My father’s hospice experience was brief. Less than four days passed between the afternoon he entered the hospice house and the morning he drew his last breath. In that short time, I learned a great deal about this extraordinary world.
Hospitals typically fight for life, but hospice is remarkable because it treats death as something normal, not an enemy to be fought. The first time I walked through those doors, though, I could feel the terror rising in my chest. The brick and mortar reality of the situation made me realize that I was not ready to confront the inevitability of my father’s death. Ready or not, though, there I was.
As I entered the facility, I remarked how different it looked from a hospital. It was more like a hotel, really. There was nicely upholstered furniture and there were beautiful prints on the walls. It even had a conference room and outdoor patio. The normality, as well as the overwhelming silence, left me anxious, though. I had grown accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the hospital, the hurried nurses, the PA announcements, the incessant purring and beeping of machines. I had come to associate all that noise and activity with life, period.
So, when dad went into hospice, I sought out familiarity and routine. For us, that meant watching television. Although he was increasingly passing in and out of consciousness, he would still perk up when I announced that “Jeopardy!” was on. A mere 36 hours before he died, my father beat me at the popular game show quiz, as he had done so many times before.
Save for their check-ins to monitor his condition and ensure his comfort, the staff gave us complete privacy. That mostly meant letting us watch our shows in peace. Eventually, I relaxed knowing that I could cry or sleep without strangers barging in at any moment, unlike the continuous flow of doctors, nurses and aides that came in and out of my dad’s room at the hospital.
Another striking difference was the hospice social worker. Within minutes, he introduced himself and said that his door was always open. I thanked him for the offer, but being the buttoned-up type, I assumed that I wouldn’t use his services. To be honest, I didn’t want to share my feelings with a stranger who probably sees hundreds of people walk in and out of his office each year. If I needed to talk, I would call a friend.
But he was persistent, and I was glad for it. We crossed paths once again, and he asked, “So, how are you doing?”
I deflected his question and told him, “I’m just sad you can’t know my dad for who he really is.”
He prompted me to explain, and I suddenly found myself telling story after story about the intelligent, clever and kind man my dad was—the man who was now too weak to open his eyes. The social worker then asked if I had ever told my dad the stories I just shared with him. The short answer was no.
And that is yet another reason why hospice care can be extraordinary. If ever there is a time to seize the moment, it is when a loved one is nearing the end of life. That social worker helped me realize it was time to share that treasure trove of memories and anecdotes with my dad.
Even though my father wasn’t one to reminisce, I didn’t want to regret not telling him why he meant so much to me. What was said during his final hours remains between my dad and me, but I will always be grateful to that persistent hospice social worker for his understanding and gentle push. That afternoon turned out to be my dad’s last. You don’t always get second chances, so don’t wait for tomorrow.