There’s a thing I want to do, and it’s something I’m completely terrified of doing. I want to be a hospice volunteer.
Three years ago my mother died. In the last month of her life (perhaps just the last three weeks—it blends together in my memory like a hideous nightmare), she was able to be home, surrounded by her three daughters. Looking back, I'm not sure how we all managed to take the time off work. None of us worked flexible jobs. But we were there, all the time. We were there up till the very end.
Two things made that time bearable: the fact that we were in it together, and the fact that every day a hospice care worker came by.
Now, the nurse didn’t come every day. He or she stopped by once every four or five days. At first, this didn't feel like enough. We wanted them there all the time. We were terrified. I work 911 for a living, and we’d been told that now 911 wasn’t an option. They gave us a sticker to put on our phone that said In Case Of Emergency, Do Not Call 911. Call Hospice Nurse For Advice. We were, for the first time in our lives, completely alone, beyond help. It was up to us.
But every day, someone came by. An older woman who talked too much and said strange things about crystals came twice a week—she was an odd duck, but she knew how to wash my mother’s hair without hurting her, something we hadn’t been able to figure out. Another person came just to help around the house. The chaplain came by. Mom didn’t want to pray with him because he wasn’t her minister, but I talked to him in the garden, which was what I needed.
They made us feel not so alone.
One night, I helped my mother to the bathroom, using my arms to support all her weight. I dropped her—either that or she slipped one way as I went the other—all I knew was that her head hit the doorjamb with a gigantic thud. A goose egg formed almost instantly, and I was sick to my stomach. Mom didn’t even notice it had happened, and no one else was awake in the house. I couldn't, wouldn't, wake them. My first instinct was to—what else?—call 911. But I couldn’t.
So I called the nurse. She soothed my nerves, telling me yes, it would bruise, but if her breathing remained the same then I didn’t even need to do anything for it. She was dying, for Chrissakes, what did a bruise matter? (Okay, she didn’t say that. But I took that away from it.) She made me feel better. “It happens,” she said. “You’re doing everything you can, and you’re doing it right.”
That was what we needed then, so desperately. We needed people who weren’t too uncomfortable to look us in the eye. People who didn’t burst into tears as soon as they came out of her room. People who could ask us how we were, to whom we could tell the whole truth. Unvarnished.
It’s almost a cliché, isn’t it? That hospice workers are angels? But they are. I want to be one. I have a new job, and a little more time on my hands. I’m looking into it this week.