In 2017, 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 rooms decorated with experiences that will be treasured for the remainder of life?
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As an aging (and sometimes cranky) Baby Boomer, 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, my Cub Scout merit badge involved a planting project. In a long-ago autumn, I knelt by Mom as we dug holes in a flowerbed to nest bulbs in the moist soil. I recall Mom beside me, her bent knee by mine; the aroma of overturned dirt; her smile and promises 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 with a beloved?
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How many, every day of every week, have a version of this happen:
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 a dozen prior visits, and your oncologist is so familiar that you’re on a first-name basis. 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 visit #13, have there been twelve 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?
Whether a new or familiar physician, the next moment and words change everything.
“There’s nothing more we can do,” the good doctor says.
One sentence. One moment. Soon, she murmurs, “comfort care” and “the option of hospice.” But, momentarily, you hear nothing and understand even less.
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I remember this visit:
Wearing a blue terry cloth house robe, she sat in her living room. She shifted on the couch, primly 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 too many Disney characters to count. 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 I was visiting had argued with her, causing an immense rift between mother and daughter. That daughter would soon visit her dying mother. It would be the first time they’d be in the same room together since that argument. It might also be the last time.
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 said such stupid things. 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 I am 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. Perhaps a few pleasant words are exchanged. Perhaps 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 handful of calls, 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 appointment (often by Zoom in these pandemic days). Their guilt, regrets, or anger need 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 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.)by