Sometimes my work is heavy, heavy, heavy. Sometimes I see too much sadness and death. Sometimes I see too many tears and feel burdened by deathbed confessions and family secrets. Sometimes I ask myself why I do this work when I can't shake off the grief at the end of a day. Sometimes I forget why God called me here.
And then, sometimes, I have visits which remind me of the absurdities of life, and I giggle helplessly and imagine God winking at me with bright sparkling eyes.
My visit with Violet was one of those times, one of those times when I remembered that we as hospice workers must have a quirky sense of humor to stay fresh and balanced.
Violet has been on service for over a year. She is in her late 80s and when I met her, she was a firecracker, filled with spark and life. Violet was a housekeeper and she kept the homes in an urban environment of the wealthy and polished. Violet, being from a proudly working-class background, regaled me in that first visit with tales of the rich and famous and she told all the stories with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She was an old lefty. Founder of a house church which practiced social justice. She had made the decision to come into a facility on her own, because she didn't want to burden her children. And she had carefully researched this specific facility. She liked it because it was geographically in between both of her children's homes. Violet had a practical no-nonsense streak to her. We hit it off right away. "Come back anytime, honey!" she called as I left that first day.
In the past year, Violet's become frail. Her mind wanders into places where she can't and won't lead me. She sleeps quite a bit. She's wasted away to less than 75 lbs. and we recently had to order a child-sized wheelchair to accomodate her shrinking frame. It makes me sad to see her. I often don't stay very long, which is okay, because she never wakes up to greet me anymore anyway. I leave my card on her bedside table and call her daughter after I leave to report that I was there. Violet hasn't been Violet much lately.
A few days ago I went to the nursing home to see Violet. I expected our normal routine. She'd sleep. I'd call her name. She'd sleep. I'd hold her hand. She'd sleep. I'd sing. She'd sleep. I'd leave.
But when I arrived in Violet's room, her bed was made and she was nowhere to be seen. I confess that my first thought was that Violet had died, and no one had called me. I asked the nurse in the hallway, "Where is Violet?" And she smiled a slow smile and said, "Guess what? She woke up today, so we took her to exercise."
The word "exercise" at most extended care facilities is a huge overstatement. And, this facility in particular has an "exercise program" which leaves a lot to be desired. It is run by two Women's Fellowship volunteers from the local Lutheran church who play praise music on a Jurassic boombox and sit back to back with their charges in wheelchairs circling around them. The "teachers" then recite a well-rehearsed litany in a monotone that goes something like this, "okay-now-m0ve-your-fingers-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-now-circle-your-wrists-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-now-wiggle-your-toes-and-one..." all spoken in the same droll monotone which says, "I really could care less about doing this, or about you." It was depressing to watch. And I immediately scanned the circle of white heads for Violet's.
I found her, slumped in her wheelchair decidedly asleep. I tried to wake her. No good. I tried to touch her hand. No response. Violet had opted for the easy way to tune out "exercise," and who could blame her.
I sat on the floor next to her and began doing my own version of the Lawrence Welk on Sedatives Exercise Plan led by Tweedle Dull and Tweedle Duller, the Jane Fondas of resident exercise plans minus the leg warmers and communist sentiments. I let the demented patient on the other side of me pat my head and say, "Good puppy." I considered panting happily and looking at him with begging eyes. "Exercise" (and I use that term lightly) went on for another ten minutes or so. As I was doing a head turn for a count of four, I was shocked to see Violet's eyes were open. "Violet! Hi!" I bubbled. Her eyes focused on mine and she smiled.
And then she leaned over and said to me with that sparkle in her eye and a smile on her face in a slow conspiratorial whisper which punctuated every word, "I... hate ...this ...crap. Get me out of here." Never had I seen her more lucid. I laughed and she said, "Really. Let's go. This is crap." And she spoke her second request a little louder, but still with the smile on her lips as if she knew she had found in me a kindred spirit. I couldn't have agreed more with her assessment. I happily excused us from our work-out session, feigning a pulled pinky finger muscle and wheeled her back to her room.
She fell asleep on the way there. But her moment of lucidity made me giggle all day. And as I planted a goodbye kiss on her sleeping forehead, I quietly thanked her for reminding me again how much I love my job.