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.


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