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Posted by Guest Blogger on September 27, 2011
Briget Wandruff is a Social and Cultural Anthropologist, writer, and currently resides in New York. After experiencing the loss of a father from brain cancer, the words Right to Die and Death With Dignity have become common language. Today, Briget is pursuing a career in palliative and end of life care and supports the right to end-of-life choices.
I ran fast more than twenty years ago from what seems to be a calling to be with the dying. I don't like the words "a calling", but there seem to be no other words to describe my answer to what may have been a whisper around halls and doorways as a child. I'm forty-five, no one is whispering, or talking softly, it's a calm clear voice. I am listening. Perhaps, as Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross said, "Everyone has something to learn. That is why we are here."
Do I need a lesson in goodbye? At the beginning of the year I received a letter from a friend, "How are you? I suppose you are still in mourning, but then you will always be mourning." I've survived saying goodbye to a half-sister, a father, a grandfather, three grandmothers, an aunt, two uncles, friends—far too many friends—before I had turned twenty-three—and not a single person went on the quiet—that wish for "the perfect death".
The hardest thing to hear from someone you love, care for, esteem in friendship, are the words, "I am going to die." Not the conversation parents have with children when the first goldfish dies. Not, "All living things will die, someday." But, "I am going to die."
Thanksgiving, 1988, I walked into the kitchen of my parents home, there was a small square table, old chairs with stuffing peeking out of the tears in the upholstery, and was told to sit down amidst the spread of black olives and canned cranberry and carrots and celery sticks. My father, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer, stood in front of me—he was a towering man of 6' 4 ½", stoic—and he said, "I am going to die." I don't remember a single word or a moment after my first tear.
My father died on June 22, 1989, and my response to my father's death wasn't easy. It wasn't admirable. I ran. I'd been living in Santa Barbara at the time. Mother called me on the phone, and told me I should come home soon—that my father had only a couple of days to live. My response was to have one of my roommates drop me off at a small bar down the mountain, where I proceeded to drink several shots of Southern Comfort. A gentlemen friend dropped me off at home. The next day my father died.
The summer prior to proclamation and statement of fact on Thanksgiving of 1988, we, like so many families, were in fighting mode (the combined Kübler-Ross stages of hope, denial, bargaining). During the fighting months we responded and reacted to things unconventionally. I can tell you out of certainty I'm the only person in history of any hospital, anywhere, to have snuck an Irish Wolfhound into an ICU. My father was to go in for his third surgery the following day. The prognosis of him coming out of surgery was low. On the day I brought Finn to the hospital, I'd been cleaning my parent's home, and as I cleaned, it struck me that my father didn't need me, my words, or plea to not leave me. I brought my father his best friend because of something about a dog, this very special beast: Finn didn't want anything from my father. When we arrived in his room, Finn climbed up on the hospital bed and slept next to my father for as long as ten minutes. In that time, my father held his friend, his friend held him, and they just were: "I love you, as in love, not wanting." There. Present. My father defined his dignity in those minutes.
I've said goodbye more times, at every age of my life, sliced in half each time, decimated, each time. I don't answer this calling of being with the dying with any sense of ease. I do not rise because of my father or the fact that I ran all those years ago.
I volunteer at two hospitals. I'm a member of a palliative care team at one, and a Hospice volunteer at the other. It's my specific choice to be there for people who may not have anyone. William talked about God. And while I do not know much about God, I listened. William didn't understand why he was being tested. William was adamant about having control over his end of life, and believed that he was meant to learn something from the process of his dying. I knocked on his door at 2:30 on Sunday afternoons. It was an honor each time he welcomed me to sit with him for a while. William passed on his own terms on Labor Day, I was blessed to have met him and to have shared his last day.
As I had said, I do not come to this service with any sense of ease. Each time I go to meet a new patient I am a little terrified. It is a normal reaction. Still, I knock on the door, "Would you like a visitor?" As Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross once said, "If there is another human being who cared, the dying would arrive at a point of acceptance."
And so how can I answer the call to be with the dying? It comes down to this one thing: I'm able to be with others during their passing. What an amazing honor—yes, honor—to be there for someone, to be there for anyone, to perhaps make last days more comfortable, dignified, focusing on the life, but also acknowledging the end of life. This, my lesson and perhaps the voice, "Be there. Be present."
Posted on September 27, 2011 in Personal Stories
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