A hospice nurse told me an afterlife fantasy so captivating it has stuck in my mind for months. She said, “When I am in heaven, I hope to see every patient I have taken care of. All they have to do is file by and nod at me.” She has been in this line of work for many years; she would probably have to reserve several hotel ballrooms in the beyond in order to accommodate them all. The amount of people hospice staff see really does add up quickly. Say I see three patients and one or two family members a day three days a week which becomes about 780 people a year, then in ten years that is about 8,000 people. And that is just working part time.
As in any helping profession, we hospice workers yearn to know if we are making a positive difference. But unlike other professions, it’s a different story in that our patients cannot exactly give us feedback once discharged into the next world. Not counting family, it’s not like we can conduct an exit interview! And the vast majority of family members do not return bereavement calls so we do not often get even a secondhand account of “how we did.” So I think that is why that nurse has um “nursed” that image as I have.
I have to be contented with what patients say in the here and now, and hope that the few who express their appreciation for letting them vent or helping them with some unresolved issue or simply entertaining them (I sing but I can’t dance), are representative of what I have done for others.
The nurse’s fantasy also is about how our patients have impacted us. I have learned about so many points of view that I am unfamiliar with or have little exposure to, such as those who voted for Trump, or those who believe that they are going to a mansion in the afterlife even if it has to be one of the smaller ones due to their sins, or who hunted and fished on their time off, or who fled Puerto Rico years ago because the island is going bankrupt, or who have had jobs I have never heard of such as “recycling” bricks by cleaning old ones from a demolished building for use in a new one.
If I could reverse this fantasy and make me the one who files past all my deceased patients, I would hope that I would nod at those I felt privileged to know because of their passionate caring for those around them until the last moments of lucidity. I would nod at those who have dampened my fear of death, those who have shared their creativity with me—the other day a poet gave me a copy of his book of poems and signed it with a personalized message before dying just days later— I would nod at those who challenged my religious beliefs, and to all those who reminded me to slow down and relax. As for those who wish to nod back at me in return: that would be heavenly indeed.