The dying process was, and continues to be a curious fascination and something always drew me in closer to try to understand some realm of the mystery. Dealing with loss and grief around the dying process has long been a part of my life. Witnessing, encouraging and being with feelings of grief, sadness, shame and anger from others when someone close was dying was always an easy thing for me. When others displayed resistance to be present with their feelings and present with the dying, it made it feel more of a natural place for me to operate from. This witnessing strengthened my ability to stay and be present with whatever was happening in my own emotional state and be present with others around me who were going through their own individual process. The time had come for me to spend more of my time with the dying and supporting the death and dying process for the families through Hospice work. Never in my life would I have anticipated having such a love affair like I am about to tell you about…
After many years of being a hospice volunteer I received a call from my coordinator saying they had a unique opportunity for me. I enjoyed getting those phone calls from hospice, when they found a client or a family who desired someone to come into their home to have conversation. I was presented with a very different situation… “Alice”…a 98yr old Jewish woman, lived in her own apartment, still had her complete wits about her, wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind and clearly expressed her desires to stay and live out her last days in her own home. The call came as Alice had just fired her previous volunteer. This volunteer reported back to Hospice that Alice’s apartment was little cluttered and dirty and placed a judgment on Alice’s living situation that should have been different then it really was. As it turned out, there really wasn’t an issue after all, only the volunteer’s lack of better judgment to respect Alice’s needs. When Hospice came in to investigate, Alice immediately got upset with the accusations from her volunteer and promptly fired them. After the investigation, Alice was asked if she wanted to try another volunteer and she had special requests after this situation…this time, Alice wanted a young and handsome man to come over to her home. It just so happened that I was the youngest hospice volunteer and just so happened to be a man. After I got the details of the situation I immediately knew this was an assignment for me, so I called Alice and arranged a time to pay her a visit.
Promptly on time I arrived at Alice’s apartment, was greeted by her caregiver, got introduced to Alice and was invited in to sit down. Immediately I could feel in the air that there was chemistry between the two of us. After talking for only a few minutes we discovered we had a lot in common, we both grew up in Jewish households, had an appreciation for music and dancing, loved spending time in the Catskills, and visiting Boston and New York City (where Alice grew up). Alice eventually moved to Maine with one of her five, yes FIVE, husbands she wound up burying over the course of her life. Alice made it really clear to me that she was going to be around for a while and wasn’t ready to go, no matter what anyone might have said to me. Alice had a zest for life that was unmatched by even some of the young people in my life, which was such a turn on for me. What humored me a lot was that Alice wanted to make sure I understood there was no way I was ever going to be able to keep up with her stamina for life. “Remember how many husband’s I buried”, she said. I always conceded while telling her that I could only do my best and try to go at her pace. “You can try, but remember the other men in my life couldn’t do it”, Alice would say. Alice didn’t waste any time deepening into the intimate spaces of her life during my first visit with her. Alice said she wanted me to do most of the talking the next time I came over. As I was soon to leave, I asked Alice “When do I get to see you again?”… And she proceeds to tell me how busy she is in her life and isn’t sure when or if she might have the time to see me. Resorting to a behavior that I am not familiar with…begging… “But, Alice, I would really like to see you again”, and after going around a couple times in my begging fashion, Alice conceded and allowed me to set up a time to come and see her the following week.
The commitment I make to my clients is to visit them once a week for at minimum of a couple of hours. Building a rapport, let alone an emerging intimacy like in this case with Alice, takes time and I pledge my devotion to make the connection happen! So, off I went to see Alice again. The time I spent with her this time was about listening to her life’s disappointments. Alice was disappointed with her family, with the rabbi’s at the temple’s she has paid dues to, disappointed that her husbands left her alone, unfulfilled expectations in her caregivers and even with the bigger hospice picture. After listening to her for what seemed to be a long while I questioned her, “Do you really want to take all this disappointment and resentment with you to the other side?”, and by me asking that question opened up the floodgates, “YOU HAVEN’T HEARD ANYTHING YET”, and off Alice went on additional rants about more disappointments in her life. It was then I realized what I was supposed to be doing with her. I was there to be a conduit, to receive Alice’s downloads of her life so she could at least minimize them inside her mind and let them go as she needed to into the universe. Following that realization…I sat in my chair, restructured my posture, put my two feet firmly flat on the floor which allowed her words and energy behind the words to pass through my body as I asked questions to try to get her to download even more of her anger, resentments and disappointments so she did not have to hold on to those negative energies anymore. It was such a holy and sacred way for me to be serving Alice as a receiver of her life’s disappointments, I was honored. My dance with Alice continued week after week, playing hard to get and being too busy to make additional plans to see me and making sure I knew there was no way I would ever be able to keep up with her.
My visits with Alice continued at least once a week and after about a month, evolved into sometimes twice a week. There were a couple of times I entered into Alice’s apartment when the hospice nurse was leaving and was told she would not make it through the weekend. I still came inside, sat by her bed, held her hand, told her I was there with her as she squeezed my hand back. Alice’s words were true, she was not ready to go and pulled through time and time again. During the next month or so, Alice experienced a series of mini strokes and every time she pulled through and came back home with very little evidence of having a stroke. It was obvious to me that God was not ready to have Alice just yet because she had some sort of unfinished business.
My connection and deepening intimacy with Alice continued as she made sure when I came over it was first to meet her family and then to hang out while her family was there. Maybe Alice was showing off her new “boyfriend” or maybe it was because I was providing some degree of comfort for everyone around because it was so stressful for the family to interact with each other in a loving and compassionate way. Alice scheduled my visits with her when she knew her family would be there and when I arrived, gave me center stage as she asked whoever was there in her home to clear a space so I could sit close to her. This was not a traditional hospice volunteer assignment and everyone in the room knew there was something more going on then just a hospice volunteer paying a visit. Alice continued playing hard to get with me and I played along.
Hospice would call me pretty regularly asking why I wasn’t going to see Alice? My initial response was smiles and laughter thinking that maybe Alice was really workin’ it to get me over to see her more and wasn’t able to tell me to my face. Imagining my laughter was confusing to hear on the other end of the phone, and after explaining myself, Alice was calling hospice as she was having ongoing memory issues to contend with following the strokes she was having. Alice was not remembering that I may have been there on the same day she was calling or that I may have been on my way over to see her. It was worth a good laugh and on the inside because I knew I was having this beautiful, erotic love affair with Alice, feeling her desire and longing to be with me. I was experiencing the adoration, love and commitment we had to each other through the final days of her life. It was really sweet!
Alice has her 99th birthday and was excited about celebrating with everyone in the building and she could care less about what people would think about me coming in to celebrate with her. Alice insisted on celebrating her life along with me, so she throws herself a party. Alice invited me to be there and, unfortunately, I was unable to go. One of the protocols in hospice is that we are not supposed to receive or give any gifts. I broke the rules and brought her a small bouquet of flowers before her party which went off without a hitch and was a sign that God was still not ready to take Alice away. From that point on I felt an increased commitment to Alice and would see her twice a week. I continued to be present through another series of mini strokes, through disagreements with her family and through a challenging time when her granddaughter came out to be a paid caregiver for her. It was obvious that there was tension between the two of them.
Another couple weeks went along before my phone rang, yet again, from Hospice. My eyes rolled in my head with a big smile as I anticipated what the familiar conversation was going to be. How wrong was I! Alice suffered another stroke and this time she needed more specialized after care. I got a call from the hospice social worker and she told me of the situation and asked if I could come over. I dropped whatever it was I was doing at that time and went to be with her. What happened was a shock to me, Alice was admitted to St. Joseph’s hospice suite… WHAT? “Uh Oh”, was my immediate reaction. A Jewish lady who was super clear she wanted to be at home and her family just admitted her to a catholic assisted living facility…OMG, I’ve never seen Alice this pissed off before in all the months I spent listening to her anger and disappointments. She was so pissed off that her entire family was there, the hospice social worker as well as the hospice volunteer coordinator. As soon as I walked in, Alice immediately called me over and wanted me to be at her side. When Alice’s anger had subsided, it was agreed by everyone to get all the necessary supplies to her home ASAP and she would get back there as soon as those supplies were in place. Alice was somewhat relieved while she asked me to take down the crucifix that was on the wall across from her bed. Little things do make all the difference sometimes. I told Alice I would come to visit her in a couple days after she got settled back at home and she was ok with that.
I arrived at Alice’s apartment a few days after the incident at St. Joseph’s and was greeted at the door by the hospice nurse, once again telling me they didn’t think she was going to make it through the day. I looked at them out of the corner of my eye with a look of “yea, right…not again?” yet this time they were serious. There was a brand new caregiver there who was not just new to the family, it was also her first ever assignment and was brand new to care-giving work. There was also a close friend of Alice’s in the room, the granddaughter of the 5th husband she buried, ShariLyne. As it turned out, ShariLyne was the one who took Alice to all her doctors’ appointments, to the grocery store, picking up her medications, etc. and she was the one who did a lot of the day-to-day necessities for Alice. I realized later that ShariLyne played an integral role in Alice’s life and especially during the last months of her life.
After walking in, Alice was all setup in her bedroom with all accouterments to keep her comfortable in her last days of life. She was going through periods of breathing and not breathing (called “apnea”). Alice was visibly unconscious. I pulled up a chair, grabbed her hand and started talking to her. I told her that she was home just like she wanted to be and that I was there with her and I wasn’t going anywhere, I was right where I wanted to be and did not want to be anywhere else. I spoke to Alice and reflected on our time together, the love we had for each other, how much I appreciated her tenacity for life, and the dancing we were doing together no matter what our age differences may have been. It was clear to me right then that Alice was well on her way to transitioning to the other side. I could feel the emotions welling up inside of me as I was holding her hand and hearing the low tones of the bit of conversation going on in the other room. Alice took her final breaths and passed on.
The new caregiver was a little freaked out by Alice’s passing and mentioned she had formal “protocol” following the death of a client. I asked her to wait a minute because Alice deserved an honoring of her life as I felt her presence still in the room. We all stood there around her bed and held a vigil, saying the things we needed to say to remember the beauty of the woman she is and and paying homage to such an amazing being. It was an amazing and magical time to be able to experience the deep appreciation and love for Alice while in attendance at the exact time of her death. After everything was said that needed to be said, the process was started, the phone calls made and people started to arrive… family, hospice, the ambulance and it was then I knew it was time for me to leave. I walked to the elevator, down to the ground floor, into my car and I lost it… all my emotion came rushing out of me, the tears and wailing poured out and I didn’t think there would be an end to it. I was paralyzed in my grief and sadness and I did not know where to go or what to do. I was fortunate enough to pick up my phone and call a couple of friends who I told what was going on and was able to land with them and they were able to hold me in my grief and my experience. Thank you Rosemary and Thank you Sharon!
I received a call from hospice the next day checking in on me and was so sweet. Being able to experience someone’s death like that is a rare occurrence for anyone and an even rarer one for a hospice volunteer. Alice’s family communicated through hospice that they wanted me to say a few words at her funeral and be a pallbearer. Everyone recognized the role I was playing with Alice at the end of her life and honored me with a beautiful gift to be able to have more intimate closure with the family funeral rituals and ceremonies rather than on my own with hospice. I was grateful to the family for that offering. I continue to tell this story about my love affair with Alice to new hospice volunteers and others who might be interested.
My love and deep admiration continues for Alice, for hospice, for the people who are drawn to the work and I take a lot of pleasure keeping Alice alive through telling this story.