Saturday, October 01, 2005

Letting Go

When I retired in January 1994, two of my volunteer service projects were hospice work and tutoring adults in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class.

My first hospice assignment, after completing a comprehensive training program, was to sit with a hospice patient while his caregiver would have a two hour mid-day break once a week.

While sitting with the patient, I would write in my journal and sometimes write letters to my friend Phil. I would write in a steno pad with pale green paper. The letter pages were torn out and mailed to Phil. Well, at least most of them.

Recently I found the steno journal notebook, while empting my heavy denim, monogramed RCF, maroon Landsend attaché bag. I needed something to put my laptop in. And there’s where I found this journal. With the curiosity of finding someone else’s love letters, I started reading these pages written in 1995. And that’s when I found an unsent letter to Phil.

The letter brought back so many memories. Oh my, so very much has happened to me in the past ten years. The letter is about four people, Phil, the hospice patient, his wife, the caregiver, and I. It covers two visits. At first I was going to edit out all reference to Phil and myself, but so much would be missing that now looking back is vital to seeing this smidgen of the past.

The names of the patient and caregiver have been changed to maintain confidentiality. But everything else is as it was written.

The patient was in a hospital bed in the living room opposite from the picture widow.

What follows is the letter:

Tuesday April 18, 1995
Larry & Olive's 1:07 p

Hi Phil,

“Bye Hon I got to go shopping…the post office”, as she leans over and kisses him on the lips, his face is very expressive, a direct response to her words. She grabs a plastic wrapped, flat package and leaves.

Before leaving she was telling me about her brother who worked for Ford for 3o years and retired. She said that they called him back to do follow-up warranty work at various plants. He just retired a second time after 7 more years. My guess he probably worked for a Ford contractor.

Well good friend you don’t have to think about me doing something like that. I’m finding that I’ve got shorter and shorter days. Now that I’m tutoring and hospice care work along with sailing instructor work my days are flying by.

It’s a cool rainy day, so Olive has Larry’s sheet and blanket up to his chin. He is sleeping, breathing regularly. The refrigerator motor breaks the silence. The bird still makes a calling sound outside. [He moves his legs. Inhales a deep breath.]

I’ve been reading “Writing Down the Bones”, lately. Re-reading it actually. What a fine writer Goldberg is. I’m starting to find that my morning pages are flowing better. I’m lighting up on myself. Being less of a perfectionist. Can you believe that? You don’t know what courage I had to muster to write to you. I’ve always looked at your artistic talent – writing, painting, drawing, photography to be too intimidating for me to express myself on paper. To reveal myself on paper has not been easy for me.

One reason was I thought my grammar, spelling, sentence structure and thought patterns had to be just right. I’m thankful for your encouragement to write. This morning while writing my morning pages the thought occurred to me that these letters from Larry’s place have a journal quality. Sometimes I feel that I’m not sure whether I’m writing to you or just writing down my feelings and observations and sending the pages off to you. Either way I’m glad you accept my letters.

Did I tell you about my new tutoring challenge? Last Thursday J.C., Literacy Council Coordinator, approached me about Rose and I tutoring 6 year old and 8 year old Japanese kids. The younger one, a boy, is in J.C.’s son’s class and the older one is the boy’s sister and is in the same school.

The kids arrived here about 2 weeks ago and will be here for 3 years. Just think of it—these kids will be fluent in both languages by the time they leave here.

J.C. was saying that the little boy can count up to ten and he knows some colors in English and that’s about it.

We are going to continue tutoring the adults for 1 hour, 9a to 10a and then finish up the morning with a 1 hour session at another school with the Japanese kids.

I’m looking forward to relating to kids again. It’s hard to think back what my kids were like at 6 and 8. Rose seems to recall much better than I. Is it because she spent more time with them?

[Larry is breathing with more regular rhythm than at any other time. The pattern is putting me at ease. I too feel like taking a nap. He mumbles a couple of words about 10 minutes ago but that has been the most or all of his ‘talking’ today.]

Yesterday I was thinking how sad it is that our society views the last days or months of a person’s life as a failure. The medical community treats the dying process with a failure mentality. I view the development of these life support systems that cost large amounts of money as a result the medical community’s basic attitude: keep people alive at all costs.

2:56p Olive returns.

Friday April 21, 1995
1:52p
Larry is really sawing them off today. He said, “Hey…hey”, about 5 minutes ago. But now just a nice easy snore. His hands move under the light shaded green sheets, similar to the color of this paper. His green and white plaid robe hangs over the back of a metal folding chair, opened up next to his bed. A wooden TV table is next to the chair with a plastic glass of water with straw in it sitting on the table.

Let me tell you a very important story. Last Tuesday (4-18-95) when Olive came in she took off her coat and walked over to Larry, bending over saying, “I’m back Hon”. She kisses him on the lips. Before she kisses, she touches his right cheek with the back of her left hand. This scene is very familiar to me. It’s routine now. You know how when scenes become routine your awareness drops off?

I’m relaxed. I’ve seen these kisses before but still admire them. Moments of intimacy that Olive allows me to witness. Without fore thought. I find myself thanking her as I walk to the coat tree in the hallway. As I put on my coat, I’m facing her as she turns toward me, her back is to Larry, less than 4 feet away. We’re commenting about the weather and then tells me a story about herself.

“I was telling the kids (her daughter and son-in-law) coming back from the doctor’s the other day that I feel strong enough to drive to Seattle. My daughter said, ‘Do you?’. Sure I’d just get in the car, put my foot to the gas and get on Route 2 and on to Washington State”.

She’s half laughing all the while she’s retelling the story. Spreading her hand and arm out away from her body, pointing with her knotted index finger to that highway she could see so clearly in the minds eye.

The half laugh was to wipe out any doubt in the listener’s mind about whether she was ‘strong’ enough. The half laugh said sure’ I’ve been through a lot but believe me '. The half laugh was not the only expression that gave her feelings credibility, it was her firm stance and the sweep of the hand and arm saying, ‘Yes I could do it’.

The tone of her voice, the body language gave as much meaning to her message as the words.

I worked at absorbing this story. I knew that it was meaningful and for that reason I was trying to record it all- the words- the pointed finger- half laugh-especially the word ‘strong’. I wanted to record it in my mind. “Remember it”, I kept telling myself. In away I’m glad that I was relaxed, unprepared because my mind was not filled with thoughts to block the message.

When she was through, I asked a question that I already knew the answer, “Is Seattle where your daughter lives?” She responds with a simple, “Yes”.

3 comments:

Joshua said...

wow. it's like a documentary history.

John Shack said...

Hi Bob--
You shared your hospice experience described in "Letting Go" a while back in a conversation and it was moving then. This written piece, however, is remarkably sensitive and powerful. You have a gift of penetrating observation (which I always knew) now obviously coupled with a writing voice that is so you. You could be the contemporary Studs Terkle. Give us more!
John

Fred Scensny, Jr. said...

That was incredible. You are a very talented writer, and shouldn't be so hard on yourself.
I realize it's been 10 years, so hopefully you aren't as self-conscious anymore.