Archive for the ‘Hospice Work’ Category

The Hard Work of Dying. (Edited 11-12-12)


My friend Joe, in his 90s, is dying.

While in the larger sense I believe we all begin the process of dying at the moment of conception, Joe is in the process of what hospice calls “active dying.” He is in the fight of his life, the fight for his life, and it doesn’t look like Joe is going to win.

Active dying, like living, is really hard work. At age 90-something, your options are not plentiful. You can choose to fight, you can choose to submit to the inevitable, but you can not choose to get out of bed and mix yourself a drink, and you can not choose to go dancing, which is what Joe would choose, if he were able.

Joe loved to dance. He loved to travel, he loved his family, he loved his work most of the time, and he lived a life in full measure. Like most of us, he made the most of what he had. He made some mistakes. He made some bad choices. He had a few regrets. He loved to dance. “I knew ’em all,” he once said.

This is not Joe, but it's how I imagine him at times.

As a new hospice volunteer nearly two years ago, my very first assignment was to visit Joe at the healthcare facility where he lives. Although it was exactly what I had signed up to do, I will still apprehensive: What would I say? How would I introduce myself? How would I be received? Turns out there wasn’t much to worry about. Joe was not the in-bed-and-dying person I’d expected to meet. Upon my arrival, Joe was having dinner in a community room with other people, laughing over a funny story. He insisted I get a cup of coffee and join them, which I did. I remember thinking, “Wow. This is easy!” Joe is an extremely social fellow; a great talker, a story teller, and a man of wit. We talked and talked. Suddenly, we were pals.

Over the months, I heard Joe’s life story, which was an amazing one. It occurred to me that we all have amazing stories, and common stories, and that while we are more alike than different, it is our differences that make us unique. Although I offered to help him put his story into writing, Joe wouldn’t hear of it, though it is the stuff of novels. The young Joe fell in love while he was in the Navy, and while he was engaged to be married. (“It was one of those things,” Joe said. “The minute I saw her I knew.”) But it was not to be. The girl he fell in love with (and she with him) was also engaged to someone else. They parted when his assignment was over; married their “intendeds,” but thought of each other for more than 40 years, through marriages and children and the stuff of life. Eventually they met once more time, as widow and widower, and realized their love was still there, still mutual, and this time would not be denied. They were married late in life, happy, happy, happy. You only have to be with them five minutes to fully appreciate their mutual adoration.

But back to today. As I write this, Joe lies feverish in bed, unable to move, unable to focus his attention, unable to do much more than struggle for each breath.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
–Dylan Thomas

I don’t think Joe is going gently. He’s been angry during our past few visits. He’s been confused and lonely, and he is not willing for his life to end. But his health issues will probably not let Joe become one of those who get photographed while celebrating their 105th birthday.

It is hard to say goodbye to my old friend Joe. I will miss his friendly greetings, his stories of old Chicago where he grew up during the depression, and his memories of travel, children, and the ride on which life had taken him. No matter what was going on in his life at the time of my visit, or how miserably sick he may have felt, he always greeting me cheerfully, and made me feel like there was nobody else he’d rather see.

And now he is waged in this war with death, that has not come like a thief in the night (I think those people may be lucky) but more like an intruder who refuses to leave until he causes as much misery as possible for as long as possible. It is stronger than Joe, but it is not being kind.

I think that when we die, we live on in the hearts of those we touched. In that respect, Joe will never die.


This favorite old song come to mind when I think of Joe, and others like him.

Old friends, old friends

Sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass

Falls on the round toes

Of the high shoes of the old friends.

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun.

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.

Can you imagine us years from today?

Sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy!

Old friends, memory brushes the same years

Silently sharing the same fears.

Time it was and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences.

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.

–Simon and Garfunkel, from “Bookends”


PS: Joe died early Saturday morning. Rest in peace, dear friend.