He’s twenty-one when he’s admitted to the hospice. He’s younger than my son. He’s our youngest resident ever by many, many years. The circumstances are heartbreaking; twenty-one, living in poverty without any family support system, less than three months to live. He needs us. I don’t doubt for a moment he’s in the right place with the right group of loving and nurturing volunteers to care for him. This is love.
One of our rooms is magically transformed into an NBA themed guy’s bedroom for him. That’s one of the things I love about hospice. Plenty of things like that just “magically” happen (usually it involves a group of committed volunteers who will move heaven and earth to fulfill a wish). Hospice is about life. We’re giving this kid a home. This is love.
My first shift with him is working solo early Sunday morning. As she heads out the door, the overnight nurse tells me there are three kids sleeping in the guest room. “Three of his cousins visited last night and he didn’t want them to leave, so they stayed. They had a late night pizza delivery and stayed up playing video games. They’ll probably sleep in this morning.” Four boys savoring a normal night. This is love.
I quietly enter his room, carefully stepping over a pizza box, several soda cans and some candy wrappers. It looks a lot like the carnage after one of my son’s sleepover parties so many years ago. He’s sleeping under his cool new NBA blanket. A quick check of his tubes and wires, a soft whisper “Hi, I’m Rena – its okay – I’m just checking in on you – go back to sleep”, and I’m sure he’s okay. Good God – he looks so young, so innocent. The neck tattoos against his dark skin seem out of place on this child. I want to kiss his forehead. I want him to feel loved. I want to cry. But I don’t. I smile and pull the door shut. This is love.
I peek into the guest room where what can only be described as a “pile of boys” is sound asleep. That sight wrecks me. It drives home that this is just a kid. These are kids. Now I really want to cry. I tiptoe to the kitchen, lay my head on the counter and very quietly sob. I just need to get it OUT of me. This is just a kid. Those boys in the guest room are just kids. How the F#*% does this happen??? I stop crying. Yes, he is a kid. Yes, the boys in the guest room are kids. I have a choice at this point. I can stand there and cry about it, or I can thank God that I know how to make breakfast for a small crowd of boys -– and I can get on with the morning. I choose “thank God and make breakfast”. This is love.
They all start to stir at about eight o’clock. I make a big breakfast and carry it into his room. The five of us get to know each other a little better over a meal. He looks a lot different awake. He looks like someone who I’d probably avoid on the street. It’s not about the color of his skin. It’s definitely about the street tattoos. I guess the look can best be described as “gang banger”. He’s had an unbelievably difficult life; he’s never really had a stable home, he’s been shuttled from place to place most of his life, the only consistency is poverty. It makes sense to me that he’s developed a tough exterior. Even so, I speak to him the way I speak to my son – like the loving mother of a young adult. It’s so natural for me – and so unnatural for him. He can’t understand why I’m being so nice to him. Life is just a motherf#*%er for some people. It’s so damn unfair. The kid has no idea what it is to have a mom who takes care of his needs. I know we can make a difference in his life. This is love.
The next weeks are filled with life and life lessons for all of us. Volunteers and our amazing director coordinate a trip to the movies with his cousins and siblings, a trip to an amusement park, visits to his old neighborhood, a 4th of July picnic on a beautiful lake, and we give him something he’s never had before – a birthday party. The house rocks with a real birthday party with food, decorations, music, cake and lots of family and friends. His twenty-second birthday is an epic celebration. This is love.
We provide the structure this young life needs to be able to live his last weeks on his terms – connecting with his family and his community. These weeks are so filled with LOVE. It’s amazing. He quickly comes to understand that we love him simply because he is him. He doesn’t need to do anything special or be anyone different. We love him because he is him. This is love.
The volunteers who provide his day to day care are some of the most spectacularly loving human beings I’ve ever met. The love we show him overflows onto each other more than ever during these weeks. We support each other with extra hugs and extra words of encouragement. Caring for this young man is a blessing, and it’s really, really hard. He is so young, his life has been so difficult, and his family circumstances are sometimes so complicated. We’re navigating difficult waters, made even more difficult by cultural differences born of generational poverty and despair. It’s both heartbreaking and so full of gifts. It’s hearts breaking OPEN. This is love.
Somehow nearly everyone who is in any way touched by his story is moved to do something to help. I call my mom from the house with a special request for his dinner – and the ingredients “magically” appear within an hour. A dear friend cheerfully answers the call to help out with some of the younger kids who are visiting, and shows up with books, crayons, games and endless patience. I duck out the back door at work saying “I’m gonna run over and say hi to my guy, I’ll be right back” and my boss’s supportive reply is “do what you have to do” every time. It seems like everyone in my life is praying for this kid, for the house, and for the volunteers. This is love.
His journey comes to an end in August. He dies surrounded by some of the women who love him most fiercely through this journey. I’m in my car on my way there. We are all exactly where God means for us to be, every step of the way. This is love.