One moment I’ve not forgotten from hospice training was from a short film of a family saying goodbye to their grandmother. The old lady was lying in bed, and the last person in the family to talk to her was her six-year-old grandson. He asked her, “What should I do after you die, Grandma?” In a crackly, weak voice but without missing a beat she responded, “Enjoy yourself.”
I wanted to work as a hospice volunteer to absorb the awareness of the dying grandma, to appreciate my life more than I did: in other words, as grandma put it, to enjoy myself. My motive was absolutely selfish. I was in my mid-thirties in perfect health (I never even went to the doctor), and although my life was fine, I was not, always wanting more and better and feeling disgruntled with myself and everyone else. Did it work? Did I absorb grandma’s dying awareness, did I learn to appreciate each moment I could breathe, much less walk without pain, did I become a citizen of the universe and lover of all creatures, and become generous and gentle and kind toward others and myself, a more compassionate and spiritual person? Not even a little. Not even close.
This was thirty years ago. The hospice I worked in was a children’s hospice, a sort of privately funded Ronald McDonald’s house for families to stay in while their critically ill children were in the nearby hospital or getting horrific outpatient treatments or were about to have surgery. I cleaned the toilets and took out the trash and talked with the paid staff and other volunteers and parents when they wanted to talk to me, but I rarely talked with the children. I didn’t have children at the time and had no idea how to talk to them. I still have no idea what they suffered, but I do know what their parents suffered, because I now have a child who had neurosurgery when she was seven months old and a cystic fibrosis test when she was six and other serious medical adventures in between and since that scared the bejesus out of me and woke me at night and had me arriving at places without knowing why or how I got there.
She’s healthy now, and I’ve quoted grandma’s “Enjoy yourself” (complete with the crackly, weak voice) so many times that it has become a household joke. Like all real jokes it is deadly serious. Now that I’m approaching grandma’s age, I say it to myself pretty much every day and do my utmost to enact it, which is harder and more complicated than it sounds. Shit happens, which won’t be news to anyone who reads bumper stickers, and I’ve learned to place the shit-instance on a two-dimensional graph that has “immediacy” on one axis and “magnitude” on the other. How big the shit is (in kilotons) and how recently it dumped onto me or my family equals the more I feel it. Most shit fades pretty fast, dries up and blows away, but every time my teenage daughter even gets a cold, I’m terrified. Some shit is sticky.
I don’t know if my work in the children’s hospice helped anyone else. Its effect on me was long delayed, which itself seems worth learning. But at the time I did get a poem from it that doesn’t pretend to answer the suffering of others but I hope portrays it:
TV Room at the Children’s Hospice
Red and green leather-helmeted
maniacally grinning motorcyclists
crash at all angles
on Lev Smith’s pajama top
and when his chocolate ice cream
dumps like a mud slide down its front
he smiles, not maniacally, still nauseated
from chemotherapy and bald already.
Lev is six but sat still four hours
all afternoon with IVs in his arms,
his grandma tells everyone. Marcie
is nine and was born with no face.
One profile has been built in increments
with surgical plastic and skin grafts
and the other looks like fudge.
Tomorrow she’s having an eye moved.
She finds a hand mirror in the toy box
and maybe for the minute I watch
she sees nothing she doesn’t expect.
Ruth Borthnott’s son, Richard,
cracked his second vertebra
at diving practice eight weeks ago,
and as Ruth describes getting the news
by telephone (shampoo suds plopped
all over the notepad she tried
to write on), she smiles like Lev Smith
at his ice cream, smiles also saying
Richard’s on a breathing machine,
if he makes it he’ll be quadriplegic,
she’s there in intensive care every day
at dawn. The gameshow-shrill details
of a Hawaiian vacation for two
and surf teasing the ankles
of the couple on a moonlit beach walk
keep drawing her attention
away from our conversation.
I say it’s amazing how life can change
from one second to the next,
and with no apparent disdain
for this dismal platitude
she nods yes, and yes again
at the gameshow’s svelte assistant
petting a dinette set, and yes
to Lev Smith’s grandma
who has appeared beside her
with stovetop popcorn
blooming like a huge
cauliflower from its tin.