Being a Hospice volunteer will give you a whole new perspective on life. Oddly, it comes from folks near the end of it.
At some point, many people near the end of life transcend what we assume must be an epic struggle. They start to rise above the physical limitations they've been suffering from. It is a sacred and blessed experience to be near these people. It gives new meaning to the term "dignity" even when these folks are in extremely difficult, uncomfortable straits.
I had trouble finding Carl. The directions were something like: "It's the first house on the right there's an airplane in the yard next door you can't miss it." You'd think that would be impossible to miss, but when I started down the road from the opposite end from what the direction-giver expected, everything was flipped and flopped. Sure enough, there was an airplane there, but it was on the left not the right It took a stop at the wrong house to get re-directed to the right one.
The Hospice staff matched me with Carl because we share a love of music, specifically old time dance tunes, and even more specifically, mandolin playing. In a sense, it was a match made in Heaven. (Here starts out theme for the day.)
I was welcomed at the door by Carl's daughter. She was extremely cordial. I was taken back a little when I saw Carl. He appeared to be in pretty rough shape, physically. But he greeted me warmly and offered me a seat by the side of his bed. We chit-chatted a bit about Hospice, we hit it off immediately, and it was obvious he was appreciative of the visit. Then he said: "Have you got a minute? I'll tell you about when I died in Florida." Literally on the edge of my seat, I said: "I've got all the time you need to tell that story!"
Carl reported how he'd been rushed to a hospital with serious breathing difficulties due to pneumonia-type symptoms. He said he must have been unconscious because he doesn't remember the details of the emergency treatment. What he does remember is astounding. He said (quoted as nearly as I can remember) "I was on this long grassy knoll lots of green grass in front of me was this big area of blue water bright blue water on the other side was another green, grassy knoll there were lots of people over there hundreds on one end and a few on the other all dressed in bright colors. they all had great big hands they were all happy they were all waving at me waving at me like 'Come on!' then I was awake... the doctors said they lost me and brought me back."
I happened to be visiting Carl again when he repeated the story to others. He added: "So you don't need to be afraid to die I'm ready to go back there any time."
I'll leave it to you to ponder the meaning of all the imagery in this extraordinary story. Suffice it to say that Hospice lore is full of near-death experience stories. We wonder what they all mean. Just another dream? A stressed nervous system and brain gone haywire? A vision of heaven?
You know what? None of that matters. What matters is that a wonderful old man was compelled to share his story with everyone he can. This leads me to ask: why don't we share stories important to us more often? Why did Carl choose to tell the story? How did I happen to be in just the right place at just the right time to receive such a gift?
The words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" struck home; the sailor narrator says:
"I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach."
Carl was the sailor and he somehow knew I needed to hear his tale. Now I am the sailor and feel so fortunate to be able to pass this along.
Such are the rewards of Hospice work and the amazing relationships it creates.
November is Hospice Month. And while Hospice of Warren County serves people 'round the clock, year 'round, this is the time to focus on this wonderful service. Please add Hospice staff and volunteers to the list of things you're thankful for this season and call 723-2455 if you or a loved one needs help with end-of-life issues.
Gary Lester, M.S., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.