he warmed me.


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