I kneeled on the blue mat next to Sam’s bed in the skilled-care wing of the senior care facility. My elbows were on the edge of his bed as I leaned forward to hear him better. I felt like one of those old-fashioned needle point pictures of the children praying before bed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep . . . .”
Sam struggled to get the words out. He was telling me something about his time as a farm worker. I smiled and nodded, careful to show interest without derailing him with extra questions.
“Who are you again?” He would ask every few minutes. “A nurse?”
“No, not a nurse. I’m a volunteer with hospice. I’m just here to visit with you today.”
“Oh, that’s right!” His eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically like I’d answered a question on a game show correctly. “Hospice, that’s a good organization. Really helps people, you know?”
I did know, or at least I’d hoped so.
“Hard work, though, right?”
Yes, it is hard work. Heartbreaking work, actually. But it was the heartbreak I was after when I called a local hospice on a crisp winter day and asked if they needed volunteers.
“I need to get out of my head.” I explained. “I need to work with people again.” This was true. Spending so much time behind a computer screen was making me feel removed from real life. What was also true was that I was looking for something more than just entertainment to distract from my sense of restlessness.
It turns out that the American dream picket fence suburban life doesn’t bring much in the way of daily challenge, purposeful fulfillment or real community. Oh, I’m not complaining. I love my life and am so grateful for it. Still, the relationship and community that form around manicured lawns and school concerns isn’t the same community that forms around sharing our deepest stories.
This realization hit me with great force one day as I showed my daughter how to cut out one of those little paper people chains. As we cut, I reminded her of the one rule in paper-people-cutting. “Be careful not to cut through the folds of the paper. The people are connected at the edges.”
People are connected at the edges.
While we might seek out rest and quiet, carefully grooming our lives to be as painless as possible, the places of unrest—the edges—are the ones in which we grow. Those painful, heartbreaking places are the ones in which we discover ourselves and, if we’re lucky, discover others. It seems that our connections to each other become stronger when we’re forced to hold on through the uncertainties of life—to make space for quiet in the disquiet, rest in the unrest, relationship in the isolation.
This is not to say that we should live in a constant state of drama. Drama does not lead to growth or connection. It is, in fact, a defense mechanism against all the good that might come out of a tough time. No, drama wasn’t the answer to my malaise.
But this moment with this beautiful, confused, dying man was the answer. I leaned forward again, taking his hand, holding on across the edges of this life. There will be tears later, I know this. I will one day find myself navigating a dementia-fueled conversation in this same cheery room. Or perhaps I’ll arrive some afternoon to discover that he has settled into that last, deep coma. For absolute certain, I will hear the hard news of his death and will find myself going for a run while tears stream down my face, crying for his brokenness and mine.
This is the thing I struggle to explain when I talk about my work with hospice. It is paradoxical, really, to soothe a growing sense of unease by entering into a situation that will unquestionably be filled with more unease. But the only way I know to meet the gnawing disquiet is to rush headlong into it—to counter a general malaise with a heartbreaking love. It is an act of faith, this reaching across the edges rather than huddling into the security of the middle.
So I do it, week after week, trusting that the edge really is the place of deepest connection and that even in the end—no, especially in the end—these will be the things that matter.