Friday, September 29, 2017

BEYOND WORDS – A Dialog of the Spirit

I’ve been visiting Harold (not the man's real name) as a hospice volunteer for three months now. His diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and the reason he’s in hospice is that it’s quite advanced.

When I first met him, Harold could talk. That is, he had enough breath to make sounds, and he could move his lips. He’d even punctuate his comments with hand gestures and the occasional little chuckle. But very little of it came across clearly enough for me to understand.

As for my end of the conversation, I’d tell him what kind of a day it was outside, report on how the Minnesota Twins were doing, or maybe recount one of my experiences I thought might resonate with one of his. Occasionally, when he was tracking, he’d respond to something I said quite clearly, “Oh, is that right?” That was nice to hear.

I did my best. Most often that meant simply maintaining eye contact with him as
he spoke, trying to keep that faintly-received channel open. Since I didn’t want to pretend to understand when I didn’t, all I could do was nod so he’d know I was, if not understanding, at least hearing him.

Once in a while I’d make out a word or two. If I heard “brother,” I’d respond, “Oh, your brother. Uh-huh” or “I’ll bet you and your brother were quite a pair.” Anything to preserve a crack in that shell of isolation the poor man must inhabit.

      I remember vividly why I originally signed 
      up for hospice work...I knew it had little to 
      do with words.

Harold still likes to talk, but now, at this week’s visit, he’s clearly faded…a lot. He’s gazing up at me with what appears to be the intent of speaking, but I have to look hard to detect the subtle movement of his lips. I hear wisps of air coming out of his mouth, but he can no longer make a sound.

I’m so sad for him; I know he’d once been a pretty gregarious fellow. He still had the will, but not the way. I also feel an arresting sense of gratitude. Yes, of course, simply for not being Harold, but also for the opportunity– the privilege—of being with this good man at such a vulnerable point in his life.

I’m a writer; my stock in trade is communicating with words. So this is unfamiliar territory for me. Yet I remember vividly why I originally signed up for hospice work. I felt I had something spiritual to offer. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe it, but I knew it had little to do with words.

So I’m sitting here at Harold’s bedside, and he’s just looking up into my eyes. It’s a little unnerving, but I feel something—I’ll call it energy for lack of a better word—flowing between us. It feels good, and I can only hope Harold feels it too.

I take his gnarly hand and hope I can convey some kind of understanding that way. I don’t know how much he can grasp, but I acknowledge how awful it must be to have thoughts ambushed like that before he can get them out. “It’s okay,” I reassure him. “I’m hearing you.”

Our hour together comes to an end. I take his hand again and ask if it’s okay for me to come back next week. He just looks at me. As I walk away, I recall the moment, just the week before, when, after I’d strained the whole time to understand a word here and there, he somehow managed to say, as plain as day, “Thank you for coming.”

Today, he says nothing. But his eyes follow me through the door.


jean said...

Thank you for sharing this, Jeff. And thank you for being there for him!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Jean. Do you know anyone affected by this terrible disease? I've heard from several people who have been. Hope your week is off to a good start.

jean said...

I was the sole caretaker for my precious dad when he had senile dementia so I understand just how terrible this problem is for everyone involved. Thank God for Hospice so I could spend the last 3 days of his life just being with him and letting others do the caretaking.

Gary Noren said...

Thanks for this, Jeff! Mom died at 86 from complications from Alzheimer's; I tried to be there regularly for her during her decline. Parmly's support groups were v. helpful to me, as were Hospice and Marty!

four friends and their friends said...

Hi Jeff,
As a writer myself, not only do I love words, but steadfastly relied on them for meaning. However, I'm learning that words sometimes get in the way of true understanding each other.
Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

Charlie said...

Very nice post, Jeff. You're a kind man


Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for the comment, Gary. Didn't know you'd gone through this with your mom. I'm sure you did the very best you could for her, and that, at some level, she was aware of you and your love.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jennifer, I think you are right; I found that Harold sometimes couldn't handle even listening to too many words. I don't know if his efforts to speak actually entailed any conscious thought of words. I came to appreciate just the sound of his intent.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks, Charlie -- we try, don't we?

Phil said...

What a powerful dispatch from Harold's bedside and beyond, Jeff. Thank you. I myself have been at four such bedsides, and the silences have all been more or less deafening. How to reach him/her I would always be asking myself knowing the only words that might be spoken would be my own. But, as you say so aptly, "We try, don't we?" That's about all we can do: be there, try, and (oh, yes: THIS!) have faith. Thanks, again.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Phil. Are you also a hospice volunteer up in Duluth, or have that many dear ones passed away with you there so intimately? INdeed, simple presence is mighty articulate.

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