“He who does not know the art of living cannot know the art of dying. Mahatma Gandhi
My shift at the hospice started like every other. I stopped by the volunteer office to check the volunteer log before my shift to look through notes from the previous volunteers to see if I could spot anyone who needed more attention that night. I noticed there was a new patient; a fairly young man from Jamaica. The notes were the usual volunteer notes, “chatted for a while, served him tea, he was sleeping, he had visitors.” One volunteer’s note caught my eye and it said “is having difficulty with the family dance.” The note was subtle but I understood it immediately. Reading through the volunteer log, this gentleman had lots of visits from family and he was having a rough time with it.
Every family has their family dance and when someone is coming to the end of their life, the family dance can intensify. When death hangs in the air, there is no room for fake, manipulative, pretentious behaviour. You simply can’t get any more real than death and only authentic and honest mannerisms will do. However, there are some that use death as their playing field leaving families and the person dying in a precarious and vulnerable state. I headed out to the floor, checking on patient after patient, helping them eat, removing their finished plates, fixing sheets and hanging out in their room for chitchats. I got to the new patient’s room and he was sitting in a wheelchair watching tv. He had finished eating and I asked him if I could take away his plate and get him more tea, coffee or water.
He nodded and as I picked up his tray and asked him if I could get him something else he said, “yes you can get me $5000.00.” I laughed and I said “if I find some cash, I’ll send it your way.” He looked at me and said “good answer, but of course you’re a volunteer and you people have all the answers.” His tone of voice was not nice and it stopped me in my tracks. I was standing beside him with a tray of dishes in my hands, and as I looked down into his eyes, he was very angry. I said “hey the tone of your voice is not nice, what is up with that comment?” He seemed surprised by my honesty and he shook his head and said “What’s your agenda?” Still standing with a tray of dishes in my hand, I was perplexed by the question. “My agenda, what do you mean what’s my agenda?” “He raised his voice and said your agenda, you’re not here out of the goodness of your heart, you have an agenda like every other bloody person in this place, everyone here has some kind of political bullshit agenda, what’s yours?”
I stood with the tray of dishes in my hand and stared at him for a moment longer, at that point I had never faced this type of bitter and angry attitude at the hospice and his forcefulness threw me somewhat. I slowly lowered the tray of dishes onto a side table by his bed and pulled up a chair beside him so I could be at eye level. I looked him straight in the eyes and I said “let me tell you a story.” “Years ago my stepfather had a massive heart attack and ended up brain-dead and laid in the hospital in a coma for months. My mother and I visited him every day but there was nothing we could do for him. One evening while visiting my stepfather there was a new patient in the bed beside him. The man was crying so I walked over to see if I could help, I noticed that his food had been delivered and he was unable to open the packages due to extremely swollen hands from arthritis. I opened his food and helped him eat. He simply was hungry and extremely frustrated by his situation. I chose dinner time hours for my volunteer hours at this hospice because of that man. So often family members find it hard to get to their love ones in hospices or hospitals at dinner time, so I felt this time was the time that I could help out the most. If you call that an agenda, then that’s my agenda.”
He stared at me for a while and I saw it. It was a subtle change in his eyes, but I watched as his eyes and face softened. He gave me a bright smile and leaned into me closer and said “are you Irish?” I said “yes I am of Irish descent, my Grandparents sailed from Ireland to start a life here in Canada, why?” He said “Because I have only met one other volunteer I like here and she’s Irish too. You remind me of her and now I have two volunteers I like.” I laughed and said you know what they say, “Don’t mess with the Irish.” He laughed and said “Don’t mess with the Jamaicans.”
I spent most of my time talking to him that shift and he told me many things about the family dance, his political views and when I didn’t entirely agree with him we argued. He loved the debates we got into and he said to me, “I talk to people about this stuff when they come in here and they don’t stay, they just want to talk about the fluffy stuff.” Some of his views were strong and he would not back off when you told him what you thought. My older brother has very strong views and if you challenge him, he will go right back at you, so I am use to that kind of exchange and it doesn’t bother me. However, as I told this patient, “most people want to live on the surface, they don’t want to venture too deep as venturing too deep might open some doors that they don’t want to open, so you have to trail lightly my friend.” He said, “Johanne, I am living in a hospice, I am not going to trail lightly, if someone can’t handle it, go away.” “Touchè I said, you have a point.”
As we continued to talk he said to me, “I was given two weeks to live and it’s been three months since I was given that news.” He then showed me a the different alternative medicine products by his bed and he said “I swear to you these medicines are keeping me alive.” I didn’t dare say it but I know it’s true. They say to beat cancer it is 10% treatment and 90% attitude. This man has the attitude, he is feisty, gusty, full of hope and has immense faith in God. He mentioned that the doctor came by the day before and I am assuming that he told the doctor that he wanted more blood test to see where the cancer was. Apparently the doctor said to him, “We don’t do that here, people come here to die.” His answer, “suit yourself doctor, but I came here to live and I will live fully no matter where I am and I’m sorry if you don’t like that but that is what I intend to do, I intend to live and God is my saviour not you.”
Before I left that night, I gave him a hug and said “I’ll be back next week” and he said “I will be here.” As I walked across the parking lot to my truck after my shift that night, the thought that crossed my mind was “I’m certain he’ll still be here next week.” I passionately believe that souls cross each other’s path for reasons. To listen to him was inspiring and exhausting at the same time. He brought to my spirit an awareness, an awareness of how precious time is and how important it is to live life to the fullest and to tell those that you love just how much you love them. There isn’t a minute to spare, and the dance of living and dying goes on every single day.