A Hospice Minute

stopwatchGotta minute?

In 2015, the life expectancy for an “average” American was 78 years. Simple multiplication means that the annual total of 525,600 minutes accumulates to 40,996,800 lifetime minutes.

In a minute, everything can change.

In hospice, every moment is precious.

How many minutes are wasted on worries that prove meaningless, or speaking meaningless (but hurtful) words we regret, or regretting decisions that meant there was less time with loved ones?

How many singular, wonderful moments become like doors into a rooms decorated with experiences that will be treasured for the remainder of life?

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mom-meIn my mid-sixties, I value moments that once seemed insignificant . . . but have transformed into jewels in a crown of memory that I’m always eager to wear. For example, of my tasks for a Cub Scout merit badge involved planting a plant. In a long-ago autumn, I knelt by Mom as we dug holes in a flowerbed, nesting bulbs into the moist soil. I remember Mom beside me, her bent knee by mine. I remember the aroma of overturned dirt. I remember her smile. I remember her reassurance that flowers would eventually bloom in the spring. Such a trivial moment. Yet somehow, across the decades, it resonates as treasured sharing between mother and child. For as long as I remember the mighty and modest events of my life, I’ll picture the dirt in Mom’s fingernails, the cool air and wet earth, and being with someone who loved me with every beat of her heart.

What is a “trivial” moment you treasure?

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You sit in a doctor’s office. Maybe it’s a new doctor and you’ve never met her before. Or maybe you’ve had nineteen prior visits, and your oncologist is so familiar that you’re on a first-name basis. Or if this is the first time, is she the respected specialist who barely knows your name, but knows everything about your disease? If it’s that 20th visit, have there been nineteen previous occasions where the friendly doctor reassuringly explained about another drug regime to try, or how the tumor had shrunk, or that radiation was an excellent next step?

womananddoc7-11-12Whether it’s a new or familiar physician, the next moment and words change everything.

The person in the white lab coat with the fresh coffee stain on the lapel, and with a picture on a shelf depicting the doctor’s family riding mules in the Grand Canyon, and with a telephone on the desk and its tiny, forever blinking lights, tells you:

“There’s nothing more we can do.”

One sentence. One moment. Soon, the doctor murmurs, “comfort care” and “the option of hospice.” But, momentarily, you hear nothing and understand even less.

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beer-steinsWearing a blue terry cloth house robe, she sat in her living room. She shifted on the couch, crossing a knee, uncrossing a knee, as she had with every visit. She was dying. I was her hospice chaplain. The medications keeping the roar of her pain at bay also made her a little edgy. To her left was a display case, four shelves behind glass doors, all filled with her salt-and-pepper shaker collection. There were dancing elves, matching rabbits, and hand-painted beer mugs from Germany. To her right, above the couch, were “ancient” high school graduation portraits of her three children.

She pointed to the closest picture: her youngest child and only daughter. She was the one who lived in another state. Last year, the woman on the couch had argued with her, causing an immense rift between mother and daughter. That daughter would soon visit her dying mother for Thanksgiving. It would be the first time they’d be in the same room together since that argument. It might also be the last time together.

The mother, robe loose on her gaunt body, leaned forward. Her nervous movement calmed.

“What can I say to her?” she asked. “My daughter must hate me. I did such a stupid thing. How can she ever forgive me?”

“What do you want to say to her?”

There was a pause. A toaster chimed, indicating the bread was ready. Her husband had retreated to the kitchen after she told him to leave the room. I suspected he was listening to his wife, to the mother of their children, and wondering what on earth the chaplain might say to comfort her.

I merely asked a question; it now hovered in the room, a hummingbird over a flower.

“I want to take a minute, only a minute, and tell her how sorry I am. I want to tell her it was my fault and how much I love her.”

I could barely understand the final words because of her weeping. I held her hand. The husband stood at the door to the kitchen. He too was crying.

Speak the words. Take a minute.

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As I’ve written before, my current job responsibilities include contacting those grieving a death. Every call is a “cold call.” The person at the other end of the phone hasn’t a clue that someone from hospice is pressing her or his numbers on a keypad.

If they answer, I introduce myself and ask, “Do you have a moment to talk? Is this a good time?”

They usually say yes. Mostly, a few pleasant words are exchanged. Mostly, they’re grateful hospice was still thinking about their family. A few, of course, will say it’s not a good time and we’ll try to call them later. In a few calls, maybe one or two a week, we truly talk.

Do you have a moment?

I hear a story about their loved one. Or maybe, in those tender moments, they share about their children or how a best friend is supporting them during the worst of their grief. Or I offer to have one of our grief counselors contact them for an in-person appointment. Their guilt or questions or anger needs another person’s assistance in their longed-for healing.

It’s just for a moment or two. It’s only a cold call. But it’s also, once in a while, one of the “warmest” calls and moments I can experience.

Do you have a moment?

When talking to folks on the phone, or when leading grief support groups, everyone recalls the simple moments with a loved one: the holding of a hand, telling a family joke, doing a crossword together, coffee in the morning, an evening stroll.

Moments matter.

Moments change our lives.

We have about forty-one million moments, give or take, from first to last breath.

What moments have been precious to you?

And how will you, now facing illness, or now in the storm of grief, make the next moments matter?

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I have been on several sides of this and while they are all ultimately heartbreaking to experience I would choose to go through the one where the words were spoken. My loved one waited until they were ready to talk, after the questions with the doctors had been answered and the course had been set, even before we knew that she would never recover. We made a commitment to get together every Saturday for a meal and time. No agenda, just time. I did not know all the questions I now wish I’d asked. There were times when we just sat and watched the birds in the yard, something we would never have done if she’d been well. It was the same lesson I’d learned about raising my children. It really isn’t the quality of the time spent, it is in the timing of it all, those moments you can’t plan. They just happen and some of them I did not know had happened until decades later. Things I did not know I learned from her and about her.

    Not everyone wants to have this kind of connection. Some stayed away. There is no right answer for everyone. For me however the gift she gave of her time was beyond measure.

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