I sold real estate for a brief time near the beginning of my working life. I worked for a broker who was smart, shrewd, and a very savvy business-woman. She had scratched her way up in the world from humble beginnings when her family fled Italy and the rise of Mussolini to start a new life in this country. By the time I knew her, she had accumulated a great deal of wealth, yet still lived a comparatively simple life.
She was at best a difficult personality with whom to engage. I came to work for her when interest rates were 13-14%. Needless to say I didn’t have a great deal of monetary success in the short time I worked with her. I did, however, learn an awful lot about residential real estate and how to sell it. I also learned that underneath that tough exterior beat a compassionate heart. She told me one day with great pride that her niece was going to go to medical school, and that she was going to pay her way.
My mother-in-law had worked for this broker, Ann, for many years, and was the one who introduced me to her. Shortly after I began to work for Ann, my mother-in-law had a massive stroke.
Grace was a warm, sweet lady, though she had retired by then due to failing eyesight. Real estate was a common bond between us, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know my mother-in-law better because of it. It was a shock to see this formerly active and gentle-spirited woman lying so still on the gurney in the emergency room. It was touch-and-go for many days whether Grace would survive or not.
The doctor asked if a family member could come each day and feed Grace her lunch. She needed to eat but could not feed herself. The nursing staff did not have the time to spend with Grace helping her eat. My husband, her only child, worked in the city while I worked much closer to her hospital. My father-in-law was not up to this task, so I volunteered. It was a long, arduous process to get her to eat even a portion of her meal, but I did the best I could.
Grace did survive, but as a shadow of her former self, and was sent to a nearby nursing home. A few of the other women in the real estate office who had worked with Grace went to visit her, but Ann never did.
I judged Ann rather harshly for this. I thought the least she could do, since Grace had not only worked for her but felt she was her friend, was to go see her once. I was sure the other women who had visited told Ann of the shocking change in her, now wheelchair bound with the whole left side of her body paralyzed. Somehow Grace could still recognize people and was able to speak coherently if you listened carefully. I never said a thing, though my judgment must have shown. If I could do it, certainly Ann could, too, I thought.
“I want to remember Grace as she was, Chrisy,” Ann said to me one day when we were alone in the office. “I don’t want to see her as she is now.” Still, I looked down from my high horse.
It was only after I looked at my own behavior in a similar situation I had faced a few years earlier, that I could understand where Ann was coming from. My mother’s dear friend, Wendy, had passed away from throat cancer after a long struggle. I thought of Wendy as a second mother and I loved her dearly. My mother spent a lot of time visiting Wendy, and though she never asked me to go with her, I never asked to go along, either. I had no idea how to deal with terminal illness and didn’t want to start with her. To this day I sometimes feel guilty for my choice, for I know Wendy cared for me as much as I did for her.
I am many decades older now, and have faced the long and protracted deaths of several family members. It doesn’t take away the difficulty of dealing with these situations, but it does take away the fear. Until very recently, I spent time as a Hospice volunteer, visiting people who were very close to the end of their lives. I even joined an “Eleventh Hour” program as part of Hospice. For that you volunteer to sit with people who are actively dying when family members need a break, or when staff can’t be with a person even if they are in a hospice hospital. Twice the person I was with actually died.
I had a friend who had been a nurse, who snorted with derision when I told her I was training for Hospice. “Oh you’ll never be able to do that,” she said. Insulted, I never did understand where she was coming from. I knew it would be a challenge, but I thought I was up to it. It turns out, I was.
Other friends remarked that they would never be able to do what I was doing. They seemed to find my choice admirable, or brave, or too depressing to do themselves. I just thought this was a personally satisfying way to give my time. I wanted to make a difference. Yes, sometimes it was difficult. Once I had to decline a patient because he was a young man the same age as my son. I was smart enough to realize that one would be too close to home for me to be helpful.
I’ve come to realize that in our culture at this time, death is something to be feared. Illness is something to be feared. We no longer live in multi-generational homes, and most of us no longer even live close to older family members who reach the end point in their lives where death sometimes takes a long time. It is not something we routinely see or experience as a passage, part of all of our life experience.
So in its mystery it also becomes the kind of challenge we can not face willingly. Like me, we refuse to be part of a person’s life when they might most need us. Like Ann, we choose not to deal with the heart-wrenching transformations that sometimes precede a person’s passing.
I know I am not one of the ones who could make Hospice work my living. As a volunteer I had a choice to say yes or no to a particular opportunity to be of help. I remember the lovely, competent nurse who assisted my brother at the end of his life. I so admired her skill and gentle soul. I don’t think I could do that, deal with death all day every day. Those people are saints.
As much as I might like to be different, I am only an ordinary mortal.