Every hospice experience teaches me something. And my latest hospice client has already taught me something big.
The first client visit can be tricky. Each situation is very different, and I never know what to expect. So I come prepared for almost anything.
My visiting bag usually holds several books. One is something for me to read if the client is sleeping or not conscious. Another is a book of poetry, or a prayer book, or perhaps a favorite story to read aloud. (One of my favorite memories is reading Dodie Smith’s bittersweet “I Capture the Castle” to an elderly gentleman, who was as enthralled by the story as I was.)
I also carry a good supply of crossword puzzles, a notebook or journal to write in, and sometimes, my latest knitting project.
On my first visit with this client, she spied my knitting needles and asked me about my project. I pulled it out and soon we were talking about knitting. Turns out she was an avid–and extremely talented–knitter. And though her yarn stash does not rival mine, it’s still impressive.
Sadly, she’s losing the ability to knit. “But we can still look!” I said cheerfully. So we spend our time looking at knitting magazines, exclaiming over the pretty pictures of sweaters, hats and scarves, commenting on the yarns and the patterns. Last week, she turned to me and said in a fierce whisper, “I just LOVE looking at knitting patterns!” “So do I!” I whispered back.
Today she spoke sadly (and metaphorically, which is common at this stage) about not being able to knit anymore, and about “an event” that’s coming, something that cannot be stopped, something that comes for everyone.
It’s hard to talk about, she said. And people sometimes pretend it’s not coming, but it is. “It is hard,” I tell her. “People don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.” She nods fiercely.
I ask her how she feels about it. She thinks for a moment.
There are things that have defined her, all her life, that are now slipping away softly but surely, into a growing gray mist. “I can’t remember what it is, but it’s all going away,” she says sadly.
My heart goes out to her. It reminded me of my very first day in hospice training.
One of the hospice chaplains ran the exercise. It sounds laughably simple.
But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
She gave each of us ten little slips of paper. We were each told to write down ten things that were important to us.
They could be people (family, friends), they could be experiences (marriage, traveling, work), skills (arts, gardening, dancing, martial arts), character traits (intelligence, humor).
We spent quite a bit of time getting our lists just right.
Then the chaplain said, “I’m going to come around and take one of your slips. Decide which one you can give up.” It was hard, but it went quickly.
Then she said, “Now I’m going to take three things. Here I come!” Those three things were much harder to choose. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she was done.
Then she said, “Hold up your remaining slips. This time, I get to choose!” I guess I thought she would read each ‘hand’ and make a decision. Nope. She strode purposely around our circle, grabbing randomly at the slips in our hands.
It was really really hard.
What we lost was hard.
What was even harder, was knowing it was coming.
And not knowing what we would lose.
Some people tried to fight it. They held on tightly, refusing to let go. (But they had to, in the end..)
Some people–okay, all of us!–cried out in dismay when a precious slip was taken.
Many of us just cried. I did.
It wasn’t fair! Some people got to keep a few precious slips. Others lost all of them.
I cannot describe how it felt. Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow…. None of us were unscathed.
The power of those little slips of paper was palpable. Losing them was devastating.
“This is what it’s like,” said the chaplain softly. “This is what it’s like, at the end. Everything–everything–is lost.”
Such a simple exercise. Such a powerful lesson.
I looked at this amazing little woman, who was looking at me, wordlessly asking me….something.
I couldn’t remember the rest of that training day. I couldn’t remember what the chaplain said next.
I could only remember a little story this woman’s daughter had told me an hour earlier.
“Remember the sweater you made for your daughter?” I said. “How beautiful it was, and how beautiful it made her feel?”
“That is what will never go away. You did that. You made something beautiful. It made her feel beautiful. It made her feel loved. That is what will last.”
She nodded fiercely again.
I think I saw a little smile on her face.
My friend Kerin Rose once tried to tell me this, a few years ago when I was in a bad place. I felt apart from my art for awhile, and was frightened of who I would–or wouldn’t be–without it.
“You would still be you,” she insisted. I wasn’t sure….
But now I understand.
Yes, my art is who I am.
Not because of what I can or can’t do. Nor because of what I could do.
But because of what I’ve already done.
Because of what it’s already meant to me.
And because of what it’s already meant to others.
And that is what will last.
23 thoughts on “MY ART IS WHO I AM: Another Lesson From Hospice”
I’ve been reading your blog quietly…when I can steal a moment. You are an amazing writer, and this life lesson is powerful-thanks.
As a former hospice nurse and metalsmith, your article touched me deeply. I think this is why I had such a feeling of urgency upon retirement. I know the time is coming and there are so many more things I need to create! I’m trying to live in the moment now and enjoy everyday as a gift.
Luann, this post means the world to me today – right now. Really. It saved me from self-pity, but gave me permission to confront fear.while fearful. I hope everyone who ever feels fearful over loss gets to know someone as kind and articulate as you are.
Your beautifully written, touching story really hit home. Thank you for sharing it with us. When I was a gardener and tending my garden, I never dreamed there would come a day when I wouldn’t be able to garden. The garden was who I was. Over the years , for my physical well being, I found I am no longer able to maintain it. I remembered a story about a life long gardener who had to leave her home because of the war. She ended up in an apt. Her nephew, who was a famous garden writer, asked her if it was hard to give up her garden. She said “no, not really..because when I had the garden, I enjoyed it throughly, every day, every season. I didn’t take it for granted. Now, I have those memories and I am satisfied. It is enough.”
Thank YOU for this! It’s beautiful in spirit and beautifully written; and spoke to me on so-so many levels.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I cried too. I made my own set of slips but could not see my way to let any of them go…..
This is one of the most thoughtful articles I have read in a long time. My slips of paper have been leaving over the years, much faster than I ever expected. I have seen this done before and it does make you realize that each day is important and significant life we have. Make the most of each one. ..And let the ones you love,
know it frequently.
Again as I read your words I find tears sliding down my cheeks. Thank you for putting so eloquently what I haven’t been able to speak. I explained these ideas to my student just yesterday and now need to apply them more. Saddest part is when you hear this at the end you see all the other things you could have done to enjoy more. These days I do anyway. I tell those I love often, I make people smile as best I am able and I share what I have learnt while I can still remember. Old is not age related. It comes when you don’t enjoy anymore and so in the way I live life now I am becoming younger each day even as I “lose” myself.
Love and Hugs to all
Very powerful. Thank you.
Luann, reading your stories always puts the present moment in perspective.
Thank you for sharing your life experiences.
I shouldn’t read these at work (she says with tears in her eyes). Thank you Luann
I don’t know what you did with your words but I can’t stop crying. This touched me in depth. Thank you.
Your words–all your words–are a gift to me today. Thank you all!!
Thank you. I’d like to share this if I may?
Of course! If you want to use it on your blog, I prefer to have you simply write an intro for it, and put a link in to my original article.
If you want to print it out, please include my name & contact info.
And thank you for asking! :^)
oh this was not possible to read through without tears. I went through hospice training years ago when I was working as a nurses aide in Idaho. I am currently in the middle of dealing with endometrial cancer, (fortunately caught early). I have been an artist my whole life, and have long said that my children/my legacy to the future is the works of my hands I leave behind and the love in the hearts of those I have connected to. While I hope for many more years of adventures and artmaking, none of us know the future.
I am coming off a most difficult week. Glad to be reminded of what is most important.
Long time lurker to your blog…Thank you THANK YOU thank you. Your words have encouraged me many times over and this one is no exception.
Thank you. I am moved by you – again.
Luann, my father has been in Hospice for about two months. He can no longer drive (that freedom was the hardest “slip of paper” for him to lose); he struggles to putter in his workshop for just 10 minutes; he becomes embarrassed when he gets confused, so his dignity is slowly slipping away. It has to be terrifying for him to know that his mind still WANTS to do the things that he has always been able to do, but his body is no longer cooperating. Your article has helped me understand this better, and I thank you for that.
I wish I could have read this post a few months ago. My 95 year old Gram died at Hospice this past December. It was the hardest thing ever to watch her not be able to do anything for herself & struggle to breathe. I miss her so much..
You are wise and your words are eloquent. Thank you.