Hooked On Hospice

Working for hospice is like following the progression of about forty different plays at once. What unexpected or surprising thing will one of my forty or so patients casually drop in her conversation with me today? What new realization will I come away with? What will I learn this week about the country the patient is from or what new Spanish expression will they teach me? Which staff members will suddenly materialize at my side as I start to sing to a patient as he sways his foot in rhythm to the music?

No question hospice can be sad, but I am always a sucker for the drama involved among my patients. I get to cut to the chase and see the final act play out all the time! You might say the final act is always known so what is there to be curious about? But that would be like saying the same about any serious opera and therefore not see them. And when the patients or families reminisce, I even get to hear flashbacks of other climactic moments in the earlier “acts” of their lives.

I am not sure why this is so, but I am so dreadfully curious in comparison with most people. I always wonder what the next patient admitted will be like. I might meet a fellow writer. I might meet someone with a career I never heard of before. I definitely will meet people from all backgrounds, from people who have heard of my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, to someone whose country I myself have not heard of. From the most vocal atheist to the most ardent fundamentalist, to a white American Muslim to a Hindu. From the straightest couple to the gayest, the whitest to the blackest, the one with no children to one with fourteen of them. I will come across the patient who wants solitude and the one who craves society; the one who is agitated and resentful and the one who is calm and humorous.

The staff members who end up staying with hospice have their stories too. One nurse has worked at hospices for over thirty years. Hospice staff have traversed the paths that have brought them to this offbeat career. Best of all, they understand why in the world I would do this kind of work. I do not have to explain. We fit in with each other even as we are seen by some people outside of our circle as misfits to shudder at.

If nothing else, this job gives me so much to think about. Mortality and spiritual values, sure, but so much more, as readers familiar with this blog have seen for the past six years. If you are new to offbeatcompassion, have a look at the past few posts. If by any chance you are pondering an unconventional direction in your career, by all means make a comment here or contact me with questions. My email is karenbookmankaplan@gmail.com, and my twitter link is https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

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Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a malevolent character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished in the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. Likewise, as I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Those of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a continuous sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.

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This is a reprint of my guest post in the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, November 25, 2015. The precise link is: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/astonished_in_the_swirl_of_existence