Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Last Visit

I got my first call yesterday. The Volunteer Coordinator called to tell me that Mr. B. was dead. "He passed away", was what she actually said. I think I shall have to come to use that term with more ease if I am to continue down this path.

On my second visit, I arrived at ten to find Mr. B. sleeping. Honestly the feeling was one of relief. Although I feel confident about my ability to interact with Hospice patients, I must admit that I get a bit nervous going in, especially for the first time. Though I'd been to see him before, the first 'visit' had been so brief that it didn't really count.

He had a 'sitter' with him, a large fellow named Darryl with mutton-chop sideburns who was reading Dan Brown's latest novel. Since he was being paid to sit with Mr. B. it seemed a little awkward offering to give him a break. This wasn't exactly the 'respite' I was hoping to give beleaguered family memebers, but it was what I had come to do. He was more than happy to take a break, and I took the seat by Mr. B's bed.

The TV was on, but I muted it as soon as the sitter left. Alone in the room with him for the first time, I had my first real chance to look at him. I turned my chair toward him and focused on him for a few minutes. He was wearing a striped polo shirt. He was nearly bald, and very thin. His mouth was gaping and his skin was tight across the cheekbones.

I looked around the room, which, although it was as new and clean as a hotel room, still retained some of the institutional character associated with its actual use. Mr. B had only been there for a week or so, so the space around him was essentially stark and bare of personality. A paper bag, likely used to carry his last set of real clothes, was set in the corner. Photos of nephews and nieces were stuck to the wall with postcards along with a dozen or so 'hang in there' cards.

One of the reasons I am called to do this work is because I am interested in knowing who people 'used to be'. It's interesting, I think, how quickly people with a lifetime's worth of valuable knowledge and experiences are set aside with no thought given to who they used to be.

It almost goes without saying, but that seems to be the problem. No one wants to talk about it in that way.

No matter what the role, public or private; no matter what the job, powerful or humble; no matter how long ago it had been since they were that person, everybody used to be somebody. 'I used to be somebody' is tough thing for the aged to acknowledge, since it implies that who they are now--broken tattered physical creatures--is not who they really are. And, in truth, the final shell, the diminished social creature living at the edge of life, is not who they really are.

They really used to be someone else. Someone younger, of course, but more importantly, everyone used to be someone whose life, identity, existed in a context. That means that they used to be 'somewhere'; in a family, in a job, a place. Whether or not they admit that they are no longer part of that family, no longer that person, or in that place, most people will admit that there is much to be remembered, much to be shared.

There was no one there to share that context for Mr. B. with me, so I went on what I could see and feel. I think Mr. B. was a choral conductor, possibly a musician, but clues to his identity in that room were scarce. There were no pictures of him that I could see. I was told by his nephew, whom I met on the first visit, that Mr. B. had never married and came to Austin because he has nieces and nephews here. Most of the photos were of young people whom I assumed to be his grand-nieces and nephews.

Shortly after I arrived, I met one of his nieces. She was a woman of about my age, with gray hair and a worried smile. She was hesitant to come into the room, so I went out in the hall to greet her. She asked me what my role was, and I did my best to explain. I have not yet earned my identity, so to speak, so what came out was a bit clumsy. I'll get better at these introductions, I hope.

After we talked for a few minutes, I returned to Mr. B's bedside, and the niece spoke to the nurse for a few minutes. She left without seeing her uncle. I think she was relieved not to have to talk with him. I know I was secretly glad to be serving in silence at that moment.

My third--and last--visit was blissfully short. Unlike the second time I came, this day he was marginally awake. He greeted me with glazed half-opened eyes, through which I could still see a faint spark. It was fleeting, but I swear that he attempted a smile.

He didn't remember me nor did I expect him to. I told him it wasn't important but he tried for about a minute anyway. Then he closed his eyes to sleep, which he did every few minutes. He was a bit restless, though and every so often he'd 'wake up' or become a little more present. He never actually turned his head toward me or opened his eyes.

His sitter that day was a small hispanic woman named Maria. She told me that she worked for a home health care provider and showed me her badge. She might have been a student, since she was reading a textbook, History of the World. Though we didn't really talk, I didn't see any notes or even a highlighter. Even I can't imagine reading that book for entertainment. The TV was on (as it always is) and I muted it (as I always do) as soon as I was alone with Mr. B. This time my role didn't seem so awkward to me and Maria seemed grateful for the break I offered her.

Mr. B. was never really conscious while I was there, but he was present. He often picked at his bedclothes and several times tried to dig at the infection raging in his lower back. Each time I moved his hand up gently to his chest he didn't resist. I pulled up the covers a bit at the same time. Although he was obviously heavily medicated, he didn't seem to have his pain completely masked. Yet, he never once grimaced or cried out in any manner.

After a minute or so, I asked him if he'd like me to read. To my delight, I heard him say yes, that would be 'nice diversion'. His sudden presence surprised me. I was pleased to be able to interact with him, so I pulled a book out of my bag and began to read. As I read, he said started saying unintelligible things to himself softly, as if in resonance to my voice. To keep my voice soft, I kept it low. The sound seemed to please him. He continued to talk as well.

I'd been told he loved music, so perhaps he was 'singing' along. He had a large chest, like I imagine an opera singer might have had. It was uncovered that morning because he'd told Maria to leave his shirt off after she'd given him a shave. She said there was family wedding that week and he was epecting a lot of relatives and wanted to get cleaned up for them.

I only stayed twenty mintues. I touched his hand a couple of times and looked at him as closely as I could as often as I could. It's hard be present for this and not just read or watch TV. It's really more boring than grim. His death mask was forming but it wasn't ugly or painful at all. Just slow. With each breath the end obviously came closer, but only one breath at a time. I sat and shared a few of those breaths with him. Then it was time for me to go on to work.

I was going to see him again tomorrow, but now I can go on a walk with the dog. We'll say a little something for Mr. B. while we're out there.


bc said...

It seems to have been a very awkward and ungratifying first-time visit, but I'm sure you learned from the experience. I sure Mr B would have liked knowing you. Bless you for reaching out! Love at work...
Today my password didn't work. And "the web page has expired" which i have seen before.

bc said...

THis is not another comment as such, but I just want to see if I can figure the subtleties of this commenting business... This time it seemed to know who bc was before I sent anything.

Greyghost said...

Thanks for your support!

Greyghost said...

Exactly. Since it 'knows' you are bc, that means you are already 'logged in'. That's a good thing.

Also 'web page expired' happens when there is a temporary interruption in your internet service.

You are doing very well at this commenting bidness, m'dear!

Anonymous said...

so why doesn't it know i am bc today?