Ricky, who designed and painted parts for rare cars and motorcycles, proclaimed: “I’m gonna drop dead in two months.” That is how he opened the conversation when I met him for the first time as my patient. Talk about cutting to the chase! Quickly adjusting gears from an opening greeting to this steep fall in topic, I asked if he was afraid of death. He replied, “I am not afraid of things I can’t change. I’m only afraid of things I could change but I don’t.” Ricky was not able to elaborate. He moved off to the relatively lighter topic of the motorcycle he built for himself and decorated by himself but would now have to sell (for obvious reasons). Maybe he meant by his remark that he was afraid of living with guilt and regrets. Or maybe he meant he kept doing things that made him unhappy.
I can only speculate, but what grabbed my attention was that Ricky feared dealing with choices more than dealing with fate. Usually it is the reverse for most of us, is it not? Perhaps for him, uncertainty and lack of confidence to better himself was scarier than the certainty of his fate. Can’t control it? Then no responsibility for what happens. There is just sweet surrender.
Maybe a small part of us in some remote corner of the psyche can admit to identifying with Ricky. We can be passive about certain things. Perhaps what we really fear is having less and less control over doing a given thing differently because we have built thicker and thicker emotional walls to surmount. This then blurs the distinction between fate and choice. I trust that our self-sabotage is far scarier for us than any Halloween image we may encounter tonight.
It’s not like being a hospice worker gives you extra protection from death. Some time ago, a recently retired hospice nurse became one of my patients. Her colleagues from her former place of employment were in the room during one of my visits there. They were chatting away about this or that approach to treatments for her discomfort, and she responded as if she were part of an impromptu interdisciplinary team meeting. Perhaps she felt almost like she had gone back to work, excepting the technical detail that the object of the discussion was herself.
What was it like for her to be on the other side of the bed so to speak? How did her years of experience being on a first-name basis with death influence how she looked upon her own upcoming rendezvous with it? One way to find out was to ask her. But would curiosity kill the chaplain? Would she chew me out? I took my chances, because as I conversed with this cheerful woman, I sensed she half believed her new status was just a role play. (Training in our profession includes role playing that we are patients.) I asked, “How is it different going from being a hospice nurse to a hospice patient?”
Chuckling as if to humor me with some more play acting, she replied, “I now view all the people I know, all the people in the world, with more compassion.” Hard to resist printing such a lovely and thought-provoking response in a blog called offbeat compassion.
Feeling compassion as we take sorrowful leave takings in our lives is a way to prolong the vividness and “here-ness” of what we are departing from. It softens the final cutting way from those things, people and experiences that we must relinquish through choice or, at least in the final instance, through necessity. Her answer is yet another reminder that we can still access this loving feeling and enhance the here and now way before we must book passage for elsewhere.