If I told you all the stories of everything that happened every day that I work in hospice care your ears would burn and your eyelashes would fall off and your heart would expand to fill the room you're in and you would maybe, probably run to the person you love and look in their eyes and tell them with truth and conviction that you think they're magnificent. You would beg forgiveness for every transgression and offer amnesty for every forgotten birthday cake. You would kiss the very ground that holds you up and thank the rain for washing clean your righteous indignation.
You would understand, without question, the precious and precarious nature of life. You might even stop cursing slow drivers and customer support representatives. Without a doubt you would see how miraculous your children are and you would stop wishing that your parents were anything other than exactly what they are.
But I can't. I can't tell you everything, but I can tell you a little.
I can tell you that it can be very hard for some people to die. For some people it takes a very long time, not unlike the drawn-out, epic labor and childbirth I went through with Sam, which went on for what felt like days and seemed it would never end. And when he did finally arrive it was to a cheering audience comprised of his grandparents, dad, uncle, the doctor and I'm sure I'm forgetting someone but trust me when I tell you it was a glorious madhouse of joy.
I have a sneaky suspicion there's something similar waiting on the other side of death.
I can tell you that everyone is always heartbroken. No matter how great a jerk the person was in their lifetime, no matter how many bridges they torched just to watch them burn, death always brings great sorrow. The gossamer thread between love and hate dissolves into thin air when life is closing down and all that remains is love.
Regret, too, of course. But only because there isn't or wasn't more time to right the wrongs, salve the wounds and bind up the loose ends of the heart.
I can also tell you that no one ever really wants to die. Though we may spend our days complaining about the weather, the liberals and the price of coffee beans; though we tend to think that life has beaten us down, we didn't get the fair shake we deserved and no one is working hard enough to save the whales; though we bitch and moan way more than we shriek with delight, no one ever actually wants to leave this place.
In the sunset of our lives, it seems, what we wish for most is another day.
Yes, the work I do is hard. I totally lost it yesterday when I was sitting in the hospital with someone who was coming in and out of consciousness, gesturing madly at times, calling out for loved ones at times. It had been a long day, very long. The general store down the street where I stopped to get gas was SRO with the usual suspects, all men, all having their coffee, all working to figure it out. I heard someone say my name while the ATM machine was robbing me of three dollars and fifty cents, so I walked to the back, to that sacred space of coffee drinking men working it out to find the person who was looking for me to do the memorial service for his dad who died the other day. He was sitting next to the man whose best friend died last week who was talking with the man whose son died a few weeks ago. Part way through my journey to hospice land I stopped at another general store for some coffee and an egg sandwich on gluten free bread and believe me then I tell you that I cringe every fucking time I have to say that. One egg, ham and cheddar cheese, if you're ever making one for me. Standing between me and the coffee dispenser was a man whose wife died several weeks ago and I know because he's become a friend who gently reminded me yesterday that I haven't written anything in a while.
All that death before I even got to the hospice parking lot.
So I was sitting in the hospital with this person and I really didn't know her all that well, but it was really quiet, just the two of us. I put her hand in mine, said a few things then settled into our silence. And in that silence I thought about her whole life, what it might have been like, when she was a baby, someone's baby; who she might have loved, when she had babies of her own, the disappointments she felt, what brought her happiness. I watched her laboring to leave this world and all of the death and all of the sorrow came over me and I started to cry.
I have been thinking a lot lately about my own lifetime, when and where I came into the world and how this story has played out. North Dakota, 1965. Couple more weeks and it's going to be my birthday. I share it with Ben and Elaine and Joseph and Taylor and Glenn, who just died. I won't be doing hospice work that day, I'll be looking at the photographs of Stephen Shore at the MoMA in NYC.
His best pictures at once arouse feelings and leave us alone to make what we will of them. He delivers truths, whether hard or easy, with something very like mercy is what the The New Yorker writer had to say about him.
If I told you all the stories of everything that happened every day that I work in hospice care your ears would burn and your eyelashes would fall off, but I can't. I would be breaking the rules and it would be unfair to the dying and I would lose my job. I don't want those things to happen. But I can do something, I can deliver to you some truths with a side of hope that your heart somehow expands to fill the room you're in today. Amen.