Your Authentic Life

2011
09.12

I recently completed several hours of hospice volunteer training, and am just beginning to work with hospice patients, generally defined as those patients who are terminally ill and who probably have less than six months to live.

The point of hospice work is to help make those final days as comfortable for the patient as possible. Not with drugs, which is the function of their physician, but with presence. The simple act of sitting with that person, listening if they are able to speak, or holding a hand to let them know they are not alone.

At times, hospice volunteers work with entire families to help them during this transition period, and can do tasks such as running errands or helping with housework or sitting with the patient while the family takes a break, which is then called respite care.

But when it’s just you and the patient, who may be bedridden and unable to speak, you have to hope that the simple act of your presence can be enough.

And it’s not as easy as it sounds.

For me, there is a period of readjusting my thinking from a busy day of work and errands. A sort of “get in the zone” time where I have to stop before entering a patient’s room and remind myself that this person doesn’t care what kind of day I’ve had, and this person doesn’t necessarily want me to be cheery and bright, and maybe at this time doesn’t really even want company. This person is near death.

It’s hard to grasp sometimes. It’s hard to shed the day’s noise and interruptions, and quiet your mind enough to be peacefully present for this dying person, and to be your authentic self. Difficult, when we spend so much of our lives trying to not be the person we are.

Recently I attended a meeting of other hospice volunteers, where we heard a speaker elaborate on the concept of being completely present for another person, and being true to one’s authentic self.

Sounds like one of those things that would make me roll my eyes and think oh, brother, not this stuff again. But it wasn’t that at all.

Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re two people, or maybe even more? I do. I have my regular life of going to work, taking care of business, managing the household, tending to the yard work and laundry and all that other stuff, and living a fairly busy but ordinary life.

Then there’s the second me, the “real” me, who comes out sometimes in writing, or in conversations with friends, when I tap into what seems to be my “real” self.

Hard to explain this, and I suppose I’m doing badly. But I know when that second person comes alive, because it is a very real feeling of awakening someone who’s been absent for too long. And that’s how I felt during this hospice meeting.

We talked about listening as an act of love, even for a person you don’t know, or someone you’re meeting just as they are about to leave this earth, and about the magnetic field of one’s heart, especially important when the voice and ears have failed.

So how do we arrive at this place of quiet? Honesty is a part of it: being honest about who you really are, what motivates you, and why you are doing what you are doing. What is your message to the world? What is your message to the people you love most? (And do they know it?) What will you leave behind?

Well, it’s a lot to think about. I’m not entirely clear of my own motivation. If someone asks why I am doing hospice work, I am stuck for an answer. I can’t put it into words (as you can tell) but it is something that pulls me, just as the moon pulls the tides. And I can’t explain that, either. It is something that inspires me, and something that makes me feel that I am contributing something meaningful to this life, and something that matters.

Those are my deep (and half-analyzed) thoughts for this day. So much of what I heard in that meeting is still being processed by my brain, which is working on a thousand other things, too. I sometimes think of Maya Angelou, who explained why she loved to play Solitaire, and which I’ll probably misquote here: It occupies my little mind while my larger mind works on the bigger things.

So my little mind and my big mind are working on all kinds of stuff, and when I get this hospice work figured out, I’ll tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, I do think this poem is really about aviation, but it seems to me it could be about death, too, depending on which mind I’m using. I’ve always liked the line about slipping the surly bonds of earth, so had to find out where it came from. I like this.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of —
wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr

4 Responses to “Your Authentic Life”

  1. Betsy Gaida says:

    My Dad was a WWII Fighter Pilot, flying a P-51. True, it is about flying–my Dad knows it by heart–but you are so right that the interpretation can be changed, for sure.

    I think it is wonderful what you are undertaking–and very difficult. I look forward to reading your thoughts as you figure things out.

  2. Cathy says:

    This was wonderful to read, and you inspire me to look into hospice work again once I’m through ordination, and my life settles down again. This time I’ll be more specific about what kind of work I want to do. Last time, I sort of felt obligated to try whatever they wanted and that sort of pushed me away from it. I do so admire you for giving yourself this way.

  3. kathy T says:

    My Dad had hospice people helping us through his last few months. it is one of the best ideas ever!!!! they said it is helping people transition.
    You are right about everyone being 2 people. We don’t show the inner person to everyone.

  4. Marilyn says:

    You are truly an inspiration. I, too, look forward to reading about your
    Hospice experiences.

Your Reply