A friend I have known for close to 30 years is being invaded by tumors. Alien beings are taking over his body, stealing the nourishment intended for him.
I have known him for half my life, met him as I turned a critical juncture in my life – when I became a hospice volunteer. We were in the original group of volunteers in a hospice program at San Francisco Hospital. This was 1980 – just months before the tsunami of AIDS surged across the landscape and SFGH became a Mont St. Michel in an epidemic that carried away thousands.
When I told him I always expected that he and I would be in the same old age home, rocking in our rocking chairs on the porch, he replied, “This is it. Sixty is the new eighty.”
I’ve lost many people, particularly over the past ten years. In-laws, my parents, my high school teacher. I’ve also lost family members because they weren’t willing to alter their view of me – weren’t willing to let go of roles that kept the family intact, but were toxic for me. And so I am no longer a part of their lives. There is no room in their hearts for me.
But, my friend has been in my life on purpose. One of those people who became family by virtue of spirit and intent, rather than birth or blood. Perhaps that is why his leaving is particularly confusing and unnerving for me.
I have no idea where to put it. How to hold it.
What we learned in hospice was that our role was to be a witness. It was a good lesson for me because I had always been a caretaker. Doing something to make it better, and better meant getting between the person I was taking care of and whatever difficulty they were facing.
In working with the dying, I learned to step out of the way; to clear the path so the person could face their impending end in whatever way gave them the most dignity. For some it was denial. For others it was looking it squarely in the eye.
My friend is looking it squarely in the eye. Both his life and his impending death. He believes there is a life after death – not heaven or hell – but other lifetimes. And, I feel that he will always be with me, woven into my heart, because of what we shared.
I became a hospice volunteer because I wanted to learn how to accept death. I thought that meant that it would become fathomable to me. It hasn’t.
It is particularly unfathomable to me that the life of someone with whom I learned to become a witness, I am now serving as a witness to.
But, my heart is breaking. I’d like to think that it is breaking open so I can fully witness the final journey of this very dear man, whose heart bettered the world with each of its beats.
Would that he could live so we could celebrate his eightieth birthday together.
Karen Turns Sixty
by Karen L. Hogan
If I could turn back
the hands of time
I would have nothing to regret
So, I’d do much of it the same way
end up with the same regrets,
the same memories,
and my age-spotted hands
would be no younger.