From a hospice volunteer: Yes, you make a difference

One winter afternoon during my first year as a hospice volunteer, I drove slowly through the kind of neighborhood where the only people you see during the day are landscapers, contractors and housecleaning services and where one house is grander than the next. I was looking for the ranch house where Bobby had been living since his diagnosis.

Most people I visit, as a hospice volunteer, are my senior by 20 years or more, but Bobby was the first person I’d see who was my age. Too close to home, as it were; a reminder that, yes, it can happen to you. Worse, Bobby was in hospice care for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), whose cruel impact I’d last encountered with my aunt 15 years earlier.

Heavy and pear-shaped, with a full head of gray-white hair and lopsided glasses, Bobby sat in one of three wheelchairs positioned side by side in a dark, silent and cluttered family room that felt like a cave and greeted me with a wan handshake. That first conversation was tentative, as awkward as a blind date.

Before I left, he said,  “There’s no hope. And all I want is a cure.”

I felt that I couldn’t leave without responding; that he needed his fear and despair acknowledged.

“Well, there’s a different kind of hope,” I said. But even though this is what I truly believe — that there can be hope for good days, for good companionship, for the comfort of being with friends or family, for seeing another season — my words sounded hollow even to me.

***

In the course of a few months, it became clear that we had virtually nothing in common. But he did tell me about what he used to love to do: rollerblading, driving, going to Central Park. He brightened only in talking about his three German shepherds that he missed so much, who remained in his house in a nearby town, cared for by his girlfriend, Jenny.

“Can’t the dogs stay here? Or visit?” I asked. He looked at me as if I’d asked if he could leap out of the chair and fly away.

“No,” he said. “My brother hates dogs.”

***

One time I rooted around my basement to find a checkers set because the week before Bobby  had told me that he liked playing checkers. I won the first game we played. By the time we played the second, he didn’t have the strength to move his own pieces, but indicated to me where they should go. He won that game, which annoyed me no end.

“Two out of three?” I asked, my competitive streak raising its sly little head. But he was too tired.

Another time, when his voice was giving out, I told him I could play some music on my iPhone with the Pandora music app.

“Can you get Johnny Cash?” he asked. And I did, cranking up the volume. We sat in companionable silence, me on the couch in the family room, Bobby in one of the wheelchairs, as Johnny croaked about Folsom Prison and being caught in a ring of fire.

***

Bobby was released from his own prison in early May that year. I learned about it via a short  email from our volunteer coordinator, chronicling his fatal breathing problems. It was a shock, partly because I had seen him just a few days before that. I’d left earlier than I normally would have then, when a friend showed up, presenting Bobby with a large, detailed drawing of his three dogs. I wanted to give them a little time together. And fully expected to see him the following week.

***

In hospice volunteer training, we’d talked about the big questions that people often focus on close to the end, if they’re blessed with a clear, conscious mind: What did my life mean?Why was I here? What was my purpose? What’s my legacy? And despite ample evidence to the contrary, I believe in the possibility of resolution and reconciliation and redemption. But for Bobby there was none of that.

I thought about how he left the world, in anxiety and fear, with many regrets. Was I of any comfort at all?  I was a visitor, who played some checkers, played some music, told some jokes and listened to him expressing his sorrow and anger without telling him that everything was going to be OK.

A witness.

Ellen Rand is a journalist. This article originally appeared in Life Matters Media.

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