Letting Go Requires Love

August 31, 2010 by  
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Today I read Theresa Brown’s “A Dying Patient Is Not A Battle Field” on CNN.Com.  Theresa is an oncology nurse in Pennsylvania. She is a leading contributor to The New York Times’ blog Well and the author of “Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between.”

In this particular piece Theresa discusses the end of life of a cancer patient who encouraged by family and doctors decides to continue a losing battle with his illness.  The end result was a more brutal death than if the patient had chosen to go home and live what was left of his life the best way possible.  Theresa writes if the patient had been given clear information of the consequences of continuing chemotherapy he would have chosen to go home.  Most people knowing there is almost no chance for survival would move forward with chemotherapy especially when their bodies are already so weak and fragile.

Nurse Brown, you are so right and wise.

In the last couple of months of my husband’s life it had become clear to me that the end was coming.  In the last couple of weeks it was clear the end had arrived.

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February 1, 2010 by  
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Forms that include marital status still make me cry. How do you re-program your perception of your identity? When do you accept that life has a new normal? I continue to base decisions around what my husband would have done if he was here. But he’s not here. Or is he?

Hospice offered quality of life for my husband to be at home without pain. Holding his hands, I watched him leave. I felt the energy in the room change. His presence in the room was gone.

A close friend sent me a card that read “Richard is now sitting with the Saints and Angels and if he had a choice he would not return. Richard is holding you now and loving you the same as when he was here.” Obviously meant to offer me comfort, yet that first sentence broke my heart. What on earth was she thinking? Why would she say that to me?? As a little girl I always thought of heaven as this magical place behind the clouds. Angels were playing harps and there were flowers everywhere. Heaven was up there in the sky, surrounded by the twinkling stars, in this galaxy far far away. So if he had the choice, he would not return? He would rather be in this magical place behind the clouds than be here with me?? That hit me hard.

My thoughts took me into a fog of confusion. Feeling powerless in dealing with my husband’s death, I shut down. There was a disconnect going on in my heart. My thoughts finally took me back to my core. What did I really believe about death, a chapter of life we will all face?

I finally realized that my little girl perception of heaven didn’t fit me anymore. I understood why the words written in that card upset me so much. That little girl believed that when my husband left with the Angels and Saints, he couldn’t be with me. He was gone. He would be in heaven, a place that was far far away.

So my perception of heaven had totally changed from that little girl. I believe in heaven on earth, Eternal Life. My husband lives in my heart now as he did when he walked beside me. He will always love me and hold me tight. He will always be with me. Four years ago, we walked a labyrinth out in the hill country of Texas. This past July, my daughter and I walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Feeling his presence walking with me, emotions swirled… creating a peaceful comfort deep within my soul.

The thoughts we have as children are still there. They can make us question who we are now. They continually challenge us. We learn to stand strong, to ignore and eventually face our past insecurities and fears. Why does this seem to be a lesson we have to learn, over and over again?

Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.

Kahil Gibran


Hospice Volunteer

January 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured


by Wendy Hammond

Lately, I’ve been middle aged.  I suppose this is why I wake up at two in the morning and consider my life.  Usually I’m horrified.  I wander around my dark house listening to the music and rhythms of my husband’s breathing, and I think about the things I’ve always wanted to get out of life, and I wonder, in my middle aged way, why none of it feels meaningful anymore.

The search for meaning led me, several months ago, to get on the internet and type “hospice + volunteer” on the Google search page.  I had read Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying, and Tuesdays with Morrie and I figured that by working with the dying I’d find the meaning in life.

So I signed up for volunteer training at a nearby hospice.  Every Wednesday night about 40 of us met in the Hospice cafeteria.  We watched Nurse Betty demonstrate how to put on and take off latex gloves.  We listened to lectures on the stages of dying, bereavement, and color therapy for the sick.  We practiced healing each other with energy from our hands.  For our last class, a college professor spoke about the life lessons we would learn from the dying.  Then Helen, the director of volunteers, gave each of us a blue paper with scrolls xeroxed on it.  The paper certified that we had graduated from the volunteer training and were now ready to minister to the dying for one shift every week.  We ate sugar cookies and hugged each other goodbye.  We drove back to our homes imagining how we would sit at deathbeds and commune with the souls making their way to the world beyond.  We would hold their hands and talk deeply about life.  Some of us would write our own books: maybe not Tuesdays with Morrie but certainly Fridays with John.

That first night, I presented myself to the nurses station full of expectation.   I made myself notice every detail — the rose colored carpet, the buzz of the fluorescent lights — because I wanted to remember every moment as I began my journey into the depth and breadth of life’s meaning.

The receptionist looked up at me blankly.  Apparently she didn’t know I was coming.  “Wait here,” she said.  I leaned on the counter and waited.  Every so often a nurse or CNA ran past the desk. “Do you know about this volunteer?” the receptionist asked.  They all shook their heads and kept running.  Finally a short muscular man named George grabbed my elbow.  “I’ll take her,” he said.

George raced around the floor pointing out where to fetch chucks, diapers, wipes, gloves, gowns, towels and topical medications.  I ran behind him hoping I’d remember half of what he said.   He showed me where to put soiled laundry and how to deposit biowaste, then he turned and looked me over.  He frowned.  “How strong are you?”

“Pretty strong.”

He kept frowning for a moment as if he didn’t believe me.  Then he smiled, wickedly.  “Good.”

I held no hands that night; I didn’t discuss the meaning of life.  I cleaned up shit.  George and I went from patient to patient turning them, changing diapers and chucks, replacing soiled bedclothes with fresh, putting salve on bed sores.  The smell of shit was constant.

As I worked I thought about Tuesdays with Morrie, how wise Morrie was, how much he liked to talk.  Most of these patients were too sick or too medicated to say anything, much less impart wisdom.  Some of them slept, some stared.  Some patients looked dully at television sets.  Every few seconds a TV character got shot or fell off a building.  It struck me how easy death was on TV and how hard it was for these patients.  These people had been dying a long time, and most of them had months to go.

I must have made a face because George said, “Do you mind this?”

“No, absolutely not.”  But I realized that wasn’t the truth.   I didn’t like that truth, I’d been trying to ignore it, I felt ashamed of it, but here it was.  Death, the process of dying– it was pissing me off.  Here I’d spent my valuable time training as a volunteer, and now I was doing smelly, hard physical labor.  I had expected, in return, to find meaning in life, but I wasn’t finding meaning in life.  I was watching the meaningless suffering, helplessness and medicated boredom of people slowly dying.

George and I started to work on Liz.  A nurse had already given her the maximum pain medication allowed, but still she winced badly even when we touched her arm.  “Can’t we just leave her be?” I asked.

George pointed to the blood on the bed pad near her bottom.  “Her bed sores are infected,” he said.  “You want ’em to get worse?”  Liz was a large woman, and we heaved and pulled and cleaned as gently as we could, all the time watching the agony on her face, now lessening, now getting worse.

As we worked, I began to notice the transaction I had expected — my time and labor in exchange for a sense of meaning.  I considered how much of my life had been a transaction.  My effort in exchange for money and success.  My nurturing in exchange for my family’s love.  Was I a human being or simply a consumer?  No wonder I didn’t find meaning in life lately.  And what a horrible thing I was doing tonight, trying to buy a sense of life’s meaning off these sick and dying people.

When we finished, Liz’s face was flushed red and covered with perspiration.  I wiped her forehead with a cool washrag while George adjusted the pillows under her knees.  She started to whisper, “You’re so good to me.  I can’t thank you enough.”

I wanted to believe she was talking to us.  If I couldn’t get meaning out of this, at least I could get gratitude.  But her unfocused eyes told me she was speaking to someone not in this room.  George stroked her gray, matted hair.  “Go to sleep, Sweetie,” he said.  “Go to sleep now.”

She closed her eyes.  Her body twitched, agitated.  Finally I understood:  Liz wasn’t getting anything out of dying; she was just dying.  And I wasn’t getting anything out of cleaning her; I was just cleaning.  I was doing the work simply because it needed to be done.

Suddenly the shouting in my mind quieted down, and for the rest of my shift I lifted and cleaned and comforted as best I could, free for the first time in years from the questions like hungry monsters in my mind: what can I get out of this, where’s the meaning, what’s in it for me?

Wendy Hammond is a playwright now living in Asia and setting up the drama department of TischAsia (Tish NYU).  She is also a minister and a mother.


Home Doesn’t Feel Like Home

November 12, 2009 by  
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All Dorothy needed to do was click her ruby red slippers together three times and repeat the words “There’s no place like home.” She is my role model for self-discovery, for personal power and believing in myself.

I also agreed with Dorothy that there was no place like home. Home is where you would celebrate birthdays, graduations, and holidays because there was nothing better than a house filled with family, friends and laughter. Home was where I would sit with my husband talking for hours about nothing and about everything. It was where we laughed about funny things from the past and planned for the new adventures in our future. It was always my safe place. My husband and home would protect me from the worries and pressures of the world.

Home was also where my husband wanted to be when he knew his days on this earth were limited.

After Hospice was called we had 24 days. We sat together and held hands. We talked about our life together. He told me I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. He helped me make a list of how to take care of our home, when to change the oil in my car. He had me write down words of wisdom and what he wanted our grandchildren to know about him. No longer were there plans for our future. I didn’t want to let him go. I didn’t want him to leave me. I asked him if he believed in reincarnation. I told him through the tears that I have to believe he would hear my prayers.

After my husband left for Eternal Life our home became so quiet. I deeply miss hearing the sounds of his presence. Being quiet wasn’t his nature. He loved to laugh and had so much fun making up songs and jingles using various voices and accents. I often told him he should volunteer to read books to children or record books on tape for the blind.

When we would go shopping I could always find him because he would walk around whistling. I still find myself turning around to look for him when I hear that sound. I remember how he would hide behind something even after he knew I saw him. He would always make me laugh. We had so much fun together.

If only I had ruby slippers and could go back to home. Home to the world I shared with my husband.

I keep reminding myself of his favorite quote by Dr. Seuss…

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.


It Is What It is

October 21, 2009 by  
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All things for a reason… A quote I have said for more years than I can remember. A quote that I honestly always believed in. 

But now I don’t. Because if that was true then why? Why didn’t my trio of saints answer my prayers? Saint Rita, all things are possible, Saint Anthony, all things can be found, Saint Jude, all things will glorify God’s name. I prayed to them every morning, asking that through the intercession of their prayers and God’s perfect will, my prayers would be answered. But when I prayed the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, they weren’t answered. Or were they?

In March 2006 we thought my husband had a cold. The EKG showed several silent heart attacks. Stents were put in and life didn’t change; for him or for me. Or so we thought.

January 7, 2008. I left for work at 7AM. A few hours later I get a message to call my daughter. “Call her now. It’s important”. Somehow I knew, even before I ever heard her voice. “He’s been trying to reach you. He drove himself to the hospital. Not to worry though, he says he’s fine”. But I knew he wasn’t, or he wouldn’t have gone to the hospital and then life changed for both of us; an open heart surgery had taken place.

For the next 3 months our lives did not include an alarm clock. We went for daily walks and slowly he rebuilt his strength. Short walks became longer ones. He told me he wished I was retired too, so this could be our life. I did wish it too. We slept late and took naps. We spent 24 hours a day together. Our world had been rocked hard and we now realized just how fragile life was and how fragile his heart was.

September 2008. My husband listed for a heart transplant. It helped that he always took care of his health. Complete physicals, eyes, teeth, flu shots, each year and every year. We ate healthy; wheat not white, pepper not salt, grilled not fried. A window had been opened with the opportunity of a new heart. We had renewed hope. 

But is this really happening? What if I just pretended we were living in the Truman Show? If I unzip the sky, could we escape from this world spinning out of control?

I had never experienced such a deep paralyzing fear.  I thought to myself; can I kiss him goodbye and let them take him, knowing they are going to take out his heart and put in a new one from a donor? He always taught me quality over quantity, always. So asking for a new heart for him, were we really then asking for quantity of his life over quality?

But I never had to make that decision… In 2 months while waiting of a donor his heart had become too weak. There was only one decision left to make, return to the hospital or call Hospice. I didn’t have to ask my husband. I knew his answer. I told his doctor I was taking him home.

I am eternally thankful for the time we had and that he didn’t have pain and his dignity to the very end. Never showing sadness or fear, he humbled me with his strength. He never lived like he was dying. He held on to my knee as I sat beside him on the bed. I knew he didn’t want to leave me. December 19 at 4:00 AM while I held his hands he left. No longer would he walk beside me in this life.

So really, how can all things be for a reason? For what reason wasn’t a donor found in time? For what reason was our world torn apart? Why during the most devastating situation I have ever faced, was the person who loved me more than anyone not by my side? How could all that we went through be for a reason?

Gone are the days of playing make-believe. Situations will enter our world that we have no control over. No matter how much we try, we can never run fast enough to avoid them. We will have questions yet never receive answers. Maybe the reality is that all things are not for a reason. Maybe the real truth is simply, it is what it is.


Right to Die

June 9, 2009 by  
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I was doing some web research when I came across an article on CNN.com about a British couple who traveled to Switzerland to die together at an assisted suicide clinic.  The woman, who was 70, had fought cancer since 1992 and her husband who was 80 had terminal cancer.

Phyllis Bowrnan executive director of Right to Life, which opposes euthanasia, said their case was sad. “I think it’s very sad, particularly as they could have gone together into a hospice. A hospice with cancer — there is not uncontrollable pain. I think that with the euthanasia lobby, they feed on despair and they encourage despair rather than hope” he said.

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