Wednesday afternoons

She volunteers Wednesdays. After running some accounts payable at my office, after designing a counter top for a client, after a quick lunch at our local Bleeding Carrot, Wendy spends the afternoon helping strangers die.

We talk of it in the evening over a glass or two. Today we ran a spa day, she says, and manicures were on the offer. Or today I played Elvis tunes with a truck driver from Thornbury. Or, today I met a tradesman from Barrie who used to do some work for a builder I used to know. (She is fifth generation in our neck of the woods here and knows many families).

Sometimes she is surprised by the vitality of a resident. They joke and laugh about the Jays or the Leafs but a week later all she says is that he has faded and sleeps a lot. Some are confused by the new residence; others know full well what it means. Today a new resident fixed her eyes on me and asked, “tell me about the others that were in this bed before me.” Or, today I told one patient that she save the rest of her yogurt for the next day. “What if I am not here tomorrow?” she asked with a smile. Wendy did not miss a beat and suggested that they at least save it for this afternoon – and they both broke into a full laugh.

I went with her once to visit someone she had befriended. But I am not comfortable confronting mortality and took the earliest exit ramp available. I am not alone in that, I understand.

All becomes concentrated these last weeks or days. The care offered is very focused. Earthly possessions are reduced to a quilt and some key photographs. Affairs are put in order; conversations more pointed and emptied of dross. All becomes distilled. There are those with endless streams of visitors. And then there are those who have burned many bridges in life, whose doorways are hardly darkened by friends or family, leaving it to dedicated staff to fill the gaps.

The volunteers and staff say among themselves that after one passes, the spirit takes a while to leave the room; they prefer not to hurry to ready it for the next resident. This is not flippant talk of ghosts but is a way of saying that something sacred and abiding has happened in the weeks and days leading up to that moment. 

Like her co-workers, Wendy is self-effacing (and would be mortified to read this). But there are scores of like persons who volunteer every day of the week, taking their turn to massage feet, hold a hand, offer a cool glass and ask after a great-grandchild’s hockey photo. It seems important to honour that which happens every hour of every day in these rooms.

A church member once blurted out to her – “you are doing all of that for people you don’t know?” It was not meant unkindly and was not received as such. It merely underscores the beauty of this gift which those at the hospice have to offer.

As you grow old, you appreciate all the more the very human scale of the towns and villages of our thinly populated counties: the preschool teacher who asks after a shy child, the farmer on the 4th Line who blows out the drive without charge, the hockey coach who has a way with your troubled teen. Those of the hospice are simply the last in the line. The holding of a hand, sharing of a joke, cooling of a forehead – these and more mundane acts of kindness are the least and greatest gifts which a community can bestow on its people.

A new hospice is being planned. Its rooms will have privacy, a side bed for overnight visitors, a patio door opening onto a wood lot for family members to collect their thoughts. And, oh yes, there will be a warm kitchen and the roof will be gabled, just like that of a home.

Palliative care from the province
On March 11, the Ontario provincial government announced that it would be investing $75 million over three years in end-of-life care, including the construction of 20 new hospice centres. Funds will also help in training hospice volunteers. Last year, 13,500 hospice volunteers supported more than 17,000 in-home clients.

  • John A. Tamming is a barrister and solicitor in Owen Sound, Ontario.

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