We will all die, of course. It’s part of the deal. No need to dwell on it, and in fact we spend most of our time not thinking about it — which is not the same as avoiding it. Who can think of death when there are socks to wash, or one is late for the dentist, or the kids are fighting over who left the peanut butter knife in the jelly jar?
I recently traveled to Ohio and spent the day at a gathering of people for whom death is a daily presence: a group of hospice workers, many of them volunteer. It was my job to share a few funny stories and then speak to what I know of death. If jokes and death seem a juxtaposition I can only submit that life itself is a series of juxtapositions. And so there we were in a well-lit conference room, sharing coffee and cookies and talking about how it goes when people die.
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I first heard the term “hospice” while attending nursing school in the 1980s. We were in the early days of a cultural shift in health care; beneath the exponentially rapid advances of medical chemistry and technology an undercurrent of doubt was beginning to spring: Is it possible to fight too hard for too long? I recall studying the stages of grief as proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and being introduced to the concept of living wills and advanced directives. As a young nursing student, I was eager to learn how I might help people heal; I had not anticipated lessons on how we might be of service to those for whom healing (defined in strictly medical terms) was not an available outcome (again, as medical terminology had it). Textbooks and profession aside, the “death and dying” studies rang a tiny bell in some far corner of my subconscious that deepened—if only by millimeters, and if only in between the standard inane pursuits of hale and hearty youth—my nascent reflections on mortality.
Today it is common to read obituaries and come across a line thanking the hospice or palliative care teams. As with any discipline — in this case I would also invoke the term art — there are differences of terminology, availability, application, philosophy and protocol, but as one who has been present for the final stages of more than one family member’s life, it seems the troubled world is just a bit more humane for the presence of those who ease our dying.
Having just re-read my opening paragraph, I fear I seem too blithe. No need to dwell on it, I wrote, and now I’m thinking of the person who has just received some dire diagnosis, or a loved one the same, or some other deathly news, and how all-consuming the fear and worry might be, and I realize it’s easy to say the wrong thing, or speak too broadly, or just be hamfisted in the name of frankness. I hope some leeway is available; in the end, we will only know our own death, and whenever we talk of death, we are in some way preparing ourselves for our own. While on the face of it I went to Ohio in the service of sustaining my self-employment, I was also continuing the march toward terminal knowledge. At the end of the day, I sat for a moment with a hospice volunteer in her 90s. Her frailty precludes her providing physical patient care. Rather, in the absence of friends or family, it was her role to simply sit with the person dying.
“No one,” she said, leaning forward slightly, as if to be sure I heard, “should die alone.” Then she smiled, sat back, and folded her hands on her lap — and somewhere the balance of the cosmos shifted infinitesimally toward the good.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. For more of Michael Perry’s writing, visit www.sneezingcow.com. Perry photo by Andi Stempniak, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.