Was it for two or three years?
At my age, a year apart doesn’t make a difference.

Being a hospice respite volunteer.

Hospice Care of Kitsap County closed its doors in 2015 because of budget shortfalls. The 24 hour Care Center had 15 beds, but some were always empty. There was even a covered outdoor smoking area, where the mobile patients could take their last puffs. It appears more people wanted to spend their last breaths at home, with family. In the few years there, I experienced both the joy and heartbreak, surrounding death.

The way I will relate this is through a few of the patients and caretakers I worked with. Three were at the Hospice Care Center. Others were at the patient’s homes and Nursing Home facilities. I will also add a few general thoughts here and there.

Hospice Care 1.
This older man had spent 20+ years in the Navy and had stage 4 esophageal cancer from his many years of smoking. I sat with him a few times and attempted to change the topic to something other than the one he chose each and every time. Then I decided to be quiet and just listen to his angry rants.
“Why me? Why couldn’t it be someone else? This sucks.
I hate it. There is no God! Why do I deserve this?”,
upon each visit.

Hospice Care 2.
When I opened the door, she beckoned for me to stay and chat.
I entered the room and sat. She was on the phone with the Mormon Tabernacle Church in Salt Lake City, giving them names and phone numbers of people in her phone book.
She asked them to pray for the names she handed out.
She hung up and said, “Why are your people not friendly?”
I was stunned by the question and not sure what people she meant. She continued, “I thought I was going to die two days ago, and here I am living on borrowed time.” We laughed. She buzzed for the nurse to increase her morphine drip. The nurse left, returned a few minutes later, increased the drip, and left again. We chatted about her family life and travels around the world. Family members were coming in. I said goodbye and headed out.

There was a heartfelt difference between the two patients. It was difficult to be open with the old sailor. Being only partway available to him was easier for me. The woman’s first question, unrelated to anything else we spoke about, followed me for a long while. Who did she think my people were? I was very relaxed and open with her, after that. I don’t know the history of either and can only reflect on the minutes we shared. I learned it’s easier to be present with another, when the other is present with themselves. When I do remember, conscious breathing has helped me.

Hospice Care 3.
My all-time favorite patient in the Center. I spent more time with her than any one else. Seemed like months. Maybe it was just weeks. I am sitting here now laughing at the love we shared.
This woman, in her mid-eighties had a super-human will to live. When her last moments appeared eminent, she’d revive and was able to go home. This happened at least two times, maybe three. We discussed every topic under the sun.
One of her favorite topics was Trader Joes,
revealing how she had visited the first store in Pasadena,
in 1967. A friend took a photograph of us together.

Nursing Home 1.
I sat with a woman in her mid-eighties. She was totally unresponsive and in the last stage of alzheimer’s disease. I spent time reading to her and more time talking with her husband. He professed loving her for 63 years and visited every day. They were devoted Roman Catholics. One time he broke down and noted her Nursing Home/Hospice Care bills were depleting their life savings. He firmly admonished himself for wanting her to die, so he could live on. She passed away that evening. He called a few days later, and invited me to the service. I went.

Reflections too.
The most heartbreaking times for me, was when visiting patients in nursing homes. I heard “Nothing to do.”, “I sit in this chair and dribble.”, “No family visits.”, “The help gets paid nothing, so they don’t care.” My observations were not dissimilar from what I heard.

Home Visit 1.
The old fellow had been a respected professor of horticulture.
His first love though, was music. Not any music. Ragtime tunes were his love. I sat with him at the piano and every Scott Joplin tune ever composed, appeared through his fingertips. Other tunes from that era popped up, one after the other. Non stop. His devotion and recall floored me. I sat beside him and sometime hummed along. He said “Fred, you could easily learn to play piano. You have a good ear. I’ll teach you.”, and he began to. I purchased a Yamaha Keyboard and beginner’s books, and began to practice.
All that to say, this memory is mostly about the caregiver.
This caregiver and home maker continued her daily duties in addition to caring for her elderly stepfather’s extensive needs.
Me being able to wash dishes, dispense meds or just sit there while he slept, gave her a great blessing of relief.

Home Visit 2.
He had an impressive accounting clientele and pancreatic cancer. He chose to die at home. His wife was a homemaker and had raised four sons. The kids lived all over the country and visited with the grandchildren, as often as possible. He had taken care of all billings and payments through the years. He was 62. She was 53. She and I talked.
They had accepted his passing, but she was terrified of not having any knowledge of the paperwork. She pointed out three boxes of unanswered mail. We quickly got to work.
We organized the correspondence by category. We sent checks with the bills. The paperwork we could not respond to, she shared with him. A few weeks later our pile was almost done.
A few days later, I got the call.

Reflections 3.
I observed in most cases it was the caregiver that needed respite most of all. The primary (many times only) caregiver may have the responsibility of supporting other family matters while caring for the dying other. The caring provided by the caregiver, may include the services offered by a slew of professionals, in the hospital. This is where community, that some cultures still maintain, can come together. Haven’t seen that very much here though.

Reflection, Last.
Family. This is not about loving care for the dead and dying,
but about a family dynamic I experienced in hospice respite care,
and within my own family. Long buried anger and discord may bubble
to the surface at the death of an intimate other.

A couple of us accompanied Ma to the funeral home.
I suggested we cremate him. Ma’s mind was made up.
He was getting a coffin, and not just any coffin.
The Funeral Director was such a great salesman.
He started with the cheapest coffin, that appeared to be nailed together by children. I chose that one.
My suggestion was quickly dismissed.
He led the way until Ma found the one that appealed to her.
It had a sleek, shiny black exterior and a pink cushiony interior.
What sold Ma was the ‘waterproof seal’ that would keep dad dry.

On the chosen afternoon I approached his coffin, looked down at him
and wondered if his real eyeballs were under the lids.
A sister approached and I joked about turning his body around,
so his black shoes greeted any visitors. We both chuckled, sat down,
and waited for the official ceremony to begin.

This last reflection appears to stand on its own. Maybe all this writing was about ‘Reflection, Last’.
I gave thought to deleting everything else, BUT after the hours spent on the hospice stuff, decided to keep it all.

That appears to me, to be prose. Do you agree with that?
That is my story, at this time.