I generally don’t tell people what I do for a living. I mean, when you tell someone you are a hospice chaplain they tend to just tilt their head knowingly and look at you with big doe eyes like you’re Brother Teresa.
And I’m not.
It’s not that I don’t love what I do or am not proud of it. Actually I find my work both quite inspiring and refreshing. Inspiring because of the courage and strength I witness everyday by patients and family members.
Refreshing in that I encounter very little in the way of B.S.. By the time I get to meet our patients most of the nonsense has been kicked out of them – either by a doctor’s terminal diagnosis or by some painfully failed therapy – or both.
Ministers by and large have to put up with a lot of B.S.. I sure did when I was a pastor. It usually sounds something like this: “Why do we have to sing the same songs every Sunday?” or “You know, if we could just get out fifteen minutes earlier we could beat the Baptists to all the good restaurants.” or “That was a life changing sermon pastor, one of your best!” Pure B.S..
Hospice patients know they don’t have time for such nonsense. Every alert minute takes on profound importance when you know there are precious few left. I find the brutal honesty of conversations with such people incredibly rich and refreshing. There’s so little pretense, so little puffery. The sacredness of such moments demands my full attention and it feels as though time simply stands still in silent homage.
That’s not to say such conversations are always serious. They’re not. But what they are is honest. For example I remember when Carolyn was telling me about how depressed she became after her doctor told her cancer was inoperable and she only had a few months of life left.
“I stayed in bed for three or four days just crying,” she said. “I didn’t get dressed or shower – I just cried. Then one morning my daughter Jennifer came in and brought me breakfast. I started yelling at her that I didn’t want any God damned food and if I’dda had a bag I’d just put it over my head and end it all right now!
‘Paper or plastic?’ Jennifer asked.
Well how can you stay depressed when someone treats you like that? So I got up and ate and decided to continue living until I can’t anymore.”
And then there was Phil. He had been some sort of engineer in his working years. A few days before he died he told me he loved to sit in his recliner and simply look at the beauty of nature out his window. He described with poetic insight the trees and hummingbirds and change of light as the sun set. While all that was nice, Phil really caught me when he said, “You know, after I got my diagnosis, I was really grateful. Now I can enjoy every moment without worrying about tomorrow.”
Such folks are daily reminders for me to live intentionally now – while I can. Because the reality is none of us is promised tomorrow.