When I was a hospice chaplain . . .
I wanted to know where my patient was from so I brought a world atlas. He spoke only Russian; I spoke only English. Both of us were ministers. With his daughters translating, and an atlas to point fingers at, I hoped we could find the Ukrainian town where he’d been born and raised.
And we did. There, in the map’s tiny black print, we spotted Cernovcy. At the southern edge of the Carpathian Mountains and above the Romanian border, Cernovcy appeared to be halfway between Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Two years ago, he had left that dot on the map to come to Fresno. He had left home, but home was also here. Here, where his daughters laughed as I spoke my only Russian word: “Da!” Here, where his wife silently smiled at my questions.
Here, where he was dying from cancer.
Here, where he was, even more, living with cancer.
Home is first a dot on the map, a crossroads on a country highway or a left turn past a grade school. It’s a place where somehow, in whatever way we remember, we grew up there. Maybe, in our memory, it was a nearly perfect time of hot oatmeal in November and games of tag far into the summer night. Or maybe, in the honest recollection of a survivor, home was a battle zone of anger or loss. But forever, we recall a place of growing-up located somewhere between the remember-whens and the never-come-back-tos. But isn’t home best defined by people? Isn’t home daughters’ laughing as they stare at an atlas, or a wife hovering nearby—unable to understand English—but nodding encouragement with every word spoken? Cancer, and other devastating illnesses, will strip us down, hurling painful reminders of mortality into the mix of family. But it doesn’t destroy the relationships that help create and sustain home.
Recently I read about why leaves “change” color in the autumn. In actuality, they don’t! As fall nears, according to Diane Ackerman in her Natural History of the Senses, the tree “begins pulling nutrients back into its trunk and roots, pares down, and gradually chokes off its leaves.” In the summer, the chlorophyll in the leaves—with its dominant color of green—enhances photosynthesis. All we see is the green. But the other colors, from a maple’s flames of red to the sunlight-like golden of the aspen, were always there. Autumn’s preparation for winter, with summer’s nutrients blocked, exposes what could not have been seen. One color is stripped away. Another is revealed.
I ponder that dot on the map near the Carpathian Mountains thousands of miles away. Before I go, I ask him to pray for all of us. After all, he was husband, father and a pastor. While I am there as his chaplain, I feel it’s important for him, with his family around him, to do what he has always done. I know my Russian-speaking patient misses home. And I also know that cancer has forced him into the time of an autumn facing winter.
But, I also believe, as the place of home was left behind, the truest persons of home are revealed. He was surrounded by the vibrant colors of a loving family.
(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.)
Image of town hall from here.
I took the picture of the autumn foliage.by