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
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