Volunteering at a hospice has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. And this is beyond the fact that it is time on a Saturday that I could otherwise be studying or exercising or hanging out with friends and that it takes nearly 40 minutes to drive to the Arcadia Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. In the short year of being a volunteer, two patients who I have made incredible relationships with have perished. One has been discharged, and I know that I will never get to see her again. These were people that I befriended, people I was looking forward to continuing my connection with again. A part of my brain feels betrayed. I expended mental and emotional energy and found some lovely individuals to be those I wanted in my life each week. Then the email comes from Mary telling me that I will never get the chance to finish the ongoing and seemingly endless conversation with these people.
Volunteering at a hospice has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done. The first day I went to Kindred with Mary, I met an incredibly kind and wise woman who used to be a philosophy professor at Rutgers. Her eyes were amazing and always radiant. Suffering from dementia, she had a lot of trouble remembering me, but she always recalled that my parents are from India. She also loves Nietzsche and poetry and dogs and met Stephen Hawking and wrote a book. But what I remember most about her was the way she held my hand and radiated warmth. She taught me so much about aging. Even someone as brilliant as her, whom one could clearly see used to think at an incredible pace by the quick flashes of brilliance that still exist in her eyes, degenerates as well. Yet she maintained her happiness. The “Professor,” as I called her, was discharged from hospice care because she was not deemed to be terminal anymore. I am happy for her. She is not going to die soon. But I miss her immensely.
I promised him I would be back to see him next Friday. He died that Thursday from liver failure. I talked to him for nearly three hours and there was never a dry moment. He flirted with the nurse, he told me about his past in a rock band, and he talked extensively about his time traveling around the world through his job in marketing for a pharmaceutical company. We spoke about Trump. He was interrupted by his wife. He told me in confidence that he does not regret anything at all. He was happy he drank as much as he did or that he did cocaine and heroin. His reasoning was sound, however: he did not leave anything on the table, and he did not want to live much longer anyway. I was convinced until he started crying from knowing he would die soon. But not as soon as I expected. At the end of our conversation, he gave me a gift I will always keep – a book of aphorisms he had written himself. He wrote a note inside the cover and signed it. An email has never shaken me so much.
I would not trade anything in the world for my experience in hospice this year, and I will be back next year. I thank Kindred and Arcadia and Mary for allowing me the opportunity to be part of something so beautiful and real.