Archive for the ‘Volunteerism’ 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.

The Day That the Rains Came Down. And Cookies!


I think that was a song from the 50s, and though it may have been a love song, I thought about its title a lot last week when the rains came down in Duluth, and when it didn’t seem like it would ever quit. When it finally did, devastation settled in. Roads were torn up, bridges washed out, rivers overran their banks, basements flooded.

Watching the news reports over the past year, hearing about flooding and fires and hurricanes, tropical storms and earthquakes, I couldn’t help but think, “Duluth’s turn is coming.” And so it came last week, surprising us all with its ferocity

I didn’t venture far from home, but in the many years I’ve lived on this corner, this is the most water I’ve ever seen here, and this was only at 8:15 AM, long before the rain stopped.

Water rushes over the curbs on Gilliat Street

Intersection of 43rd Avenue East at Gilliat Street. The STOP sign says it all.

But Duluth rallies. While we await federal funding to help restore highways and bridges and neighborhoods, Duluthians dig in. Dozens gathered with shovels and rakes and garbage bags to clean up Chester Park and the Duluth Zoo, which suffered tremendous loss, including some animals. A 9-year old girl went to Facebook to organize a cleanup crew for Lincoln Park, and many showed up to help. Some volunteers are helping restore nature trails and hiking paths. Neighbors are helping neighbors with flooded basements, the removal of soaked carpeting, furniture, and even the loss of family treasures.

People help people. We always have and we always will.

If you’re unable to wield a shovel or rake or haul garbage, you can still be a part of the community rebuilding. You might offer a shower and dinner to someone whose water is shut off. Or, like many around town, you could bake or buy something for the crews that are out working night and day in many neighborhoods.

Here’s something quick and easy and tasty. Sugar fuels energy, you know. And at all times, not just post-flooding, everyone needs a little sweetness in their lives.

Easy Butterscotch Cookies

3/4 cup soft butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

1-3/4 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

Heat oven to 350. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the egg and vanilla and beat until they are well mixed.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder. Stir this into the butter mixture with a spoon until it is well combined and the mixture is smooth.

Drop rounded teaspoons of dough 2″ apart on a greased cookie sheet or on parchment paper lining a cookie sheet. Press cookies down with a fork. (You can dip the fork in warm water to make this process easier.)

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Cool on wire racks.


And stay dry.

Your Authentic Life


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

A Few Thoughts On Memorial Day


For the past 20 years or more, I’ve been hosting a Memorial Day picnic at my home, inviting family and friends and friends of family  . . . anyone who wants to come over and have a hamburger with a crowd of near-strangers. The guests may change but the menu doesn’t: it’s the typical American picnic food: hamburgers, bratwurst, potato salad, baked beans, lemonade, chocolate cake, and whatever anyone else cares to bring along. What’s better than picnic food? Answer: Nothing.

We’re not an especially patriotic family but I think we’d all say we feel blessed to be living in America, and we honor those military men and women have and who continue to defend this country so that we can wake up every day knowing we’re safe and free. Service personnel everywhere, living and dead, I thank you. My family thanks you. That is the end of my Memorial Day speech.

My dad served in the Army in WW2, though I’m not sure where he was or what he did, since he did not share this information with us. I do have a letter he wrote to his parents from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, in 1943. In it he says the he is doing well, and that the thing he wants most is a Parker 51 pen that apparently would write under any circumstances. It is poignant to me that his wishes were so small: a fountain pen.

I wish he were here. I wish I could have bought him one.

In 1966 I married a soldier and did a 9 year stint as an army wife. It was an interesting life in which we met a lot of great people and I began to understand the sacrifices military families make. When Charles decided to retire from the army after 17 years of service, so very close to retirement, I decided to retire from marriage. It was so long ago that I often say that my marriage seems like it happened to someone else; that I am just remembering someone else’s memories.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s picnic because whether it rains or not (and we have done our share of garage grilling) it always is a great time with family and friends, and for me it signals the kickoff to summer.

And we need a picnic. It has been an emotional week for me, what with Lily (the bear) and her cub being separated Friday before last. After watching Lily from the time she was hibernating in her den and about to give birth, and then seeing what a gentle and funny mother she is,* it was stunning to me that she would leave Hope sleeping in a tree and wander off for 50 hours. I’m sure there was a reason for it, but nature is mysterious to me, like the wind chill factor or which one does the revolving, the earth or the sun. But due to a series of fortunate coincidences, Lily and Hope were reunited last Wednesday, a video I have watched and wept over about 130 times by now.

But I digress.

The other emotional event happened on Thursday at work, when a recently returned soldier (Corey) came to Advanstar to present us with a certificate and an American flag that had flown for one day in Iraq (“in the face of the enemy,” he said, which even now gets me all choked up)  because last winter we had taken up a collection of gifts for our troops over there. Corey is the son of one of our employees, who introduced him to the group, and when he started telling us about the flag, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, or on the deck, as it were. Funny to think that the things we donated, packed up and shipped over there would result in this kind of extraordinary Thank You note, but I know I will never forget the day.

So between the reunited mother and cub and the reunited mother and soldier son, it was an emotionally charged week.

Sometimes you just gotta cry. And sometimes you just need a family picnic.

This year we have some new additions to the family, including baby Gabriella (whose subsequent weeks are not going as smoothly as the first, because apparently babies take a while to consider their new surroundings and then all hell breaks loose) and whose mother is now considering “Gripe Juice,” a name that cracks me up and which is something I’d like to keep in a bottle at my desk; and Katie’s fiance Eric. Next week youngest sister Krista will be married to Davin, and so the family grows and grows. It’s a beautiful thing— More people to argue with and get irritated over. (Just kidding, dear family.)

So the cake is baked and the potato salad is in the refrigerator, and the gang will convene tomorrow at noon and we will all be glad to be together.

I hope you are doing something special for this weekend, and that you’ll take a moment to remember those who’ve gone before us.

Corny, huh? But heartfelt.

Happy Memorial Day. Happy summer to you!

*Oh, PS: Check out the “Dislodging the Cub” video at Or, if you just want a really good cry, watch the “reunification” video of Hope finding her mom. It’ll make you forget all about Old Yeller.

Go Be Nice.


Our moms used to say that, and they were right.

Sunday marked the beginning of National Volunteer Appreciation Week, a time to thank local volunteers for the work they’ve done throughout the year, but also to encourage others to jump in and do something. You’re probably already a volunteer of sorts even if you don’t know it: If you’ve ever donated to a cause you believe in, or given used items to a homeless shelter or gave a dollar to someone who looked like he needed it, that makes you a volunteer. If you ever held a door open for the person behind you, or smiled at someone on the street, said hello to a stranger or gave someone the fourteen cents they needed to pay their grocery tab in the line ahead of you, you’ve got the volunteer spirit.

But there’s so much more that is needed, and so much more we can all do.

If you live in a town of any size, there is probably a soup kitchen or food shelf that needs your help. Obviously the most urgent need is for money and food, but if you can’t donate that, how about donating some time? You could help cook or serve lunches or dinners, or help with cleanup. If you’d rather work anonymously, you could help sort food and stock the shelves.

Most shelters need help collecting and sorting hygiene products like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving supplies, diapers, etc. I once spent several afternoons matching up new stockings from a crate the size of a railroad car (no kidding) at a local shelter, which I have to admit was a lot of fun for someone with that kind of brain: this goes with this, this goes over here, this one goes with this one… I’ve also filled plastic bags with hygiene products, sorted and bagged diapers, filled backpacks with school supplies, and folded and stuffed envelopes for a local shelter. Most of this was done on lunch hours, since I’m sort of stingy with my time and lazy after work.

Which brings me to something that’s so helpful and yet so simple you don’t even have to get off the couch to do your good deed: Telecare Friends. It may be called something different in your town, but you can call a local shelter or a United Way agency to find out. Ask around: someone will point you in the right direction.

Here’s what you do for Telecare Friends: Sit on the couch (or wherever your phone is) and call an elderly person or shut in and ask how they’re doing. Then you replace the phone in its cradle and go back to your ironing or 43rd rerun of “Two and a Half Men.” It’s important for the person on the other end of the line to know that someone is checking on them to make sure they’re okay, that they’ve eaten dinner, that they’ve taken their medication, and that they are still part of the world for that day. Honestly, if it were any easier, you could do it while you’re sleeping. (I think I once did, but that’s another story for another day.)

Local animal shelters would love to have you show up and volunteer some time. Bring your kids and friends and let them help socialize the kittens, or take some of the dogs for a much-needed walk. Adopt a pet if you can, and help a lot of animals at once: the one you take home, plus the ones who will take his or her place in the safety of the shelter until they find a new home, too.

Your local hospital could probably use hospice volunteers, too. You might work in the hospital, delivering breakfast trays or simply sitting with a dying patient, or help families at home with respite care, allowing them a few hours to get away and take care of family business, go shopping, or even out to a movie to help recharge their flagging spirits.

If you don’t have time or money to spend at a shelter or charitable organization, you can do simpler things closer to home. For one thing, all that junk you have in your closets? Someone could use it. If it’s wearable or usable and still in working order, someone else can use your old coffee pots, sweaters, blankets, socks, sheets, toasters, pots and pans, flatware and hot-doggers. Call a women’s shelter or a homeless shelter and ask if they’ll take them. You won’t be refused.

Or you could make dinner for an elderly person or new parents in your neighborhood. (Better yet, invite them to your home for a meal.) Help a neighbor with gardening, raking, or snow removal. Offer to watch someone’s kids while they run errands, or pick up groceries or medication for a neighbor while you’re running errands. Visit a nursing home and chat with residents. Bring cookies to a busy family with kids. Carry in the mail for someone who has trouble getting to the mailbox. Make time to chat with a neighbor. Sometimes a listening ear can make all the difference.

It’s so easy. Find someone who needs help and help them. Find the need. Fill it.

My friend Rick once said that he doesn’t have to look very far to realize how fortunate he is. I think most of us could say the same thing. (Not about Rick, but you know.)

And while I would love for you to believe that I stay home nights reading Camus, I am nothing if not honest: I don’t. I don’t even know who he was or what he did. The only thing I know for sure is that like Mr Lettman’s, his name is not pronounced the way it’s spelled. But as serendipity would have it, one of the cheap novels I’m reading opened to a page with this lovely and appropriate Camus quote: “I am like them, to be sure. We are in the soup together.”

Go be nice.