I tried to slip quietly into the darkened room. Impossible because the door opened in front of the small group assembled for the lecture. They kindly paused to welcome me. I don’t think he saw me as he was pulling his signature possum-pose of resting while appearing present. Here was an important part of his life I never have never been privy to; friends and admirers gathered to spend several hours exploring a glorious slide show of european art from the masters. My knowledge of art history wouldn’t fill a thimble. I love it, but have no education and can’t tell a Raphael from a Bellini. I sat quietly as others in the audience jumped up to point out symbolism and comment on the works.
He winced, I knew next would come his muffled groans of pain. The group adjourned for a short break and I caught his eye. He waved me over to his chair, patting my hand and smiling, “Thank you for coming!” His wife offered him a chance to escape with me to the kitchen for a snack. We settled down at the sunny dining room table and opened the window to the unexpected warmth. As I put the kettle on for tea, he remarked about what an interesting discussion it had been and the memories of seeing many of those masterpieces in person. I brought an arm-load of snacks to the table and set a wooden plate before him. As I held up various bags and boxes he nodded approvingly. Whole grain chips, rough crackers spread with fresh butter, roasted seeds and a dish of apple sauce were arrayed before him. He smiled as he set to devour his feast.
He never speaks while he eats. Food is serious business and no crumb is left. One chip remained when he again turned his attention to me; holding out the last morsel with a smile. I pantomimed a deep curtsey and danced off to the kitchen with his plate. We sat over the tea, discussing the new roof on the barn, the brown cows lying in the sunny field, and the late blooms in his wife’s garden.
He had sat far too long. I braced him with an arm around his waist and got him on his feet. The steel walker steadied him as we worked our way to the bathroom for a quick wash. The air from the screen porch was too lovely to resist when we emerged. I gave his back a good scratch through his thick flannel shirt as we stood looking out. He growled like a happy cat. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Where would you like to be next? The group is breaking for lunch and they would be honored to have you join them,” I inquired as I continued his back rub.
“I want to be where ever your back-scratching is going to be,” came his answer. We slowly took the step down to the screen porch. Long window boxes lined the benches before the windows. He headed straight for them, spying a plump, ripe strawberry. I found three though the last I picked seemed over-ripe. When I held it up, he smiled and popped it into his mouth, closing his eyes and letting a little of the juice slip out. “Never too ripe” he whispered.
Almost two years ago, I came to meet him through hospice. Bureaucracy is all through life and as much as I believe in the mission and principles of hospice, I struggle with the finances. Support is available at no cost to families and patients who are terminally ill. The goal is to give palliative care at the end of a person’s life and help the family deal with the day-to-day minutia. The organization I am associated with goes so far as to care for the pets with everything from food donations to vet visits and eventually rehoming of the dogs or cats if necessary. The financial term for this care is averaged across someone’s spreadsheet and these services are offered for roughly three months. Nurses and professionals lead a team that includes simple people like myself who have only time and kindness of offer. I sit with the dying so the family can see to the business of life; a trip to the grocery, lunch with friends or doctor’s appointments. Life will eventually go on and the family members have a team to rely on at this point to give them some sense of normality and control.
My friend outlived the hospice mandate and I have stayed despite being cautioned the association’s insurance wouldn’t cover me in the event of an accident. He didn’t stop dying, he was just doing it on his own terms, why would I abandon him? We have watched the snow fly and the hay baled in the fields. We have cuddled newborn goats, traipsed around the farm and sat silently together. I have learned much of his past, his beliefs and his view of life; and much more about myself.