George is eighty-three years old and enrolled in our outpatient hospice program with end-stage heart disease. George tenaciously, but barely, clings to his independence, living alone in his, and his deceased wife, Lucille’s, home. Lucille’s been gone for over five years now.
George says things that most of us aren’t honest enough to say. George’s perennial prayer is;” Lord, why don’t you just give me a little energy to do a little work?” But in spite of his prayers, George continues to grow weaker, and sometimes George even gets a little mad about it. One day he clenched his teeth and both fists and exclaimed, “If God really cares then why won’t He give me a little energy! Is that too much to ask?” But after blowing off a little steam he said, “But I know he loves me. He told me so. Once I heard him say, ‘George, you know I love you.’”
George eagerly shares his commentaries on life. One beautiful summer day as George and I sat in his lawn swing he commented, “Do you know what frustrates me? People don’t appreciate things anymore. People are like hogs. An acorn can fall from a tree, hit a hog on the head and fall to the ground; and a hog will gobble it up without ever looking up to see where it came from.”
On the day of one of my routine visits it just happened to be his and his deceased wife’s, Lucille’s, wedding anniversary. George shared, “I used to wish I could know that she was in the house again even if only for a few more seconds, but I don’t feel like that anymore. My days are numbered, I can tell it. I know I’m on my way out but I still want to get out there and see life while I can.”
We talked about the peace that comes from acknowledging and cooperating with the seasons of life. We reflected on the lyrics of an old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” I sensed that “the things of earth” were growing “strangely dim” to George. For the first time, he appeared to be coming to grips with his mortality. He seemed to be embracing the final developmental task of life, that of shifting his hope from the physical to the spiritual, from the temporal to the eternal.
Surprisingly I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I celebrated his spiritual progress, but on the other hand I grieved; because I realized that I would eventually be saying goodbye to “ole George”. George’s daughters had apparently also detected the changing seasons. They’ve always provided support while respecting their father’s independence, but the frequency and intensity of their support had increased and the climate had changed.
A couple of weeks ago George reflected on what it’s like to grow older: “It’s a rough old world for old people. People don’t help each other anymore; or maybe I just can’t see it because I’m stuck in the house now. I guess they do open the door for you sometimes when you go to the grocery store. I used to like to help people. It made me feel good to do something for somebody. The lady at Kroger said to me, ‘It seems like people aren’t very interested in you when you get old are they?’ That was nice for someone to say when she really doesn’t know me that well.” George added, “And people don’t talk to you when you get old. It’s like we don’t even speak the same language anymore. And you don’t hear anything good anymore. I’m thinking about having the TV cable turned off. I watch HLN but every forty-five minutes they just rerun the same old news.”
George’s commentary reminds me of the lyrics of a song by John Prine titled “Hello in There, Hello”: “We had an apartment in the city; me and Loretta liked living there. Well, it’s been years since the kids had grown; a life of their own left us alone. Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger and old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’. Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much anymore; she sits and stares through the backdoor screen; and all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen. Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy. We worked together at the factory. But what could I say if he asks ‘What’s new?’; ‘Nothing, what’s with you?’; ‘Nothing much to do’. So if you’re walking down the street sometime; and spot some hollow ancient eyes; please don’t just pass by and stare, as if you didn’t care; say, ‘Hello in there, hello’”.
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center-Hospice, and can be reached at 740-356-2525 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can order Loren’s new book, “Straight Paths,” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.