I am nine years old, standing wide-eyed, frozen in the darkened hallway by the closed door to my parent’s bedroom. My mother is inside, gasping the words to the 23rd Psalm. Something is terribly wrong. Terribly wrong. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t ask. She’s been sick for more than a year, spending more time in bed as the months pass and recently, oxygen tanks were hauled up to her bedside.
Life and Death
You are dying.
I have reviewed the Cat Scans, spoken to the specialists, and studied the labs. There are many possible treatments that could be offered, but I fear they will not stem the course of all that is happening already. The tumor is too advanced, the metastases, too malignant.
I know there are many questions about chemotherapy, radiation, and feeding tubes. I would caution you to think of death as the inevitable endpoint. There are many things we can do between now and that endpoint. Some will increase your life expectancy, and some will cause pain and discomfort. The trick is to decide what is more important to you: quantity vs quality.
My path to becoming a hospice volunteer is unusual in that the first step was taken by my wife who checked out the Marshak Family Hospice CareCenter in Glenview, assuming I was going to need it.
I’d been experiencing dizzy spells that on a few occasions toppled me to the floor. Being a committed idiot, I didn’t tell anybody about this until one morning, after nearly falling down, the thought occurred that this might not be normal and that an emergency room visit just might be appropriate.
It’s the last thing hospice patients do before they are discharged from service.
Lilian, Mary, Emmett and so many more.
As hospice nurses, we all have patients who have touched our hearts in profound ways.
Many folks think hospice is a sad thing. It’s not though. The grief families experience comes from losing these beautiful souls and anticipating a world without their jokes, their laughter, and their wisdom gained from a lifetime of experience. It's not sad for me though ― each is a celebration of a life and the end of one soul's human experience. But hospice nurses experience the loss in some ways as well. We all have different ways to cope too.
If you knew today would be the last day of your life, how would you live it?
Many might imagine themselves emptying their bank accounts, splurging on an over-the-top dinner and night of frivolity in a last grasp at indulgence. Others possibly envision doing something taboo because they wouldn’t be around to suffer the consequences. Many see themselves scrambling to check off items on their “bucket lists.”
I think these are fantasies. Daydreams. In fact, I believe most of us actually would spend our final 24 hours with just a little bit more of what we already have. A little more love. A little more time spent with friends. A little more family. I don’t think we would change much. We probably would call everyone we cared about and tell them, “I love you.”
Hospice care offers us this closure.
Many people know the beauty of the words drawn from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3. This ancient poem (in the 1611 King James Bible) begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” And then, the second verse continues, “A time to be born, and a time to die.”
The writer is correct, every one born will, someday, die. That we will die is not unexpected, but it is a moment not easily faced. It is not a topic we lift up in polite company. We sense its finality in our souls and are often ill-equipped to face it. Death can feel like the ultimate thief, the ultimate enemy and so we convince ourselves that it is far away and refuse to acknowledge it is a reality for all who ever draw breath.
Our organization is among several health leaders who are committed to a mission: Breaking the taboo about discussing end-of-life issues.
While our staff makes efforts every day to help people in our community share their advance directives with loved ones, we also recently teamed up with Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being this fall to host "Death Over Dinner." This program, which was born out of a separate conference hosted with Repogle last year, is designed to inspire people to talk about often-shunned subjects ― death and the dying proces
Recently, Stuart Scott, an ESPN sports anchor died of stomach cancer. In reading tributes to him, several quotations were mentioned from his speech at the 2014 ESPY Awards:
"I have one more necessity ― it's really two," he said, referring to his daughters. "The best thing I have ever done, the best thing I will ever do, is be a dad .... It's true."
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
"When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live."
The concept of dying with dignity is frequently in the news. The latest has been Brittany Maynard's wish to end her life. Brittany had the same brain tumor as my husband, Tom – a glioblastoma.
I understand Brittany's decision. The end game with this type of cancer is not pretty. Our family, however, took a different approach.
Tom's tumor presented itself in his spine. In the beginning, Tom had difficulty walking but the tumor quickly progressed, leaving him paralyzed in a matter of months. If you knew Tom, being immobile was not his style. He was that dad who played catch with our son and daughter and all the neighborhood kids. In the nicer months of the year, he had a regular, weekly tee time at a local golf course and tried to sneak in a couple of extra rounds of golf every week, too. He traveled with his job and we took some exceptional vacations. After living and caring for someone who is paralyzed, I have incredible empathy towards people who are confined to wheelchairs – it is not easy. But it would have been impossible if one of our neighbors hadn't made coming over every day to help me with Tom part of his daily routine.
I learned to celebrate life on my brother’s last day on earth. He had pancreatic and colon cancer. I walked into his room at the hospice suite in the hospital and there was someone sitting with him. I had no idea who this man was, but his presence and peacefulness told me all would be well.