They didn’t know each other, and they only knew me in the briefest and most problematic of days.
One Was Dying. Another was Near Death. The third was During Grief.
I think of them now, years—and decades—later, equally grateful and humbled for what I learned while spending time with them. As always, I will try to change a little or a lot of their story to disguise each guy’s true identity.
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Guy Dying . . .
Long ago, I was his hospice chaplain, randomly assigned by my supervisor to be part of his hospice care “team.” Guy Dying had COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow. It can make breathing increasingly difficult. Be rude, and call it an old smoker’s illness. Be reasonable and acknowledge that with our guaranteed weaknesses as aging humans—often living or working in places with poor air quality, and that from birth until the day you die your lungs never cease working—COPD doesn’t care if you smoked two packs a day or never touched a cigarette.
He had COPD.
But, for Guy Dying, it wasn’t the worst thing.
He was alone.
No family, or apparently no family that cared about him. Which maybe didn’t surprise me, because much of the time—in those handful of hours that I spent time with him—he could be a jerk. (Sorry about my medical jargon.) He swore at me, wasting precious breath on his anger. I was smart enough to know his anger wasn’t at me. His anger was a weapon he pointed at himself. At his loss of control. At his profound frustrations. I’m sure he could remember those younger years when a trip from the bed to the bathroom to piss was easy-peasy. Not now. Every faltering step was costly. A journey across his small, messy apartment required planning, gumption, and luck.
As his chaplain, I asked if I could pray with him during my initial visit. He shook his head.
“Fuck it. No thanks.”
No subtlety there.
I would set appointments with him and drive over to his place. We talked about not much. There were discomforting silences. For several months, I would try to find a place to sit in the midst of his clutter to offer support and companionship. With canula tubes snaking around his nose, oxygen flowing, he labored to breathe. I posed weekly questions that only required a nod, or him replying “Yeh” or “Naw.” He would also mutter his more complicated, multisyllabic “Fuck it.”
At one visit, knowing he didn’t want me to pray with him, I asked him if it was okay if I prayed for him when I said my own personal daily prayers.
“Fuck it. Sure.”
I did, away from him, away from his crummy apartment.
One day, and only one day, he asked (with great effort), “You still praying for me?”
I said I was.
He grunted. Didn’t frown. Didn’t smile.
Guy Dying would die alone.
Did you want this to be a heroic tale? Me changing his life? Him having an epiphany and, between gasps, confessing long ago trivial or traumatic sins or him asking me to call his kids and tell them he sought forgiveness for being such a lousy, absentee Dad?
Sorry. Big disappointment. Yes, I got to like him, even maybe understand him a little. But he was an ornery SOB most of the time. Yeah, SOB as medical slang that means short of breath. And yeah, the other SOB too.
All you can do sometimes is be with someone. In my case, with Guy Dying, I was paid to be there. He was assigned to me by my boss, appearing on my work calendar on a regular basis until his last, ragged breath. He was a hospice patient that I never looked forward to visiting. Except, I also wanted to be there. I have no idea if he was once a sweet man, or had always been a pain in the ass. But he was also a lonely, troubled, hurting person who was Dying. And so, with the smidgen of his life that he allowed me to enter, I—who braced myself for every stilted visit—also wanted to be there with him.
Some Dying is hard. Some Dying, because of intentional past mistakes or unintentional random circumstances, means a Guy will be alone.
And maybe, all those years ago, as I look back—and remember how little I could do for him—that in those visits I was reminded of why I truly love hospice. I suspect none of his “team” of nurses, social workers, or home health aides ever hurried to his dreary address so they could spend happy, rewarding extra time with him. He was a grump, a complainer, a fellow angry at the world. But all of us showed up. All of us gave him the best of who he would allow us to be in his presence.
To this day, I remember him. For months, once, he starred in my daily prayers.
He was a Guy Dying, and we all tried to make his life a little better while he was in hospice’s care.
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Next up, tomorrow: Guy Near Death . . .
(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.)by