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.