Gratitude

I am relatively new to the world of Hospice and, recently, I went through my first experience of having a client I knew well ‘complete’ her journey. It’s not just a euphemism – this ‘completion’ – it certainly felt like the appropriate word. I will call this client “my friend,” because that is what she called me when her brain wouldn’t connect fast enough to be able to say my difficult name. She said it with pride and affection, and I was certainly proud to be her friend.

I knew her for a long while in Hospice-time. Almost six months. Early in our relationship, maybe a month in, she was fretting about stuff – as she was prone to do – and one of the things she worried about was that Hospice would drop her because she wasn’t dying fast enough. It was a valid concern, as she had been dropped by another Hospice group some time ago. So I said, probably breaking some rule, that since I was a volunteer and on nobody’s payroll, I could continue to visit her even if Hospice dropped her, so she could maybe let go that particular worry for a moment. She was very surprised that I wasn’t being paid – that I was coming to see her for no recompense at all. The next time I visited, she had had her daughter buy me a beautiful shawl – a gift to show her appreciation and gratitude, since I wasn’t getting actual money for my trouble. Then I began to think really deeply about gratitude and how we are able or not able to hold it in our hearts and minds.

I was not supposed to accept this shawl – it was definitely breaking a Hospice rule. I said that, I argued, but how churlish it would have been for me to walk away from it. She needed to show her gratitude – more – she needed to pay a debt – and it bothered her terribly to have that debt unpaid. I took the shawl. I feel a little guilty every time I look at it, but I also have something to remember her by.

If my friend had been younger and not so close to the end of her life, if she were able to hear me easily and see my face clearly, I would not have accepted this gift – I would have let her stew in her gratitude. I have had to do that many times, and it is an interesting experience. I have a close friend who often buys me little gifts for no reason at all. I rarely think of buying her gifts except for birthdays and other occasions, so every time she gives me something, I have to do the work of feeling all my feelings and being with them. Gratitude is actually a somewhat hard one, because it removes the opportunity to equalize a relationship. If someone gives me something and I give her something in return, we are quits, equal, and we don’t need to think of it or feel our feelings anymore. The transaction is over. But to get something and not be able to do something to be quits – that brings up a host of feelings. And of course, we have a real hard time with those.

We are given – I am given – so much every day. So much grace flows around us all the time. If we stopped to think, we would be inundated by feelings of gratitude – there would be no room for anything else. I make a mistake on a fast-moving highway and I don’t get killed because a couple of drivers around me have quick wits and hands. I need to leave my job early and someone steps up and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll cover you.” My daughter’s car stops in the middle of a street and the cop who shows up helps her out and sends her on her way. My husband has done the dishes, taken out the garbage, and fed the dog, yet again, and I can come home and not think. Every day, all the time, people do amazing things for us. Most of the time, we are able, I hope, to say “thank you.” But much of the time, we think of these acts as our right – I have the right, for instance, to expect that cops will be useful – and we spend a great deal of time thinking about what has not been done for us. People are selfish and self-centered and don’t have time for the little decencies – we say. We are victimized by this notion into being selfish and self-centered ourselves. So there’s a connection to be made here between our ability to feel gratitude and our ability to put ourselves out for others.

After those early days, my hospice friend expressed her gratitude to me many times – heartfelt outpourings these were – and I had to learn to sit with this gratitude, to take it in and not reject it. I could say, with complete truth, that I was doing no great thing. I loved being with her. She was intelligent, funny, incredibly kind, and completely undemanding. But she felt my presence as something to be grateful for, and I had to be with the feelings that triggered in me. At first, I fidgeted a lot, trying to shake them off. But then I grew calmer and saw that this is the way things are. The lines we draw between giving and taking are complete fabrications. We sit in the Flow of Energy and there’s nothing else.

Twice, or maybe three times, I was able to assert my own gratitude to my friend, and this was a hard one to explain given her weak hearing and sight. Once, when I said, “and I am grateful to you,” she demanded an explanation. She was like that – needed to know stuff – her very bright eyes would look at me and she’d say, “What do you mean?” and I’d have to tell her. I found it really hard to explain without going into all sorts of things from my life. I was grateful to finally know someone I really liked. I was grateful for the openness with which she suffered so that my heart could be touched and I could journey a little ways with her. I was grateful that even at this stage, I could watch her grow and change in her attitudes to people. I was grateful to watch her demand a degree of responsiveness from her family and friends; to ask to be treated kindly by her caregiver and to set the terms of that kindness; to finally learn to set some boundaries with those closest to her. The word ‘lady’ has never held any allure for me, but now, I wonder if it’s too late to become one.

But then, there was a whole other layer to this for me – one that is agonizing and yet somehow crucial for me to admit to. Both my parents are dead. The last time I spoke with my father was on June 19, 1997. He told me then that he could be dying soon (of emphysema) and that my astrological chart was responsible for his death as Saturn had just entered my 8th house, the house of Death. His exact words were, “Your horoscope is killing me.” In 2009, I spent three weeks in a hospital room as my mother died from seemingly little cause. I spent the nights with her and a good part of the mornings and evenings, going home to try to sleep in the afternoons. She knew I was in the room with her. She was in a sort of psychic agony, screaming or groaning a lot, not completely with it, but she knew I was there. At one point, late in the game, in the middle of the night, as I was standing over her, my hand on her chest, trying to soothe her screaming, she opened her eyes and said, “You must be hungry. Why don’t you eat something?”  Those were her last words to me, and in some Hal Sirowitz kind of way, it’s funny. The sort of thing that mothers say when they can’t think of anything else to say. But it’s been hard for me to let go of the understanding that she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Those were her last words to me, and I guess if I put aside my lifetime of need and got over my three weeks of hell in the hospital, I can glean some caring from her words. I am good at this sort of gleaning; I am good at moving on from unfulfilled needs; and I work hard on myself, even grateful for the opportunity to taste these human frailties.

It came as a complete surprise, therefore, to be put into a Hospice relationship in which these very intimate and long-held wounds were addressed so openly and without any drama. Every time I left my friend at the end of one of my visits, she knew that it might be the last time we saw each other. At first, we made jokes about it. “I’ll see you in a few days,” I’d say. She would say something funny about the tenuousness of that, I’d laugh and leave. Later, she said, “I love you” when I left, and I said “I love you,” and we meant it. Once, on a really bad day, she said, “You give all of yourself, don’t you? I so appreciate it.” Many times, she blessed me. “I hope that you live a happy life. And that your whole family is well.” She was not a religious person, so the blessing was from her, and I appreciated it so much more for that. “Be well,” “be happy,” “have a really good life.” I heard these so many times, I almost came to take them for granted.

I last saw her two days before Mother’s Day. She was a Mother all her life, and her daughters were a part of every moment of those times I spent with her, clearly her complete focus. She worried about them constantly and, watching her, I came to understand and feel more peaceful with my own maternal worries. They never go away, do they? When I left her that night, I whispered to her that she was a wonderful mother. She could barely talk, but she managed to invite me to her house for a Mother’s Day pizza party. [:)] I didn’t go – she wasn’t my mother, and it was a day for her to be with her daughters. I don’t know if she ate the pizza she craved – I doubt it. She died sometime that night. She had lived for ninety-nine years and three months, exactly.

Sometimes, when I am indulgently drowning in self-pity, I can say that a stranger’s love for six months cannot make up for a lifetime of nothing. But this is not about ‘equal’ or ‘fair’ or ‘making up for.’ I need to learn to allow what comes my way to enter, to take up residence and change me. Genuine good will, appreciation, friendship, and love – I’m hoping that these can be like seeds – that over time, they will spread roots and shoots and branches and leaves. I know that Mothers come in many forms and at different times in our lives. They live in our hearts, they feed and soothe. They make jokes, they get angry, they fart.

I am so grateful for my short experience with this earthly Mother-love, and I hope to remain open to the possibility of it – anywhere and at any time. Perhaps she needs me as much as I need her.

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