Stephen was 59 years old when he was admitted to hospice with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had been an Army Staff Sergeant at Ft. Dix, served in the Army Airborne and was a Vietnam War veteran. He suffered a mortar wound and explained, “I still have a piece of steel in my neck; that’s why I can’t have a CT scan.”
Stephen was legally separated from his wife and living in a nursing home when we met. Stephen asked me, “Can you help me find a place to live? I can’t go back home with my wife, because she will lose her home. My name isn’t on the lease, and besides, she’s not in good health either.” Stephen showed me the houses for rent he’d circled in the newspaper, and stated, “I’d like to find a house with a yard.” He showed me a “for sale” ad in the classified section of the newspaper for “hens that lay brown eggs,” and stated, “If I had my own place, I’d get them. They’d save me a lot of money on eggs. You know you can hatch them using a light bulb. They are so soft and cuddly when they’re first hatched! I’m from Alabama, and that’s what we did down south. My father left us when I was young, and my mother did share cropping. She gave half of everything we raised to the owner. We raised cane, made our own syrup, raised a Black Angus cow, planted potatoes, and I’ve picked cotton. We didn’t have much, but we didn’t go hungry. After my mother died, they wouldn’t let me stay with my uncle because he drank. So I moved to my uncle’s in New York and lived in the Bronx. They moved me up a grade in school, and I graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School. I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. I was a truck driver, a cook, an electrician; I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been all over the eastern seaboard, Maine, Maryland; I lived in West Virginia for a while, and in Cleveland and Columbus.”
We did our best to find Stephen an apartment and to help him live independently again, but his condition didn’t cooperate. But he was able to move back in with his wife and children. As Stephen’s health declined, his wife had difficulty caring for him, so we admitted Stephen to our Hospice Inpatient Center and convened to brainstorm options. Stephen exclaimed, “You guys are trying to get rid of me! I’m not going to a nursing home, no way! If I have to drop you guys like a hot potato, I will! My wife and I have words, but she isn’t going to give up on me. If I have to go home and die, that’s what I’ll do. The last things I want to see before I die are the faces of my family.”
Stephen calmed down and apologized, “I didn’t mean to snap at you, but if you don’t tell people things, they can’t understand you. You can’t get anything accomplished. I took anger management classes and they taught me that I can’t make excuses for myself and say, ‘They made me mad.’ You have to take responsibility for yourself. You have to not react, you have to think about it first. But you have to speak up. You can’t repress it. You have to find a way to release it. Have you ever noticed how LeBron James chews his fingernails when he’s not playing? Playing helps him get it out. He who bites might get bitten, but he who won’t bite back will get eaten alive. You have to express yourself.” I told Stephen his statement reminded me of the song “Express Yourself” (Charles Wright, 1988): “Some people have everything and other people don’t, but everything don’t mean anything if it ain’t the thing you want. Express yourself.”
The need to express ourselves has broad-scale applications and far-reaching ramifications. King David wrote, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long.” (Psalm 32:3) Paul Tournier, Swiss physician wrote, “…there are some emotions left pent up and unexpressed that block the flow of life (The Listening Ear, 1984).” Edward Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And T. Austin-Sparks wrote “Our whole human nature is in our souls, and if nature is suppressed in one direction she will take revenge in another….spirituality is not a life of suppression…Do not fall into the snare as so many have of trying to suppress your soul…but be strong in the Spirit (What is Man, 1939).”
Others can’t read our minds and we can’t read theirs, so don’t you think it would be wise to express ourselves. If you don’t you might end up with something that “ain’t the thing you want.”
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center-Hospice, and can be reached at 740-356-2525 or at [email protected] You can order Loren’s new book, “Straight Paths,” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.