Rick Gallen was a highly decorated Marine who was dying from complications of colon cancer. He’d admitted himself to our residential hospice against his family’s wishes. Determined to do “this dying” by himself, on his own terms, he didn’t want his family to enter his room and complicate his plan. After a few weeks of witnessing his loving family sitting on the love seat outside his hospice room door, I lost it. Hitting my personal fear of wasting precious time and not appreciating love when it is right under my nose, I believed Rick was missing the love his family wanted—and needed– to show him during this vulnerable stage of life.
I risked my friendship and professional parameters when I told him I strongly believed that he needed to allow them to show their love no matter how much he disliked their fussing. I was asking him to essentially “get over himself.” He felt he needed to control his environment and was constantly assessing his surroundings including those who worked within the hospice house. I told him he was going who-knows-where after he died, but his family had to keep on living and that not allowing them to say goodbye was selfish. I left his room pinching between my eyes, fighting tears. I knew my actions were against my Buddhist teachings of non-attachment and grasping, but this was just different for me.
Within five minutes he pressed his call button and asked, “What does a man need to do in order to get a shave in this joint?” After a rudimentary shave- he told me to keep my day job, a change of pajamas and a five-minute rest, Rick’s family was in his room. His daughter cuddled her head on his chest, his son stood at the foot of his bed, and his Sicilian wife held his face between her hands and kissed him as she fussed over his hair and straightened his pajamas. Four days later he died and his family were there to care for him. I told him he was The Man and thanked him often.
Serving the dying asks us to constantly reopen our deep wounds. My fear of wasting time was all too evident. My father and I wasted decades being resentful and angry at each other. He was innocent. I was innocent. We just didn’t know how to not stand our ground. We were stuck in the madness of being right.
As I witness patients and families doing the same thing; the same madness, I know my job as a hospice nurse is not to fix, heal or mend anyone; it’s about loving and caring for them in spite of what I see. Within this paradigm, I can pluck little seeds of beauty within their experience and follow the love to the end.