This is the conclusion of my five-part series about Bill, who enrolled in hospice when he was 89. Bill was the superintendent of the electrical and communications departments at the New Boston steel mill. Bill never lost his sense of wonder, and he embodied both genius and humility. He gave God all the credit for his abilities. He declared, “Answers would just come to me … but I had a head engineer up there.”
Bill reflected, “My wife Jean died in 2004. I don’t keep the house as clean as when my wife was still here. My wife and I never fought. If I thought she was getting argumentative I would just smile and ask her, ‘By any chance, are you trying to start an argument with me?’ It would defuse the situation and we would talk about it. My wife was a bookworm, and she was the youngest of 13 children, so she always got the short end of the stick, the leftovers. So I gave her a credit card and told her to buy whatever she wanted. A group of young people observed us walking together over an overhead walk in Lexington and told us, ‘We want to be like you two when we are your age.’ Before Jean died she told me; “The last 25 years have been the best years of my life.’”
During one of my last visits, Bill reported, “My doctor in Columbus told me, ‘Bill, if there is a big snow on or if you don’t feel like coming, then don’t.’ I knew what he was saying. I don’t think I have much longer, and I think I’m going to be seeing some people pretty soon that I haven’t seen in a very long time. All I can do is smile and go on.” I confessed to Bill, “I know I shouldn’t be saying this as a hospice social worker, but I’m not ready to let go of you yet. I just might have to challenge God to a tug-of-war. If God grabs you by the right hand, I’ll grab you by the left leg.” Bill smiled and replied, “What if I shake you off?” Then I returned, “You’re going to have to shake awfully hard.” Bill smiled and predicted, “You’ll probably remember me for a long time, and you’ll probably even write something about me, won’t you.” Bill was right on both counts. Bill has been gone for two years now, but as my 95-year-old friend Ed said about the death of his son, “The music has ended, but the melody lingers on.”
Sometimes it’s not easy to “let go” and “go on,” is it? Life is perennially presenting us with the question, “What else can I do?” and after the death of a loved one, “How can I live without them?” I frequently explain to families that the developmental tasks of bereavement are to grieve the loss, reconstruct their lives and reinvest themselves; that when they do, they continue to live. I know it’s easier said than done, so maybe it will help if I put a name and face to it.
Bill P. was Bill’s hospice volunteer and was Bill’s elder by one year, 90 years old. I reminded Bill that he needed to respect his elders. Bill P. became a hospice volunteer shortly after his wife died in 2000. Bill P. recounted: “Joyce had pancreatic cancer, and she knew she didn’t have long, so she asked me, ‘What are you going to do when I’m gone? I hope you don’t stay out in that old building by yourself making toys for the kids in the neighborhood.’ I asked her, ‘What else am I going to do?’ and she told me, ‘Do what I used to do, volunteer your time. Volunteer for hospice. Go to people’s homes and sit with them so their families can go shopping.’ I told her, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t talk to strangers like that.’ Then she told me, ‘Yes you can!’ And she didn’t smile when she said it. Then she told me, ‘If at all possible, I want to die in your arms.’ She died at 6:45 the next morning with my arm around the back of her neck.”
Bill P. has visited and encouraged countless hospice patients and families since then, and he carries on his late wife’s yearly tradition. Bill makes thousands of chocolate buckeyes and distributes them to friends, the hospice staff, and to hospice patients and families.
“This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
“For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” (John 13: 15)
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center-Hospice, and can be reached at 740-356-2525 or at email@example.com. You can order Loren’s new book, “Straight Paths,” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.