A Place of Peace and Gratitude
Shared by Lynn
Two weekends ago, I finally followed through on something I’ve wanted to do for years, but kept chickening out on. I volunteered for the first time at a hospice home called Grace House, where my mom died almost eight years ago. Since my mom’s death, I’ve been quite drawn to hospice work, partly because I was so grateful for the care she received and how helpful that was to my sister and me at that time. And also because I really value the philosophy behind what happens at Grace House: that no effort is made to prolong life or hasten death, but every effort is made to provide for the physical and emotional comfort of the person who is dying and those who love her.
But until that weekend, I had never actually shown up for duty. I would go just so far in the process of applying to be a volunteer—getting a tour, filling out an application, registering for training, signing my name on the schedule to shadow a more experienced volunteer—and then at the last minute I got nervous and backed out.
In fact, I almost did the same thing again this time. I was originally scheduled to go in the previous Saturday, but called in sick that afternoon with a bad cold. That may be another indication of how much I feared this, that I actually became physically ill at the prospect of going.
I don’t think the fear has to do with my mom’s passing. What I remember about the last time I was with her was sitting by the side of her bed in her pretty blue room at Grace House, just the two of us. I was holding her hand and looking at our two hands intertwined. It was a timeless moment, and the memory of it is a peaceful one that reminds me of her lively spirit and lets me feel close to her.
I think the fear had more to do with self-doubt—a lack of faith in myself about my ability to be helpful, to be strong and calm in the face of another person’s pain. But the next weekend, when the fear started moving in, I finally acknowledged that, for me, there may be more at stake than whatever help my presence can offer the residents and families being cared for at Grace House. Clearly, something in me is very called to this gracious work. And something else in me is equally eager to avoid it.
What came to mind that afternoon was all I’ve been learning in A Course in Miracles about the miracle impulse: that it is in my nature to want to give, and that my happiness and helpfulness depend on honoring that desire. In spite of my self-doubts, I so want to live out the gentle promise of the Course’s “Truly Helpful” prayer at the end of Chapter 4 of the Text:
“I am here only to be truly helpful. I am here to represent Him Who sent me. I do not have to worry about what to say or what to do, because He Who sent me will direct me. I am content to be wherever He wishes, knowing He goes there with me. I will be healed as I let Him teach me to heal.”
So I finally told myself that yes, I was afraid, but it was important to go anyway. It was important to go with an open mind and a willingness to give what I was able to give, and just let the experience teach me about itself, and about me.
And here’s what I learned in the three hours I spent at Grace House on that snowy evening a week before Christmas: that although I thought this was all about learning what I had to give to others, I ended up being on the receiving end of a gentle healing experience that brought me to a place of peace and gratitude.
Grace House is set up like a home, with two wings of private bedrooms. Each wing has a kitchen, a living room, and a small chapel. The place is really lovely, very homey and cozy. The volunteers don’t see to the residents’ medical or physical needs. There are nurses on each wing to take care of them in that way. What the volunteers do is basically to keep the place neat and well-stocked, and provide a cheerful presence for the residents and their visitors.
During my evening shift, we made a simple supper and checked in with the residents to see if they wanted what was on the menu, or if there was something else that appealed to them. And when family members stopped in the kitchen for a glass of ginger ale or a dish of pudding or to have a little cry, we showed them where to find the ice, the straws, the spoons, and the tissues.
I was teamed with a man named Larry, a kind and funny retired teacher who has been volunteering at Grace House for years. He patiently mentored me in such tasks as how to empty the trash and preheat the oven, and he cautioned me about misplacing anything in Sister Monica Marie’s pantry (which I think may have literally been arranged alphabetically).
Ideally, there are two volunteers in each wing, although that night there was just one man, a high school track coach named Dave, working in the other part of the house. The two guys instantly joined in a friendly competition over whose kitchen was cleaner, whose dinner trays were better prepared (Dave did his wrong, Larry assured me), and whose residents had better appetites. It was sweet.
Our side of the house was pretty quiet. There were six residents, but only three of them were eating, which I understood to mean that the others were very close to making their transition.
Three things stood out for me that evening as particularly sacred. The first was being asked by Larry if I would mind tidying up the already immaculate chapel—a small room with a stained glass window, an altar, a few chairs, and a bookcase. I welcomed what seemed to me a prayerful task, watering plants and dusting the nativity scene in that holy space that was gently lit with white Christmas lights.
The second was bringing dinner to one of the residents: a lady named Jenny, who shared with me that her 72nd birthday was coming up soon. (She pointed out the injustice of the fact that people who have birthdays near Christmas get robbed of their fair share of presents all their lives!) Jenny, who had lived much of her life in a home for folks with an intellectual disability, seemed not to be ill at all, and wandered about chatting with anyone willing to listen. Her cheerful room was decorated with lots of photos of her with people who obviously adore her. It didn’t take me long to see why they do: She’s delightful.
When I brought Jenny her oh-so-humble dinner of a hot dog and baked beans, she looked down at the plate, then looked at me with a confused expression. As I was getting ready to apologize for the meager meal and offer to make her something else, she said, to my surprise, “Just one?” Me: “Just one?” Jenny: “Where is my other hot dog? Can I have another hot dog? I haven’t had a meal like this in forever. It’s my favorite!”
The third thing that struck me as extraordinary that night was the strength and sincerity of a woman name Caroline. She is married to Danny, a man in his 50s who is the dad of two and a lover of motorcycles, and who is ill with lung cancer. What moved me about Caroline was her joyfulness as she sat by her husband, conversing with him and with Larry and me as if we were at a basketball game or a holiday cocktail party rather than at her husband’s bedside. I wondered if she falls apart when she goes home without him at night, giving in then to the sorrow she must surely be feeling. I thought maybe not, though, somehow.
One other interesting and kind of strangely surprising thing happened that night. As Larry and I were cleaning up the kitchen, the fire alarm blasted throughout the house. That harsh sound was distressing in this otherwise calm and quiet place. And although one of the nurses quickly came to turn off the alarm, the home’s peace had been undeniably disturbed. It wasn’t long before the fire trucks arrived.
We learned not much later the source of the problem: Dave had forgotten to turn on the overhead fan while preparing the dinners on his side of the house, and had burned something. (Sister Monica Marie would not be pleased, I feared.) Of course, Larry got a bit of a kick out of that, because it made him the hands-down winner of their competition.
But we also learned that one of the residents on that side of the house passed away at the same time the alarm was going off. And in fact, when I left to go home at the end of my shift, a hearse was pulling up to the house—a somber but commonplace sight at Grace House.
What occurred to me afterward was this: Maybe if Dave had someone else helping him, the way I was helping Larry—if there had been another volunteer there with him, one who hadn’t chickened out or conveniently come down with a cold, for example—then the distressing sound of that alarm might not have blared through that tranquil place. The person who died at that moment would still have died, of course, but maybe they could have left this world accompanied by the sounds of peace and caring, not a siren of alarm, if someone else had mustered up the courage to follow through on her commitment and simply be there, like she said she would.
Not that I want to make this an opportunity to be critical of myself. I don’t. Because although it took me nearly eight years, I did in fact show up. I showed up as me, fear and doubt and hope and all. And just by being there, I helped.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized my first volunteer experience at Grace House had given me a miniature portrait of what I want to do with my life, inspired by all I’m learning through my work with the Course: I want to make of it a calm, tidy, and gently lit place where people who are hurting, including me, are made more comfortable by each other’s presence.
I don’t have a cure for lung cancer, and I can’t stop the alarm from sounding or the hearse from coming. But by God, I can boil you up a second hotdog if that’s your heart’s desire. I can dust off the baby Jesus in the chapel and move him a little closer to the light on the altar. I can hold your hand in mine and quietly and gratefully recognize your spirit. And I can stand by your side in laughter or in prayer, witnessing your pain without adding to it, my own broken heart being mended in the process.