One of the things I have wanted to do since coming back to the land of English is volunteer with a hospice organization. Hospice, in case you don’t know, is caregiving for people who have a terminal illness. When there is nothing that can be medically done to turn a disease around, when there are no more treatments left, then patients and their families are eligible for hospice care. A hospice team – in a facility or in your home – makes sure that you are comfortable, as free from pain as possible, and supports your family as you make the transition out of this world.

Volunteers are a part of this team, doing nonmedical stuff like listening, bringing water or coffee or tea or warm blankets, wheeling patients outside for fresh air, and generally trying to be helpful while at the same time not making things worse than they already are. I just completed a 26-hour training program for hospice volunteers. My first shift at the hospice on the UBC campus is tomorrow afternoon.

The reason I wanted to do this? My dad.

Many of you may know that my dad died of pancreatic cancer. What you may not know is that he had a “good death.” In his last weeks of life he was at home, surrounded by family, in possession of all his faculties, and not in much pain. Although my mom mostly took care of him, his medical situation was looked after by a hospice team, which included a wonderful nurse. She so skillfully managed to ease his fear of being in pain, reassuring him that the team would find a solution — and they did. She helped us, when the time came, to take the unimaginably hard step of stopping his tube feedings – they were making things worse. She held his hand, called him “Mr. Knapp”, and I think we all were a little in love with her.

The day after we stopped the feedings, I left to join Marc and the boys on our regular summer hut-to-hut hike in the Alps. I had wanted to stay. Dad insisted that I go. So I said my goodbyes and went. As we rambled over passes and through picture-postcard alpine pastures, I thought about Dad and how much he would have loved the beauty of those mountains. I knew he would only last days without nourishment, so I was surprised when his voice came over the phone when we got back to civilization, saying “When will you be here?” I didn’t hesitate. I got a flight the next day.

I arrived at 11 pm, driven to the house by a kind neighbor, my bladder bursting the whole way. I ran into the house, relieved myself, and went upstairs to the family room, where Dad’s bed was. Mom was sleeping on the couch. He was gone. But only just. He must have heard me come in, and known that with two of her children there, Mom might just be able to manage. I didn’t need to see him again, and he knew it. But I think he wanted me to be there for Mom. He was looking out for her right up to the end.

Dad’s death changed me. It changed everything.  And one of the things I promised myself was that I would carry the things I learned forward someday.

We will all die. No exceptions. The question is, will we have lived?

Late Fragment, by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Carver got it, my dad got it. I know it might sound corny – Hallmark card alert! — but it’s true. There is nothing more important in this life than love.

I will talk a bit more in posts to come about the training, because some of it was pretty intense, and about some of my impressions from volunteering. I can’t talk about specific people, because, well, confidentiality. But there are things that need to be said, things everyone needs to know, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be writing about this.

9 thoughts on “Volunteer

  1. It is commendable and very meaningful that you want to be a hospice volunteer to honor your father’s values and what you had learned. But one concern for all hospice volunteers is to make sure they have had time to attend to their own grieving before taking on this task. How long ago did your father die? Whenever you do volunteer, your caring will make a big difference to yourself and to whom you serve. Hospice chaplain Karen, of offbeatcompassion.com

    • Thank you for your comment, Karen, and you are absolutely right. One of the conditions for being accepted into the hospice training program was that we had no personal loss within the past year. My father died in 2009. Grief is a strange thing, as I am sure you know, and comes in waves. The strangest things can trigger a meltdown, even when you think you are “over it.” Part of the training I went through was in self-reflection and self-care, and I have some tips on what to look out for and what to do if I feel overwhelmed.

  2. Oh Mary,
    I’m in tears reading this. I lost my mother in December and this loss has forever changed my life. I recall Brendan sitting on my mother’s lap in church during grandparent’s day at Cathedral School in kindergarten!
    Mom often spoke of her experience that day! She loved being a grandmother! Hope you are all well!
    I see posts on FB but your security settings will not permit comments.
    Best to you, Marc, Brendan and Luc! Great connecting with you!
    Love your blog!


    • Sharon, I am so, so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing that memory. Thinking of our boys – no, men – as kindergartners…
      I will send you a friend request – I’m so glad you commented. If you’re ever in Vancouver you must look us up!

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