In my last post, I mentioned the emotionally wrenching exercise in which my hospice class engaged during the last meeting. The premise seemed straight forward enough. We stood in a collective circle. Then we each asked the person next to us a devastatingly simple question. "Joe, am I going to die?" Then Joe (or whatever that person's name was) was to answer, "Yes, Lauralew, you are going to die." Then you answered the question for the next person. The rules were we were to use names, and speak in complete sentences.
All righty then.
When my parents died so close together less than a year and a half ago, my notions of mortality were brought very close to home. Never have I felt like I have been afraid of death, although I admit I'm in no hurry to experience it. The work I engaged in most of my adult life has been spent in its presence, and I feel familiar with it. But the idea of death was an intellectual one --something experienced by others--until my parents died. Suddenly I realized at the deepest levels of my being that I could die, not only me but also my husband, my son and my grandchildren. This new revelation is close to the surface practically all of the time.
This seemingly simple exercise was not at all simple. The young woman next to me was already awash in tears when she asked me the question. I could answer it for her, but slowly and in a whisper. I could not state in my professional voice tuned by thirty years of intensive care, oncology and hospice experience, "Yes, Jane, you are going to die." I always had thought I came across as empathetic, but now I wondered.
Then it was my turn. Of course, since I took the class with Taciturn, he, my husband, was the one of whom I had to ask this question.
I couldn't do it. Not right away, at least. Instead I stood with twenty-three other people all watching me and cried my eyes out. I felt the need to explain, "This is my hus--" I couldn't even get out the word husband. Of course, everyone knew T was my spouse anyway!
Finally I croaked, "Taciturn, am I going to die?"
"Yes, Lauralew, you are going to die." His answer was brisk and professional, like the physician he is. Then he quickly turned to the next person and asked almost nonchalantly, "M, am I going to die?" And so on.
We did not speak of the exercise afterward. I never presume to speak for him, but for me this was valuable. To have the experience of having someone say to me what is true for all of us and internalize it was so moving. Plus it begged the question: Am I as unafraid as I always say I am? Also, to put myself in the place of my patients in that manner is not something I've ever done before. This was a starkly jolting experience, very useful and powerful for me.
On Tuesday I meet my first patient as a hospice volunteer. I'm driving up with the volunteer coordinator for introductions then hang out with the patient for the afternoon. I'm looking forward to it.