Remembering a Very Good Man

by Richard Cross, Hospice Volunteer

When people learn that I am a Phelps Hospice volunteer they get carried away with unmerited admiration and praise:  “Wow, I could never do something like that.”  What folks don’t realize is that in Hospice work I am more often than not on the receiving end rather than the giving end. 

I became a Hospice worker after experiencing the care and compassion shown my own mother by the Hospice team during the last months of her life. I observed how Phelps Hospice cares for a person with a terminal illness – the whole person - body, mind and spirit.  I also saw how Hospice helps the entire family through the illness of a loved one and through times of darkness.  I saw it as a ministry of presence rather than one of answer-giving. I witnessed active listening to my mother's self-expression as she told her own story and expressed her worries.

Inspired by what I saw,  I became a Hospice volunteer. Over the years I have learned  to see the good in people in all kinds of situations.  I listened to  a World War II veteran recount his experiences on the Red Ball Express; I shared an old man’s feelings for a pet cat that was his only companion, and the pleasure of someone I took  for his last haircut together with a little side trip past the plant where he had worked most of his life.

Of all my experiences, however, it was my months with one patient that were the most rewarding. Let me tell you something about my experience with Bill – a man who touched my life forever.

He may have been terminally ill, but my Bill, who was 99 years old when he died, was in no hurry to give up on living.  "I have the gene," he'd say. He was in Hospice care for more than ten months and we all looked forward to celebrating his 100th birthday.  He came so close.

During the  fifty-plus  visits I made to his home,  Bill taught me many things and enriched my life immensely with the gift of his friendship. He had worked for the same company most of his life. Even though he had been retired for many years he still maintained a keen interest in its progress.  He could no longer read his daily paper or read the market reports on the TV; so we played a little game when I visited him.  I would ask him to guess his company’s share price as well as the current Dow price.  Then I'd check the paper and the TV  and see how close he came.  He was almost always right on target.  Not bad for someone ninety-nine years old.

Bill loved the members of the Hospice team. He couldn’t wait for the frequent visits of those "lovely ladies" who regularly arrived at his door:  the nurses, social worker, and massage therapist.  Always the charmer with a disarming smile and never a complaint he loved their visits and I could tell they loved seeing him as well.  “What’s your secret, Bill?” I asked  him. But he smiled and kept it to himself.  When I would begin to leave, he would always say,   “Hurry back.”

You had to coax Bill to talk about his aches and pains. He wanted to know about other people, their interests and history. I found  this kind of altruism extraordinary on one so elderly and about to end his days on earth.

Bill happened to be a devout Episcopalian, but was interested in all religions and  loved to talk about the Old and New Testaments.   We had long discussions about the Amish, Mormons, Judaism and Islam and other faiths.  Bill displayed a truly ecumenical spirit.  I had to keep reminding myself that this ever-curious and open-minded man was slowly dying.

During one of my last visits Bill spent a long time lamenting the way we had treated Native Americans in the past.  Another time he expressed anguish over the unjust manner in which a colleague had been treated amd fired from his job - and this probably happened forty years ago.  Such an awareness of the plight of others while at death's door is a lesson I won't forget.  How rare this is even among those of us who are well!!!

Bill’s greatest love, perhaps, was music.  As a young man he had sung in church choirs and glee clubs, and  still had  weathered song books from his college days.  I played his piano for him, but because his piano did not maintain its pitch, I eventually brought my electric piano and left it there. We had a grand time with old songas, and even played musical guessing games.  I would try to stump him, but he'd recognize  the songs and sing along  - on key.  He had taken up the piano when he was in his 50's and I saw the detailed and carefully notated lesson plans  he had written out during the seven years he worked on it.  He especially loved  the Adagio from the Moonlight Sonata  and I could invariably put him to sleep with it.

Bill spoke of his death comfortably. He was a man of faith and knew all the old familiar hymns which he sang  until he died. When finally he became bedridden I brought my piano into his bedroom and laid it on the other bed to play for him. The last time I saw him conscious he managed to sing “What a friend we have in Jesus.” I continued to play for him even after he slipped into an unconscious state.  I’m sure he was still listening.

My experience with Bill was special.  He inspired all of us with his selflessness, courage and humor.  As we all help one another through life and share someone's burdens, it is good to have this kind of role model.  

Here's to you, Bill. Well done.

Richard Cross has been a volunteer with Phelps Hospice since 1999.  During that time, he has been friend and companion to 13 Hospice patients, offering thme the gift of his presence, his music,  his wisdom and  his  sense of humor.

Fall 2005 Phelps Hospice Newsletter