just a day

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It’s early Sunday morning at the hospice. Clarence and I are sipping coffee in the kitchen (well, actually I’m sipping coffee and Clarence is snoozing on the floor next to me) waiting to meet our new resident . I flip through his chart to get to know him. He’s about my age (a few years younger), he’s fairly independent (although a bit unsteady on his feet), he’s coming from an extended hospital stay (nearly three months) and now he needs *us*. He’ll be with us for (maybe) a few weeks.

He shuffles into the kitchen with his laptop balanced across the top of his walker. We exchange hellos, pour a few cups of coffee, look at pics of his life on his laptop and spend an hour laughing like old friends. It’s just a day. The conversation turns to breakfast….

“I’d really like a diner breakfast”

“I can do that, no problem. What would you like?”

“No, I want to go to a diner”

He has a mischievous twinkle in his eye that I can’t resist.

I don’t know which one of us is more surprised when I blurt “Okay, let’s go!”

A handful of phone calls later and we’ve got everything we need to hit the road. My mom brings over a heavier coat for him and takes Clarence home with her. Our director talks me through everything I need to take with us. I’ve got his pain meds in my pocket and his DNR in my purse. What could go wrong?

He seems entertained by my dorky sense of humor and matches me joke for joke as we head to the diner. I’m determined to treat him normally – paying no attention to his physical limitations or his terminal illness. We’re just a couple of friends heading out to breakfast on a Sunday – it’s just a day. We’re genuinely having fun.

He takes what seems like f o r e v e r to decide what to order for breakfast. Our waitress is endlessly patient and appears oblivious to the growing line of people waiting for tables. The three of us discuss the fact that he’s at a point in his life where he really doesn’t have to choose between delights. Get the pancakes and the omelet and the hashbrowns and the waffle and the french toast. Live big. Enjoy the day. So we do. We cover the table in diner breakfast delights. He’s ecstatic. He eats about 4 bites and announces “I need to go to Wegmans”. 

ohmygod. I panic. There is no way his frail body can do a trip to Wegmans. No way. The trip to the diner is fun – but Wegmans? That’s just crazy. NO WAY. Absolutely NO WAY this is happening today. I’ll get a list from him, drop him back off at the hospice with the mid-day volunteer, then run the errand for him.

“I just want to go up and down every aisle and look at everything”

10 minutes later we’re in the car on our way to Wegmans.  So much for NO WAY this is happening today…

I’m passed panic well into terror. This is a really bad idea. He looks exhausted after the trip to the diner. I tell him I’d feel a lot better if he would agree to use a motorized cart instead of his walker. He says we both should get one so we can drag race. This dude is straight up mischief. His eyes twinkle with life.

He cruises up and down the aisles at Wegmans with me standing on the back of the cart hanging on to his shoulders. We’re on a motorcycle ride through life. We giggle and stop at every sample station. Today is delicious – totally and completely delicious. It’s just a day.

It’s life.

For both of us.

We get back to the car and he falls asleep as soon as he buckles his seatbelt. He’s smiling.

We pull up to the house and he’s too weak to walk back in. He tries to stand up to get out of the car and collapses back into the seat. He’s still smiling. Its been a good day.

We get him inside and settled into bed – he’s beyond exhausted after our 4 hour adventure. He whispers “thank you” and “will you come back tomorrow”.  I assure him I’ll swing by on Monday to check in.  

I leave smiling and thinking I’ve laughed more today than I’ve laughed in the last few months. It was just a day – just an ordinary, delicious, silly, life-filled day.

What a gift.

For both of us.

#BeingRena

 

 

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This is love.

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this is love

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.

#BeingRena

humility lesson

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humility lesson 2

There but for the Grace of God go I.

How often have I thought this when witnessing another person’s misfortune or suffering? Grace keeps me humble. Grace is also foundational to my ability to work at the bedside in hospice. God’s Grace has allowed me good health, physical strength, and a heart for hospice.

Last week I was providing late-night care to a woman who is near the end of her battle with her disease. She’s near the end of her battle with a life that I will never know. A life of poverty, drug abuse, prejudice, and pain. As I was gently providing care it occurred to me that this woman and I were the same age, born in the same country, less than 100 miles apart. How could it be that my life has been so rich with blessings, and her life has been….this? How the hell does this happen? Why her? Why not me?

And then I realized Grace has not kept me humble. Every time I’ve said “there but for the Grace of God go I”, what I’ve really been saying is “oh thank God that’s not me”. That’s not humility. Humility is looking into another woman’s eyes as they look back at me with a combination of shame and gratitude and saying to myself “This could be me.”

Humility lesson received. Loud and clear.