What’s on your mind.
That’s kind of the fun thing about Facebook. It encourages you to blurt. Okay, sometimes that might not be so good. But last night, here’s what I blurted, “I say to myself, it’s a wonderful life.”
I like that song, “It’s a Wonderful World.” I liked it when Louis Armstrong sang it and I think I liked it even more when I heard the Hawaiian singer Kamakawiwo’ole sing it in a medley with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I first heard his version at the end of “Meet Joe Black,” a movie most critics hated, but I cried through anyway.
When I googled (uh oh, I’m verbalizing again) to find Kamakawiwo’ole’s name, the first line in the first entry that came up was “Death did not silence his music.” For that I am grateful.
In 1980 I began a four-year volunteer job as a hospice volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital. The hospice program at SFGH was an unusual one. Volunteers worked hands on with patients, most of whom had nowhere else to go. They were the ones who had become estranged from family living on the edges of society.
It was also an interesting time and place to begin that particular job given that SFGH was pretty much ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. It also was ground zero for how an institution can react with compassion to an epidemic. The institution rallied to the task, creating an AIDS ward that was a sanctuary rather than a nightmarish deathtrap where people died in isolation and shame.
I wanted to become a hospice volunteer so I could learn to accept death.
Yesterday, a friend of mine, who I met as a fellow hospice volunteer back in 1980, wrote with eloquence about his recognition that his life would likely end soon. He was diagnosed last year with a devastating cancer. He wrote that driving north through wine country, he simultaneously felt alive and about to depart life. He looked out on the landscape through eyes that might be seeing it for the last time.
Seeing the landscape as if it were the last time he would see it.
It’s hard for me to conceive of him departing life. We sometimes joked that we would probably end up in the same old age home together, rocking our chairs in unison to a setting sun. For reasons I can’t articulate, it seems particularly strange that someone with whom I shared the experience of working with the dying is going through the experience we saw so many times.
For reasons I don’t comprehend, he has kept me at arms length (or more) during his illness. I’m hoping that the arm will come down before he departs, but that is out of my control. I have to respect it. That’s a hard one for me. I want answers, resolution, things to make sense.
What we got told in our hospice training was that our job was to be a witness. I came to learn the compassion in that. My job wasn’t to fix, change, or try to help—the most I could do was work to remove institutional obstacles or at least keep them at bay, for those were the impediments to a graceful, gentle death.
I did not learn to accept death in the way I thought I would. Mostly I learned that it’s easy to accept it as long as it’s not someone I know and love. When it’s up close and personal, it’s sort of unfathomable.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned in working with dying, was that just because death is imminent, it doesn’t mean that you stop living. Life is in us until it isn’t anymore.
So, today, look at the landscape as if seeing it for the last time. Not because you won’t see it again, but so that you take the time to appreciate that you, and only you, are seeing that landscape through your eyes.