The Place Between Life and Death

Hospice. A place where people who deserve more than they are given go to temporarily live and permanently perish. This is what I thought hospice was before I came to the VA. A place with dejected patients, pessimistic nurses, families on the verge of collapse. And on top of that, this was a VA, a hospital with old, cynical men who were put through horrific trials that no one should have to experience. This is going to be bleak.

One of the first patients I met when I arrived was someone whom we’ll call John. John perfectly fit my vision of a veteran in hospice care: he was cynical, he only cared about sports after he got out, he liked the dark and always left his room’s lights off, and he always said that he just wanted to die. A week later, I was back at the VA, and John was dying. I put on some classical music and sat beside him, holding his arm.

Most of the time, culture shocks happen when you go to foreign countries, but they also happen to me when I volunteer at the VA. The staff of the VA are generally a good deal older than the people I see every day, and it was quite shocking to me when people I wouldn’t know would start greeting me. Around campus, I may not even greet the people who lived with me during my freshman year, but the culture of the VA was different. As I was holding John’s arm, I was amazed by how easily I could see eye to eye with someone from a different generation just by thinking about our common characteristics, such as our common mortality. One thing the VA has taught me is that all of us are much more similar than I previously thought. We often put a label on “veterans” because they experienced many traumatizing things, but the label dehumanizes them. I would ask the patients about their childhood memories or their family to rehumanize them. And I’ve heard about pranks they’ve pulled, crazy family members, and heartfelt stories.

Against all odds, hospice was often a lively place. Therapy dogs, instrumentalists, and singing groups would visit. You’d see patients strolling around, reading the news, watching movies. One patient I knew especially well, loved to poke fun at me. Paul would always be sitting in the living room, and he’d call me over whenever I was there. I didn’t ask Paul much about his time in the military because he’d always tell me stories about historical events. He’d always make fun of me especially when I didn’t know about popular historic things such as the “flying tigers.” Paul never ceased to make me laugh, and while I talked to him, I’d forget that he was a hospice patient.

But every week I would be reminded that I was in the hospice unit. Every week, I was briefed on who had died since I was last there. The enduring patients would get thinner, weaker, more tired. And Paul was no exception. After a couple weeks of visiting him, he would get too tired to talk to me for long periods of time. His death was going to come. It was unavoidable. And that was okay. On my last day, Paul was sleeping, but I just stood in his room for a while. I came to terms with his mortality and with it, my own. It is likely that many of the people on the hospice unit will pass away before I come back next year. They will have lived a long, hard, and joyful life, and they will have to move on. And eventually, so will I.