Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Hospice Story

If cats have nine lives surely Paul had at least two. There was the one he led for his first thirty years. Lonely and introspective he struggled with a secret that was far too large for his conservative Catholic upbringing. So he closeted his feelings. He closeted his hopes and dreams. And he closeted his sexual orientation.

His second life began on his thirty first birthday when he confessed his heart to his parents and sister. A heated argument ensued which caught Paul completely by surprise. He left his childhood home in the tony Chicago suburbs and never looked back.

A decade later I stood next to his bed my body shading the stream of light pouring in from the east facing window of his room. I fidgeted uncomfortably as I asked if there was something I could do. It was my first day on the hospice unit. His partner nodded slowly. They wanted to see the chaplain.


My earliest clinical experiences occurred during the first year of medical school as a hospice volunteer. Each week I would leave the cloistered environment of the library and anatomy lab and wend my way through the hospital to the hospice ward. It was the mid nineties and people were still dying of AIDS.

Paul had withstood every cruel manifestation of an emotionally and physically disfiguring disease. Lymphoma, Kaposi's Sarcoma, pneumocystis pneumonia. He was tired. And for the most part he was ready to die.

As dying people go, Paul had it all. A caring partner. A slew of friends that visited him constantly, and a kind and generous demeanor. He rarely complained of physical pain. He, however, could not overcome the internal unrest that snatched the dream of a peaceful death from his frail clutches.

Paul had not spoken to his family in over ten years. They had no idea that he was sick or dying in the hospital. He called once six months prior. But his father hung up before he could explain his situation. He yearned to see his father and mother once hug his baby sister.


On a sunny October morning the chaplain sat down at the nurses station to call Paul's parents. His mother answered the phone cheerily. The chaplain gently explained who he was and why he was calling.

A barricade that took a decade to traverse emotionally melted away in minutes as his family rushed the short distance from the suburbs to the city hospital. By the time they entered his room, he was unconscious.

I watched as Paul's father, mother, and sister sat attentively at the bedside for a few minutes. Then they would leave and his partner and friends would enter to take their rightful place. This back and forth continued for hours.

As Paul's breathing slowed the chaplain approached his family and beckoned them to come. They joined the others standing in his room. Each family member jockeyed amongst the crowd to get one last look. Touch his body one last time.

The chaplain asked that they hold hands to say a prayer. And there stood Paul's loves ones. His father holding his partner's hand. His mother and sister interspersed among his friends.

Paul's eyes opened briefly before he took his last breath. As he looked up a faint smile formed at the corner of his lips.

He had found peace. He could die now.

The two parts of his life...

had finally come together.

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