Hospice Visits

The Couples

Chincoteague Beach 2018

All around me people are holding hands. Hand covering hand. Thumb caressing back of hand. Fingers soothing fingers. The gentlest of here I am gestures continually, lovingly, regretfully, thankfully. The activity room in a memory care facility. Husbands and wives. Non-patients soothing patients, their spouses.

Watching them I can imagine scenes from other, healthier, times on a drive, at a celebration, on a walk, when the fingers of both were grasped in love and unity, while now they are the hands of the caregiver and the care-receiver.

It is both a sad and joyful scene. This is love as an expression of concern and history, not passion. It is not the necessary culmination of a lifetime spent together; it is what may happen when one mind remains intact and the other wanders, then goes beyond reach.

The man I visit has dementia; my visits often include talking to his wife who visits him daily. She includes him in our conversations. He sits in his wheelchair, occasionally responding. This is and isn’t the man she has loved for decades. This love is a beautiful, painful thing. For me, the volunteer who visits them, who did not know him before, this is who he is; I am not overwhelmed with the imposition of memory on present moment.

Children who are my age, the middle-aged children of these parents who they have and have not lost, look stricken. They cringe at the parent who is in the baby phase, at the parent who may or may not respond to them, at the parent who is so changed, who needs to be in his facility. 

My mother, who lives in Florida, is on a cruise.

In two weeks, it is the yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father’s death nine years ago.

Tomorrow I will make my weekly visit to my patient. It feels like visiting a relative. I enjoy having an older person to visit, to spend time with. Being too, even for an hour, part of a community that lives within the walls of the facility and their minds. So much kindness, gentleness, but remoteness and pain too. Eyes looking: what do they see? Eyes closed: what do they see?

So much of my time is spent with the young, the anxious to go do be, but in these visits, I watch and share. I surprise myself that this can be enough. It is a break from my apartment where alone I live the life I have created for myself. Perhaps these visits help me see that it is an illusion that I am alone. Other people are in my thoughts and I am in theirs. We are connected, holding hands and memories, threads of lives interweaving even as they unravel.