Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Warm Bubble

Last night I had new experience as a hospice volunteer. I participated in what they call an "11th Hour" vigil at a dying man's bedside.

When I went through the training over a year ago, they talked a bit about this service that Hospice Austin provides, and told us that we might expect to be asked to participate in one if we elected to. Since I have signed on for the whole deal, as it were, I decided that this would be one more way that I could contribute through this wonderful organization. I checked the box saying I was willing and interested in participating in 11th Hour vigils should the opportunity arise, but I really didn't give it another thought until yesterday evening about 5 o'clock.

That's when I got the call from the Gayle, the Volunteer Coordinator asking me if I'd like to join a vigil at the home of a man (Mr. C.) and his wife in my neighborhood that evening. I said yes, with the condition that I could not arrive till nine pm, because it also happened that I had a work commitment that would last until at least eight. Gayle said yes, that was fine. I was free to go by there whenever I had the chance.

As I realized that I was committing myself to this new experience, my apprehension climbed rapidly. While I wanted to simply say yes, I will go and be there for and with them, I found myself searching for the limits of this endeavor. Should I call before I come? Whom should I talk to? What to say? How long will I have to be there?

Gayle, as she always is, was most reassuring. She had answers for most of my questions. It was the Mr. C.'s wife who had apparently asked for a volunteer to come sit with her and her husband. Of course I should call her before I go. Just be yourself. Stay as long as you like.

That seemed so vague. Questions, a long list of them, emerged in my mind. Should I stay through the night? Gayle said probably not, but I should be prepared to stay as long as I could and as seemed appropriate. Despite Gayle's reassuring tone, I was still uneasy at the prospect.

The questions continued to reel in my head. What would I do if the soon-to-be widow was hysterical? What if the man died while I was there? What if he didn't? What if she asked me to stay all night? These questions I did not ask, out of a sense of respect and figuring that I would not be able to answer them till I was there. So, I went.

I arrived just after nine o'clock and was greeted at the door by Mr. C's daughter. She led me into the living room where I met Mr. and Mrs. C. He was in a hospital bed in the center of the brightly lit and very warm room. Also in the room were the daughter's husband, her two teenage children and another of Mr. C.'s sons. He sat by Mr. C.'s bedside, holding his hand and occasionally dropping some pain medication into his father's open mouth. This close to death, Mr. C. was open-mouthed and breathing almost involuntarily. I greeted him in an awkwardly formal way, bowing slightly instead of offering my hand as I am accustomed to doing.

Everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath as we listened to the dying man.

Well, I am not a very good breath-holder, so it was to be expected, I guess, that I would break the ice. After thanking them for welcoming me into their home at this intimate moment, I tried to find out where I was . I asked about Mr. C. and who the other folks in the room were. They went around and introduced themselves. We had some small talk about Austin and the weather. Then they started to interview me.

This is where I entered into new territory. Many of my original questions had been answered as soon as I entered the room, only to be supplanted by newer, even harder-to-answer questions. Mrs. C. was definitely not hysterical, but was very quiet and subdued. What was I thinking? Of course she not going to be wild with grief. Of course she is going to be weighed down by the impending death of her husband. It wasn't to be said, but I knew that she was also secretly praying for the end to come soon.

I could see--in the presence and the eyes of her family--that she had their love and support. I could tell that Mr. C.--even if he could no longer acknowledge it--was appreciative of his family and their loving devotion to him.

I could also see that while he was close to death, Mr. C. wasn't going to die in the next few minutes. So, I settled down, took a seat on the couch by his bedside and somehow became the center of attention for the next two hours.

Now, both readers know that being on stage is not something I necessarily shun. While I'm not the trained actor that my brother is, neither the absence of training nor ability doesn't seem to be able to stop me from being a ham. And boy did I manage to pork it up.

In that ever-clear hindsight I use so much, I see that while they had invited me there to talk, I took the bait far too easily. Selfishly, I ran away with a long-standing conversation that didn't even include me up until last night. Somehow, almost before I knew it, the conversation was about me.

In my defense, I can say that they didn't seem to mind too much. The conversation moved around the room, but it always seemed to come back to me. There were a few awkward silences, made more awkward by the fact that silence never really reigned supreme, what with Mr. C. rasping away in the center of the room.

But for the most part we talked. We even laughed a bit.

After a couple of hours, it seemed like time for the party to break up. The grandchildren said their last goodbyes, followed by the daughter and her husband and suddenly they were gone.

I was left with Mrs. C., her husband and son, sitting by his Dad's bedside, medicine dropper in hand. We looked at each other for a moment or two. I had no idea what to do next, so I waited. Finally, Mrs. C. thanked me for coming. I shook her hand and the son's, then gave Mr. C. one final salute before turning to leave.

Outside the cold February air reminded me that the warm bubble was temporary, like life itself. A few moments of talk, a couple of laughs and it's back out into the night. I felt a bit guilty about hogging the conversation, but as I walked to my car, looking up at the new moon and evening star, it occurred to me that I had done exactly what they had wanted. What I perceived as selfishness was actually a welcome escape for them. This, especially during a moment when conversation seems to have turned in on itself and there is nothing meaningful that hasn't already been said.

In some ways, the very meaningless-ness of my presence provided blissful a moment of temporary relief. Despite the double negative, it ended up as a positive feeling for me. If the experience was a cathartic one for the family, it was learning one for me.

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