I spent 17 years in the ER fighting death. Death was our enemy. We posted statistics on the board at night. ER 5, Death 7. We couldn't bear to lose a patient. Especially horrific is a patient that walks in, only to expire in our hands. How can this happen? We have the technology. We have the skill. How can this person slip through our very capable hands? We reviewed the tragedies. Surely, they have done something to tip the scales. We hide from our own mortality. We have to, or the carnage becomes too much to bear.
A strange career change suddenly and inexplicably engulfed me after the death of my mother. I took a position as a Hospice Nurse. "You are now an Angel of Death". All the problems I tried to solve in the ER were suddenly not problems anymore. People who are dying stop eating. People who are dying stop healing. People who are dying have so much to offer us. If only we are brave enough to listen.
Those of us who fear and fight death miss out on an amazing array of clues to what real life is about. Not one dying patient has told me that they wished they had made more money. No one lamented the loss of objects, status, or property. What was foremost in their minds was repairing damage to a relationship and loss of time. Phone calls were made to estranged children or siblings. Grievances whose details were long forgotten needed to be smoothed over. It wasn't that important anymore.
I learned to hug. I learned to let go of that all important distance that keeps us from getting too involved. I have had an ocean of tears spilt upon my shoulders. I have heard, time and again, about the visitors most of the dying have. There are visitors that appear, almost predictably, 2 weeks before death. These are people dear to us that have already died. Our loved ones that come to help us transition to whatever the next adventure is. They are many helping hands amidst a sea of darkness. We are not alone.
I spent 45 minutes recently, sitting next to a man with Stage IV lung cancer, a large pleural mass causing a great deal of pain. With my encouragement, and a change in medication to include Ritalin, we were able to control pain without the sedation he feared. This is the ultimate loss of control. He is a huge man, a breadwinner, a father, husband and son. This was a man that did not float through life. Now he was expected to float through death. I listened. I heard the small boy that lived within asking for reassurance.
"Hell, this might be my last bag of pretzels".
I told him we would control the pain. I told him it was alright to be scared. He told be about the cemetery he could see from his house. The cemetery where he would be buried is across the street from his home. All his friends were there, he told me. Therein are interred a lot of his childhood friends, their parents, his parents, one of his sisters' children. Very good company he assures me.
Now this guy was getting to me. I let down my defenses, and I'm pondered my own mortality. Again, we assign blame sometimes to protect ourselves. He smoked, he drank too much, and he ate too much. No, none of us escape this. And here I am, attempting to coach someone through something I've never experienced. He needs to teach me.
I ask him to tell me what he's most afraid of. Tell me. Tell me so I know what I should fear. What scares you exactly....top of the list.
"I'm scared because I can't go home anymore."
Home, the safe haven we all crave. Our home, where theoretically, we all go to hide from the world. The place where all the bad things can get shut out behind our front door. The place where people love and cherish us. Loss of protection, loss of loved ones. I agree. That's what I'll be most afraid of as well.
My home has taken on new dimensions for me. I am more willing to stop what I'm doing to listen, really listen, to something one of my kids is telling me. I'll let someone win a stupid argument. My old couch is comfortable; I can live without a new one. Overtime can go to someone else. I have more important things to do. Important things like hugging my loved ones, and other peoples' loved ones. I can't keep them from dying, but I can hold their hands and hear them.