My Sunday night yoga class is an anchor in my week. It grounds me and prepares me for the week ahead. The teacher is wise and the community that gathers is special. Recently one night a couple I hadn’t met before showed up. A bit older than me, they looked to have shared many, many years together. They had that gentle way of moving together that some couples create over time. I watched them as they set up their mats and as they shuffled across the room in front of me to get their props for class. He said casually, “I’ll get your bolster.” She said, “Ok. I’ll get your blankets.” They shuffled back across the room and set these down, before shuffling back across to the shelves. “I’ll get your blocks,” he said. “Ok. I’ll get yours” was her casual response.
It was the tender, ordinary love of two people who have lived their lives together always looking out for the needs of the other. Their small, easy-going acts of caring for each other were so mundane, so casual, and so simple I could have easily overlooked them even though they were right in front of me. Like most us, I can often overlook the ordinary kindness of people and the ordinary beauty of this world, save for those special times I set aside for reflection.
Faith communities create special seasons for deeper contemplation and presence, such as Advent and Lent in the Christian tradition. Even secular cultures set aside a day to express gratitude, such as Thanksgiving. But given the frenetic calendar of pageants and concerts, and given the chaotic commercial frenzy that now begins on Thanksgiving, it is difficult to find the space and the time for real presence, real contemplation, real gratitude.
Personally, I’m done with trying to find any of those in the special holidays and designated seasons of the church. They’ve become too charged with expectations that get in the way of experiencing anything resembling gratitude or joy. Instead, since 2009 I have pursued a practice of presence and gratitude in hospice.
It’s in hospice each week that I experience gentle sweetness that is usually quite ordinary. Part of the equation is that I take time to prepare myself to arrive ready to be present with whatever the situation is each week: no expectations, no agendas, no plans.
I show up to be present to what is. This practice of being present to what is carries over into other parts of my life, but rather inconsistently, I admit. But for hospice? My practice is consistent. I prepare myself by taking a few deep breaths before getting out of my car, making sure I am arriving fully present without distractions. I don’t know what will happen except that I will show up for that person.
But people are creatures of habit. In the end, with each client, should we be lucky to develop a relationship across time, we tend to create a routine of spending time together each week. I come to relish whatever ordinary normality we create together. I relish these hours of ordinariness together probably because I know they won’t last.
Over the years I have come to realize my weekly 4-hour shifts are where I experience church. There’s rarely any God-talk or overt prayer when I pay my visits. But each week I experience in this practice of presence a stranger gratitude for ordinary life. The gratitude swells each week often completely unexpectedly and certainly unplanned as our relationship develops into an easy routine. Usually, we are scheduled to meet the same time on the same day so that the caregiver can leave the house for a few hours and do whatever they want without worrying about the safety of their family member. My visits become routine, but the gratitude is unique and special each time.
My hospice shifts for the most part really are mundane. But they don’t start that way. Going to a stranger’s home makes me feel vulnerable at first. And you can imagine how vulnerable a family feels about letting a stranger—albeit one who has been vetted by the hospice—into their home to stay with their aged parent who is dying. One woman, Beverly, called a family meeting to meet me and interview me before letting me spend time alone with her 94-year old mother, who I will call Sophia. I felt their shared anxiety and concern dissipate as I greeted their mother and sat with them answering their questions. I also had to let go of my own anxiety about whether I would meet their expectations.
The following week I started what would become 9 months of visits. I would show up on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. so that Beverly, who was the primary caregiver, and her husband could have a date night each week. After a couple weeks, the dog, Boo-Boo, would run out to greet me when I pulled into the driveway. And then I would sit with Sophia, who was alert, but didn’t talkmuch, and spend four hours watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show back to back. She outlived her original 6-month hospice diagnosis and was recertified to remain in hospice care, which meant for me that I have now seen the entire run of eight seasons. That’s 249 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show (along with showings of Beverly Hills Chihuahua I, II, and III and Frozen). We’d sit and watch. We shared green tea. We laughed. We played with the dog. If Sophia started to doze, I turned off the T.V. and read. Occasionally I questioned why I spent my Friday nights this way. Sometimes I was bored. There was nothing special, it seemed.
Except it was. It became a routine—comfortable, predictable, and easy for all of us: ordinary time. The people I have come to know in hospice have all been my most important spiritual teachers. Rarely mentioning God or saying prayers, they each have taught me to be deeply grateful for ordinary time, because it doesn’t last.
People often ask me how I can be a hospice caregiver. “It’s so easy,” I say. My hospice experiences are filled with the most astonishing acts of kindness and truth, trust and honesty, laughter and a few tears, some questions, and very little dogma. More than any priest, or monk, or nun, the people I have known facing the end of their life have taught me how to live with deep gratitude and have brought about spiritual transformation in my own. Their teachings aren’t complex, nor did they require advanced education or ordination to learn. Instead they lived each day until they died, nothing special and deeply special at the same time.
Of course, we are all living with a hospice diagnosis, so to speak. Some of us will just get recertified for 6 more months, more often than others of us. How much we notice and are present to our ordinary life, witnessing the kindness and appreciating the beauty is up to us. My friends in hospice have taught me boldly by inviting me into their lives. For their teachings and their friendship, I am deeply grateful.