Do You Have a Moment?

Salt & Pepper shakers

Can I have a minute of your time?

According to a recent Center for Disease Control publication, the life expectancy for an “average” American was 78 years. Doing the math means the annual total of 525,600 minutes mutiplies 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, speaking hurtful words we regret, or making decisions causing less time with loved ones and more time with, well . . . guilt?

Now closer to seventy than sixty years old, I cherish moments that once seemed insignificant. For example, a Cub Scout merit badge involved planting a bulb. I knelt by my mother as we dug into moist soil. I remember Mom her bent knees beside mine. I remember the aroma of overturned dirt. I remember her smile. I remember her reassurance that flowers would eventually bloom in the future. Such a trivial moment when my age could be counted on the fingers of both hands. Yet somehow, across the decades, it resonates as a treasure 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 damp earth, and being with someone who loved me with every beat of her heart.

What is a “trivial” moment you treasure?

In a minute, everything can change.

You sit in a doctor’s office. What if it’s a new doctor that you are meeting for the first time? While she may not know you, she is the expert on your disease. Or maybe you’ve had numerous prior visits, and your oncologist is so familiar that you’re on a first-name basis. Whether it’s a new or known physician, the next words change everything. The person in the white lab coat hesitates, gazes at you (or glances away from you) and then says:

“There’s nothing more we can do.”

It is a singular sentence, one moment of those 40,996,800 lifetime minutes. Soon, the doctor murmurs, “comfort care” and “the option of hospice.” But, momentarily, you hear nothing and understand even less.

In hospice, every moment is precious.

Wearing a blue terry cloth house robe, she sat in her living room. She was dying and (years ago) I was her hospice chaplain. The medications keeping the roar of her pain at bay also made her a bit edgy. To her left was a display case, filled with her salt-and-pepper shaker collection. There were dancing elves, matching rabbits, and a host of other ceramic creatures. The now faded high school graduation portraits of her three children were on the wall above her.

She pointed to the closest picture: her youngest child and only daughter. She was the one who lived in another state. Last year, mother and daughter had exchanged angry, painful words. The daughter would soon visit her dying mother for Thanksgiving. It would be the first time they’d be together since that argument. It might also be their 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?” I asked.

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, wondering what on earth the chaplain might say to comfort his troubled wife.

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.

+      +      +

My current job responsibilities at a hospice 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 onto 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. Some will say it’s not a good time and we’ll try to call them later. In a few calls, maybe several a week, we truly talk.

Do you have a moment?

I hear a story about their loved one. In those tender moments, they might 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?

How will you, if now facing a serious 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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