Like many, perhaps most, hospice volunteers, I came to this work through the experience of caring for people I love in their last illnesses.  I helped care for my best friend Jud, as melanoma ravaged him, and his world shrank to the physical comfort given him by his wife Rose and those of us who were there to help them both make this journey as gently as possible.

    I held my father’s hand as he took his last breath and the pulse quivering in his neck slowly disappeared like ripples fading on a pond. Dying is hard work, physically, emotionally, and spiritually—though as Jud taught me those distinctions of the Western mind merge into the body’s urgent need to be free of pain and then simply to be free.  He was 48 and way too young for this to happen and make any sense, and yet even for Jud there came a point where the only thing to do was to “learn by going where [he had] to go.”

    I came to be a hospice volunteer because I wanted to help others, the dying and their loved ones, do the hard and wonderful work of arriving at that moment as gently and mindfully as possible, knowing that to be part of that work would be, for me, a greater gift than anything I gave to them.  But there was one uncertainty, one question that none of the volunteer training or my own preparation could answer:  It was one thing to care for a family member or a friend, but how would it feel to be at the bedside of a stranger?

    The gift of an answer was given to me by my first hospice patient and his family. Peter lay in a light morphine sleep, outwardly unresponsive but aware of our ministrations.  I cut away his T-shirt and shorts and helped turn and hold him while his wife Julie and daughter Helen washed him.  We changed the bed pads and put fresh clothes on him, and then I rubbed lotion into his right arm and hand, while Helen did the same to his left, and Julie his feet and legs.  As I swabbed Peter’s lips and gums to keep them moistened, I recalled, more with my hand and heart than my mind, doing the same thing for my father a decade earlier.  It wasn’t so much a memory as a feeling:  I love this man, and we have done this work together before.                                                                                          

The Meeting Place

A gift from my first hospice patient…