The following is a true story.
I show up at Hospice House in Calabasas, California for my volunteer training with Gladys, the supervisor, and two other volunteer trainees. Gladys is a kindly, happy-go-lucky Christian who herself had started as a Hospice volunteer and rose to a paid staff position. She always has a big smile on her face and never really takes anything too seriously. Gladys is a trooper because she works day in and day out with human beings at the end of their lives, which isn’t always a sun-shiny, knee-slapping good time.
When you are admitted to Hospice House, you have basically six months to live. That is the physical stipulation that is confirmed by a doctor in order to receive the Medicare coverage.
Gladys has us introduce ourselves and explain what cosmic forces compelled us to want to lend a helping hand.
“My name is Jay. I really feel like I am on some kind of spiritual mission where I want to impart some of the great wisdom I have learned over the years to other people who might really need it.” I am feeling a little smug here, maybe even over confident. Gladys is beaming, her eyes actually glinting with tears. “Sometimes just a simple quote from The Bible can save a life or really bring peace to a person who is really feeling down.”
As I finish I gaze humbly around the room at each volunteer. They are moved. They believe. They want to be my Christian foot soldiers on the march to our great cause of saving souls.
Our first order of business is feeding of the Hospice patients. We are only to observe and gain a general introduction to the care center. I find this odd because why would we need to assist with feeding? I picture some sort of waiter role, trucking trays of food back and forth from the kitchen or maybe fetching drinks, taking orders, being on hand to help scoop ice cream at desert time. This was definitely not the case.
I am stunned when I enter the cafeteria. Most of the patients can neither move nor speak and a few appear already in the death spasms. They need to be fed, because, as I am told, if they aren’t, they will never eat and the food will simply be thrown away promptly at the six o’ clock bell. I never anticipated the final days being this vegetative, almost as if each patient has returned to the postnatal phase where they are virtually helpless as a babe.
I hang back uneasily to observe Gladys go around to each individual, many in wheel chairs, many unresponsive, many babbling incoherently, many just staring at me like I am the incarnation of the devil. Gladys quickly tries to scoop a few spoonfuls into unresponsive mouths then moves on to the next person. I do my best to paste on a grin but the room is so miserable, so depressing, so dim and utterly without hope and there is such a ubiquitous cloud of unwieldy death shrouding all, my smile hurts. It physically hurts.
In absolute wonder, I watch Gladys as she dances from one patient the next, ever-smiling and ever-offering words of love and encouragement, never wavering for a second. My God she is a trooper. My God.
“This is Mr. Klein. We thought we lost him two weeks ago but he’s still here,” Gladys says, patting the back of an elderly man in a reclining wheel chair with a brace that supports his neck. Everything about him is gray, almost as if he is only half on the material plane. First, he looks like he is about 120 years old. His hands are bony, claw-like, crippled with palsy. She makes a few faint attempts to offer him the pureed paste from his tray, but he doesn’t respond, his lips slightly trembling at the cold of the spoon.
“Some of the patients have to get their food in soft form otherwise they can’t swallow or digest it,” she explains.
Mr. Klein’s plate consists of three little piles of mashed food product: one gray, one darker gray, and one an orangish brown. I don’t have the faintest clue what kind of foods these represent but assume it is of the generic baby food variety.
“Are you working?” A stern-faced woman in glasses asks me with a German accent.
“Uh, I’m learning. I’m a volunteer.”
“Come with me.” She takes my hand and leads me to the corner where a large-eared, old man sits upright staring straight ahead into oblivion. “This is Klaus. He needs to eat dinner. Please.” She bids me to sit across from Klaus.
“I’m not sure if I…”
“It’s very easy,” she says. “You take a little like this and offer it to him.”
She takes a small amount of rice and pushes it into Klaus’s mouth. He chews, his eyes still peering off into space. She hands me the fork. “Go ahead.”
“Hey, what’s up, bro?” I ask Klaus, trying to scoop rice onto the fork, not wanting to get too much in and choke the poor bastard. Klaus just stares beyond me vacuously.
“He doesn’t speak much English. Please.”
I raise the fork to his paper-thin lips with a little rice on board. As the fork touches his lips, they part and I dump the rice in. He chews slowly and impassively, like a cow. “Good. See, it’s easy,” She says, then she leaves. I have no clue where she goes and don’t see her after that. She just disappears.
“So, how are we doing there, Klaus?” He just stares past me. “Do you like rice?” As a response, he gives a long oozing fart with liquid sounds which I know must be a bad thing. I turn around and there is a heavy-set Hispanic lady in a wheel chair, two inches from my nose, staring at me with piercing black eyes.
“How’s it going?” I say uneasily.
“Feed me,” she says in loud monotone.
“Um, I’m kinda with this dude.”
Gladys comes by and takes the fork.
“This is Kiki. Why don’t you help her and I’ll assist Mr. Voller.”
I wheel Kiki back to her table and begin shoveling chicken chow mein into her mouth. At the first spoonful, she makes a disgusted face.
“You don’t like it?”
“Oh.” I offer her more and she eats, still each bite eliciting the same reaction as if I am feeding her Comet.
“Juice,” she snaps.
I offer her a drink from her glass. Despite being confined to a wheel chair, Kiki seems more vigorous and lively than the others. Gladys tells me that Kiki is not on Hospice but has other “special needs”. The center doubles as a nursing home but the active elderly who don’t have one foot in the grave are kept in another part of the ward. It is sad they have Kiki bunched in with the soon-to-be-departed.
I take the dinner roll on her plate and hold it to her lips. The dinner role appears more agreeable than the chow mein.
“Juice.” I offer her more juice.
“Biscuit.” I offer another bite of the bread.
I offer her more chow mein and she only makes the disgusted face.
“Take me to my room,” Kiki says abruptly.
“Uh, not sure if I’m supposed to do that.”
“Take me to my room.”
I look for Gladys.
“She wants me to take her to her room.”
“No. She needs to eat. She just wants attention,” Gladys explains.
I feed her a while longer until she no longer seems interested, only staring at me like I just sprouted horns. I keep smiling through the pain.
“This is Mr. O’Leary,” Gladys says, leading me to a hearty-looking fellow who resembles a retired general with a buzz cut and a tall, solid frame. Strong Irish boxer’s features. A wave of relief passes over me as I feel that at last, here is someone I can talk to who is coherent and we might have a nice warm discussion over dinner. “Hi, Mr. O’Leary. How are you today, handsome?” Gladys says, hugging him then kissing the top of his head. Gladys takes his fork and offers him food and things go down hill from there. He bites down on the fork and won’t let go, finally dropping it into his lap, then on the floor. He clenches great fistfuls of chow mein and rice and smears it across his face and over his pink polo shirt.
“Oh dear…” says Gladys, her smile going crooked, backing off as Mr. O’Leary crushes the food in his enormous hands and plasters it over his entire body, wolfing it down like a wildman. Gladys looks at me and I see a trace of the real Gladys, hidden in there somewhere. She is doing her best to maintain and be a good Christian, but damn it is hard.
“Mr. Moser…” she introduces me to an affable man with gray hair who doesn’t look that old and appears normal enough until he opens his mouth...
“Be-bop the de-dop, the car said, the man said, he go, she go, which go,” he stammers, in a stream of consciousness rant.
“Yes, yes, I know Mr. Moser,” Gladys says, hugging him.
“Which way, this way, the car way, the car, the bus, brick bus, bit bus…”
“Yes! Yes! The bus! Mr. Moser, the bus,” replies Gladys.
“Frontiers, frontier, the frontier, the guesswork, the car work, the car, the cars, haddle-haddle-haddle…”
“I love you, Mr. Moser! “
“Bing-bong the ding-dong, the ring, the thing, the car, the car thing…” As he speaks he always stares straight ahead, never directing his words at anyone in particular, unblinking.
“Yes, I know!”
I turn around and Kiki is inches away from me again with that unnerving, penetrating look. “Take me to my room.”
“Why don’t you take her and we’ll meet you there? We’re going to the conference room from here. It’s on the way,” Gladys says.
“Don’t put her in bed though. She just wants attention.”
I find myself pushing Kiki down the interminable corridors that seem to stretch on forever. Patients watch in wide-eyed horror as we pass. Some stand in corners like zombies, others truck by aimlessly on walkers or wheelchairs. I picture this as some anesthetized plane of lower hell where the sane mix with the insane, in a slow, simmering decline of the senses, not quite dead but dead enough; a kind of atrophy of the soul where one is trapped in a spoon-fed nightmare, the delicious freedom of death only spoken in the fractured chittering of the demented.
“Uh, which way do we go?” I ask realizing that if I didn’t, we could have circled the facility until one of us actually expired in the process.
“Are we getting close?”
“Which way now?”
“What’s your room number?”
“Are we close to your room?”
“Which way now?”
“Are we close?”
If by some miracle, we finally find her room after what seems like an endless trip around the ward. Her room is a tiny space with two single beds, a nightstand with a few books and stuffed animals and a single closet. A white specter of a woman lies in the second bed nearby asleep.
“This is it, huh? Here we are. Okay.”
There is a silence as she just stares at me and I nod uncomfortably and try to smile. I go out into the hallway to see if Gladys is on her way. Nothing. I go back in and stand near Kiki, glancing at the woman in the second bed.
“What’s her name?”
“She’s sleeping!” Kiki yells.
I scan her books, a weird assortment of horror novels and thrillers by Peter Straub and Stephen King.
“Did you read these? They look like good books,” I say.
“Those are my husband’s books.”
“Oh, where is he?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“He died in a plane crash.”
“Wow, that’s sad.”
“He was a writer and a movie director.”
“Oh. That’s cool.”
“He never sold anything. No luck.”
A long silence. I sneak out to the hallway even though she is spearing me through the whole time with her piercing black eyes. No Gladys.
“I want to go to bed.”
“Put me in bed. I want to sleep.”
“Not sure if I’m supposed to.”
“I want to sleep.”
“Yeah, I know but...”
“Put me in bed.”
“Can you do it yourself?”
I position the wheelchair close to the bed and move around behind Kiki to place my hands under her arms. I lift with all my strength. She offers no assistance whatsoever just sitting there like a stubborn elephant. She feels like she weighs a thousand pounds. I strain and manage to get her up and wedge her into her sheets. Her legs dangle awkwardly over the bed. I put my shoulder to her shins and heave. Finally, I’m able to pull the sheets over her body.
“Alright, there we go. You’re all set.” She just stares at me with those wide black eyes. “So, uh, I better, uh, you know, head out.”
“Do you like books?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Those are my husband’s books.”
I flip through her books and find “A Farewell To Arms” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Wow, you have Hemingway? He’s great.”
“I don’t know.”
I sit there for about twenty seconds trying to look happy and content while she just glares at me. Twenty seconds feel like twenty minutes.
“Are you from Los Angeles originally?”
Another twenty seconds. I pretend to read, to smile, to nod. I glance back at the hallway like a drug freak.
“Do you have a big family?”
Another twenty seconds.
“Is that your daughter in that picture?”
“What’s your relationship with God?”
“You ask too many questions!”
I sit in silence, looking at her, then down at Hemingway, then back to her smiling self-consciously, nodding, then down at the Hemingway again. I am about to throw out another question but I hold it in. I feel the back of my neck creak and the hair stand up on end. For a second I feel like my skull will rip apart and my brain will spill onto the carpet, sizzling like a raw egg. I look at Kiki and for a brief instant, I notice a twinge of warmth in her eyes mixed with pity.
“What are you doing?!” A scolding voice comes from the hall. I turn and see Gladys framed in the doorway with an angry look. I want to say, “I’m diddling my nutsack, what does it look like?” But what I actually say is, “Uh, she wanted to go to bed.”
“We don’t move patients. Only nurses move patients.”
“Oh, I was just talking to her.”
Gladys is really pissed like she caught me urinating on the floor or something. “Come on. We’re going now.”
I move to the door, glance back at Kiki and give her a wave. “See you later, Kiki.” She makes no response and for a moment my heart leaps as I think she might have died, right there, her face is frozen in that wide-eyed look of wonder. She finally blinks and I sigh, hugely relieved.
“Don’t move patients. She just wants attention anyways and will be back in her wheel chair and down the hall in five minutes or so,” Gladys explains.
I am a little huffy that she left me alone for such a long period of time.
“Where did you go? It felt like you were gone forever.”
“I went to check my email.”
Great, she’s checking her email while I engage in elderly abuse.
“That’s sad her husband died in a plane crash,” I say.
“Oh, he didn’t die in a plane crash. He comes every other day to visit her.”
I join Gladys and the other two volunteers in the conference room for the remainder of the orientation. Our meals are brought to us and we eat while Gladys goes over the rules and protocol of Hospice House. We are fed the exact Chinese chicken chow mein and rice meal the patients received. After feeding so many Hospice patients the same thing, I am feeling a little queasy. While Gladys shows us the volunteer handbook, Mr. O’Leary barges in like a rampaging zombie and throws our handbooks around the table.
“Grab your plates!” Gladys screams.
We all try to be cool and gather up our plates and silverware. We try to appear happy and casual while Mr. O’Leary thrashes about in the room but everyone looks wildly disturbed, even Gladys.
“Grab your pens!”
Mr. O’Leary has armed himself with a pen and is wielding it like a dagger, flailing his arms about and bumping into the table. He bumps into me and I try to look calm expecting any second to feel the pen driven into my carotid artery.
“Hi, Mr. O’Leary. Do you want to join our meeting?” Gladys says in a loud, measured tone, the color drained from her face.
Mr. O’Leary continues to thrash about like a gut-shot zombie. He tries to rip the employee handbook out of my hands and suddenly I am in a minor tug-of-war match with a man who has less than six months to live.
“C’mon! If we pretend to leave, maybe he’ll go away,” Gladys says to us, not even trying to be discreet at this point. “Mr. O’Leary, we’re leaving. You can come if you want.”
We all file out the door and Mr. O’Leary shambles after us, the room in complete disarray, papers scattered everywhere, food and dishes spilled on the floor, glasses of water overturned and dripping on the carpet. We roam down the hall and Mr. O’Leary follows us. No one speaks. Everyone looks like we just witnessed Bambi executed by Dick Cheney.
“In here!” Gladys yells and motions us into a patient residence room where two frail old men sleep peacefully in their beds. Mr. O’Leary staggers in, bouncing off the wall. I fear for the tenuous lives of the old men. Mr. O’Leary still grasps the pen upside down in one hand.
“Quick! Run!” Gladys commands and we all bolt down the hallway. I want to stay and stand guard over the two sleeping men but this is not an option. We sprint down the hallway.
Gladys takes us on a hasty tour of the facilities, clearly still shaken by Mr. O’Leary’s rampage. We meet a few warm old people along the way that, thankfully, are fully lucid and energetic. Gladys greets them with hugs and words of love and support. My mind is still on the zombie island massacre that could be happening down the hall but I try to blot it out of my mind as I will try to do with much of the memories of the evening.
Our tour brings us to the “rec center” which is really only a large room with a long conference table, many rough, very uncomfortable looking sofas and a blurry big screen TV. A large group of patients sit around watching Samuel Jackson and Collin Ferrel machine gun terrorists. There are explosions, bloodletting, bodies flying everywhere. Somebody takes a head shot and their face blows apart. I see Samuel Jackson throw a knife that sticks in a guy’s eye. I look around the room and see who is handling the remote--an angry-looking, middle-aged Hispanic orderly, leaning against the wall, so enraptured by the carnage he doesn’t even know we are there. I realize there is nothing that exists on earth that will pry the remote from the orderly’s fingers. Half the people in the room, I am certain, have already passed away. They look like they have been lying there for days, some in contorted positions on sofas, some spread at the conference table, some half on the floor. A few stare glassy-eyed and stunned at the screen. Some lie with their heads thrown back, mouths wide open.
“This is Mr. Garza. He’s an orderly here.”
Mr. Garza doesn’t even turn to say “hi”. His arms are crossed at his chest and he grips the remote like a lifeline.
By this point in my visit to Hospice House, I am feeling that my soul has gained about twenty-six pounds. I feel heavy, tired, burnt out, like I could sleep for days. I feel sick and drained like a vampire might after supplementing his diet of blood with sugar water and Twinkies. I want to go home. There were no spiritual lessons here. There were no healings. There were no great life-affirming talks of wisdom and transcendence. There was no robust inspiration of light that myself and the other volunteers might have shone on the darkness here. No one was saved.
At the main entrance, Gladys punches a code in the security lock. For the moment, she has forgotten the code and we are trapped. I am scared. I am horrified. I want to jump out a window. I want to break the door down to get out. The little Asian volunteer feverishly pushes on the bar, trying to swing the door open, taking panicked breaths.
“No! Don’t do that! It won’t open without the code!” Gladys shouts. The Asian man continues pushing on the bar. He doesn’t care. He’s had enough too. I feel short of breath. I look around like a trapped animal. What if I am to be stuck in here all night? There must be another way out. There has to be another way out.
I notice a sad-faced lesbian nurse pushing Kiki around in her wheelchair. Kiki sees me and flashes a faint grin of recognition. That faint grin offers me worlds of hope. I feel tremendous relief. I wave to her and she waves back. I can suddenly breathe again as Gladys punches in the code and the cold night air hits me as I wander out into the parking lot, the half moon and glittering stars never looking so good.
For more funny spiritual adventures read my book, “Zen Birdwatching In America”, available at Amazon.com