My hospice experience began when I was in my early thirties and married. On a weekly basis I would visit patients as a volunteer on the palliative unit in our local hospital. Prior to taking on this role I had never seen the physical changes in a body as someone neared death nor had I been with someone at the moment they took their last breath. I was both curious and afraid of what my initial response to such an event might be. Would I be strong enough in support for both patients and family members during such a vulnerable time when I lacked the life experience?
In parallel, acting and the film industry were a curiosity for me. My father had been the Director of English Productions for the Canadian National Film Board. He would bring home stacks of documentary films for review and we would often watch them and then discuss the stories over a pot of tea. This all occurred prior to my teen years. He taught me about the power of story and I was inspired by films of meaning and purpose, especially when they were based on real life events. My goal as an actress, was to be a part of the kinds of productions that celebrated such real life heroes and in turn inspired others to embrace hero journeys in their own lives. Instead, to my dismay, I was thrown into the grind of weekly auditions for commercials and small parts. Rather humiliating at times to be part of the “cattle calls” for a few lines to market a product. Physical beauty was an asset.
In the initial weeks of my hospice work I was beginning to realize what it would take to be immersed in the end of life arena and had become close to a number of the palliative patients. It was fascinating learning of their life experiences and lessons. I looked forward to my weekly shift. It is, however, an art in this work to remain open and empathetic but also maintain boundaries. One patient on our unit was only 28 years old, just a handful of years younger than me at the time. Sam was dying of a brain tumour. The family had filled the wall in his room with photographs from his life. In the photographs he was tall, dark and handsome. He was dashing in his appearance in the true Hollywood “leading man” sense of the word. Physically active and through his photogenic appeal, could have easily been a model and on the cover of any major magazine. I stood there taking in the displayed images. They revealed a vibrant, active, outdoor life.
But as I stood in front of Sam sitting in his wheel chair he was now unrecognizable in contrast. Due to the brain tumour, his body and face were completely swollen with fluid to the point where his eyes were almost shut. He was heavy and bloated from the medications, and had lost control of some of his faculties. Drool seeped from his mouth as he attempted to speak. Visitors were restricted by the family. Who would want to see him this way? Why not remember the better days? The sad part was that he ended up for hours alone in the room. I would make a point to sit with him when I was on my shift. I held his hand and we conversed as best he could, his words often slurred and hard to make out. Perhaps because we were close in age I felt an even greater sensitivity to his impending death. He had a lovely, playful heart.
A few weeks later I walked onto the unit for my weekly shift. As part of my routine I would review the deaths that had occurred that week. Looking at the communication book I was shocked to see that five of the people I had come to know and who I had been working with closely had died within the last 48 hours. Including this special young man. It was the first time I had faced this volume of death in such a short period of time. Sam’s death hit me profoundly and it actually took a moment for me to catch my breath. It was hard to keep my composure as I walked into the rooms of the former patients that were now occupied by new people and families; new stories to hear. I managed my way through the shift but it was tough. Welcoming the new people with a smile and compassion for all they were facing took a little extra effort that day.
Ironically I had an audition scheduled in the city right after my rounds on the palliative unit for the day. I was dressed in a skirt, heals with hair and make-up just right. Driving into town was actually painful. How could I possibly make the shift needed from the myriad of deaths and what my heart was processing to the world of acting and commercial auditioning? I would have rather gone home and gone hiking alone in nature, something I love to do. I was however committed and could not let my agent down. Upon arrival I ran into the washroom to do one last primp in front of the mirror and felt such a contrast of worlds. Somehow that action alone was humbling to my core. When I walked in to the audition room it was filled with physically beautiful women. They were dressed to the nines, nervous about their chance to get the part and further their acting career. If I recall it was for an ice cream company! Sitting in the waiting room I attempted to make conversation with some of the women but none of them would look me in the eye. I was the competition. What a contrast to the depth of engagement I experienced with the palliative patients on my hospice shift. Those moments carried a beauty that was authentic and rich in a much deeper and greater way. I remember thinking at one point: “There is no love here”. I felt completely alone in a surreal and unexpected life experience. Just then an actress walked into the gathering area and while signing in let her little dog go who was on a leash. Instantly he ran around the chairs and to my surprise came straight to me. When I acknowledged him, he jumped on my lap! I started to laugh. He was so full of energy, playful and clearly needing attention! I petted him and reflected on the fact he was a bundle of joy and love. A reminder that there was clearly love there if my eyes were open to see, even more so it honoured the love in my heart. The little four legged bundle lifted some of the heavier emotions I was traversing. I did manage to make it through the audition but it was not long after that experience that I let my quest for an acting career go. Life was inviting me down another pathway of discovery; I turned my full attention to hospice work.
Months went by and it dawned on me that I was now immersed in my own life story of meaning and purpose. Learning from the lives of others each day I was enriched by the sharing, and learning about a much deeper beauty at play beyond the physical presentation. More than once, while looking into the bright eyes of a dying patient as they still peer out from a frail physical shell, I have experienced a beauty beyond words. A beauty that is hard to explain. Beyond a physical rendering, it has transformed me, taken my breath away. I am clearly the richer for it.