What’s Your Agenda

“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.




“It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and few by deceit.”   Noel Coward…..


A major setback for me has been that I’m too honest.  Sad but true, people would much rather listen to un-truths than an honest person.  I will be 50 years old this coming November and it’s taken me this long to figure out why people would rather listen to phony, bullshit people rather than an honest, straight-shooter person; it’s all about egos.  People want their egos stroked, they want to be told how great they are and they want to be able to say things, even cruel or stupid things, without consequence.  It’s that simple!  Enter an honest, straight shooter into this game and there is bound to be problems.  I’ve never been very patient with bullshit, ego-boosting people or “look-at-me” attention driven nonsense.  The behaviour annoys me beyond belief and I’ve had to dig deep into my psyche  and ask myself  “why do I care?”   It’s occurred to me that maybe all of this annoys me  because it’s more than possible that I am really ego driven and looking for the attention that seems to pass by me or maybe I am  jealous of the fact that these people seem to have easy-going relationships, and friendships.   Let’s face it we are all somewhat self-centred and at some point we will ask ourselves “what’s in it for me?”  I remember listening  to Dr Phil saying to a patient,  “Is that working for you?”  He was talking about the behaviour of this patient and how it was working for her in her life.  In other words she was gaining something from her behaviour on one level and not dealing with the consequences of the behaviour on another level.  

This is what I notice, people do and say things that are hurtful or plain wrong and as soon as someone says something to the contrary or points out that their words or behaviour is wrong, they don’t want to hear it and do anything to justify their stand, including choosing the victim route, “why me?”, the passive aggressive route or the ego route(“how dare you, do you know who I am?”).  When you really think about all of this behaviour, it is amusing and I believe laughter is the best medicine to all.  When I dig deep into myself I’ve come to the conclusion that I feel annoyed because I am a fairly simplistic person who lacks patience.  I simply don’t understand why someone can say something that I may not agree with or say something hurtful and I can’t voice my disagreement in an adult manner.

I once had a boss who would ask me my opinion on certain things he was dealing with.  The first thing I always said to him before I gave him my opinion was “are you sure you want my honest opinion?”  “Yes, that’s why I’m asking you.”  I would then tell him what I honestly thought and he would get annoyed with me and say something like “I knew you would say something like that!”   I would be annoyed all day and think to myself “why did he ask me if he didn’t want my opinion?’  This went on for a while as I worked for him for years and eventually he would be in my office asking for my opinion and the same banter would happen.  Finally I asked him “why do you ask me for my opinion when you don’t really want to hear what I have to say?”  He look surprised and said “but I do want to hear what you have to say, I know you will be blunt  and honest with me no matter what I say and I appreciate your honesty even though I don’t always agree with you.”  It was then that I realized as a boss most people just went along with whatever he said and didn’t tell him the truth, they just told him what they thought he wanted to hear.  I once read an interview with Bono of U2 and he made a comment that during his rise to fame, and still to this day, he listened to people who thought and said opposite of his thinking pattern,   “listening to people who tell me what I want to hear, isn’t going to get me anywhere or help me grow as a musician or a person,” he says.  Very honest words.

I’ve been blessed to have a few good friends in my life, friends I can be myself and not be afraid to be honest with them.  At the same time I depend on these friends to be completely honest with me, when I ask them for their advice I want their honest advice even if it means that I don’t like what they have to say.  One such friend has been my friend for the last  25 years and she has helped me more than she knows.  During conflicting times with my family or friends she always bluntly points out maybe this situation has happened because I’ve said or done this and maybe I need to think this out more, or maybe I need to be more patient or maybe I need to be a little less me!  I love her honesty and I love how we can tell each other the truth.  Not that we haven’t had our arguments over the years, we’ve had plenty but we always come back to our friendship in complete honesty and count our blessings that we can count on each other  for loyalty, honesty and trust.  Funny thing is I don’t see her very often, not nearly often enough, as both our lives are crazy busy,  but we are always there for one-another in times of need and times of celebration.   Just one friendship based on this kind of loyalty, honesty and trust is worth more than 20 friendships based  on phony, ego stroking and telling you what you want to hear.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost too as the truth hurts.  I’ve lost what I thought were friends and relationships with family members.  In each instance I’ve done some deep soul-searching and I’ve come to the conclusion that in my quest for complete honesty there will be some sacrifices.  I’ve already made some sacrifices and I’m bound to make some more.  I won’t change who I am to meet someone else’s needs, I will always be myself.  I’ve also had to wrestle with the fact that at times I’ve trusted when I shouldn’t have trusted, making me reluctant to trust again but then I think of my trusted friend and if I hadn’t opened up my true self to her, our friendship wouldn’t be what it is today.  The same goes for my husband and my children, they may get mad at me at times but they depend on me as, as I depend on them, for truth, honesty and loyalty.   Even when the truth hurts.