Some people, maybe even most people, have a hard time understanding why I do hospice work. They think it must be very depressing, or that I must be quite saint-like. Neither is true. (The real saints are the home-health aides who, for minimum wage, clean and change and bathe the dying.)
It’s actually quite peaceful, spending time with people who have reached this Kierkegaardian moment:
When the couch of death is prepared for you, when you have gone to bed never to get up again, and they are only waiting for you to turn on your side to die, and stillness grows about you, and then after a while the friends of the family go away and it becomes quieter, because only the closest ones remain while death comes ever closer, and then the closest ones go quietly away, and it becomes quieter because only the very closest of all remain, and then when the last one has bent over you for the last time and turns away to the other side, for you yourself turn now to the side of death, there is still one who remains by your side, the very last one at the death-bed …
The words I have elided there are “he who was the first, God, the living God …” and I elided them because there’s a bit too much God in Kierkegaard’s otherwise beautifully written Works of Love. And God is not there for everyone, despite what they say about atheists on deathbeds.
I was there once, though, that very last one at the deathbed. I wrote about it here.
The real reason I do hospice work is to get to the point where I can believe this poem:
Death is Nothing At All
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well.
– Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918)