A woman from church and fellow music lover, E, is in hospice. When some mutual friends got her moved and settled into the residential hospice home some weeks ago, I asked them to tell her that I’d be happy to bring some music with me when I come to visit her, and to find out what kind of music she’d like. The answer came back: Bach, Bach, and more Bach.
Then, when PW was visiting E last week, the subject of our having a dog came up. E told PW to have me bring the Bach AND the dog with me when I came.
So on Saturday I took Lucy, our 75-pound, 8-year-old golden retriever to the Laundromutt to clean her up before our visit with E. The Laundromutt experience was one anxiety crisis after another for Lucy: being lifted into the tub because she refused to go up the stairs, the indignity of the bath, the air raid siren sound of the blow dryers, the nail clipping. You know how cartoon dogs shake and chatter with fear? That was Lucy, for a full hour, during what is normally her nap time. Let’s just say I’m glad she isn’t a human toddler.
I didn’t really know what to expect of Lucy at the hospice home, given that instead of a nap she’d spent the bulk of the early afternoon consumed with terror. But as soon as we got to the hospice, Lucy shifted into some sort of mysterious (to me) gear that I can only describe as Dog-on-the-Job. She’d never been there before, but she led me through the front door and right up the stairs to E’s room. When I took off Lucy’s leash, she promptly went over to E’s bed, jumped up on it, flopped down next to E, crossed her two front legs, and let E hold her paw (she usually hates having her paws touched).
After E picked out some music, I put a disc on the CD player and we chatted about all sorts of things. She told me about her early years as a journalist getting to interview the theologian Paul Tillich:
E: “Do you remember suits?? Well, I wore a suit. White gloves. Nice shoes…”
Me: “What about a hat?”
E: Sitting up in her bed for emphasis, “Well of COURSE I wore a HAT! I went to Simmons College, after all!”
Me: “So you knew from an early age how to rock the suit?”
E: “Yes, of COURSE! Well, anyway, I had written to Paul Tillich, a kind of thank you or fan letter, asking if I could interview him. He was a University Professor at Harvard at the time. A really big deal. He wrote back a lovely note telling me what time to meet him at his office. On the day of the interview, I took the elevator up to the top of Widener Library. When I got off the elevator, the only sign telling me which office was his was a little business card taped to the door that said ‘Paul Tillich, PhD – University Professor.’ I knocked, he invited me in, and we had a great conversation. After about an hour, I said, ‘Thank you, Professor Tillich, for helping me in my ignorance about the difference between existentialism and essentialism.’ He smiled, leaned forward, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘My deah Miss L, vee ah ALL IGnorant.’ I thought to myself, ‘Close the book. Put away the pen. That’s the perfect end to this interview.’”
E is the most exuberant hospice patient I’ve ever met. She volunteered, “I know that I’m terribly ill, I do, and yet I’m so at peace. Why is that? Why am I not raging?”
Me: “Well, it’s not like any of us gets to opt out of dying.”
E: “That’s right. Nobody gets out of here alive do they? But why do I feel such peace? This is a question I can’t answer, but I’m working on it with (a mutual friend). We’re hoping to figure it out so we can tell other people.”
Me: “It would be great if we humans could figure out how to benefit more from each other’s experiences.”
E: “Yes. I think if I can figure this out, maybe other people won’t have to feel mad or depressed or despairing when it’s their turn to die.”
Throughout our conversation we took turns marveling at the music, at the clarity and fullness of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice, at the beautiful view and the late afternoon light slanting into the room. Lucy settled in for her long-awaited nap.
E told me a little about her childhood, growing up as a Lutheran surrounded by Roman Catholics. “They all knew they were going to heaven, and they let us know it. But I recall that they insisted there was a way for us Lutherans to get to heaven. All I remember was that it sounded like a very complicated process and it involved fire. I would much prefer water.”
Me: “Or an escalator!”
E: “YES! With Bach playing as you go up!”
As the sun sank lower in the sky, E asked me, “Do you have time to do me a favor before you go?” I said that I had nothing but time. She asked, “Are you sure? I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
Me: “E, as long as I’m breathing, I have time.”
E sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide, stretched her arm out towards me, waved her hand, and said, “OH! OH! Yes! Write that down!! As long as I’m breathing, I have time! YES! That’s it!! Write it down.”
So I did.
I got Lucy leashed up and gathered the CDs E didn’t want me to leave behind. In the meantime, E had wobbled herself into a standing position with the help of the aide and her walker. I leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye. She apologized for not being able to hug me because she had to hang onto the walker with both hands. I said I’d be back. She said, “Within the week! Come back within the week. But not without Lucy!”
As Lucy and I walked back to the car, I thought about the space that I had just been invited into. It was like some sort of geological seam, the gap between a woman navigating the incomprehensible peace she feels at end of her life and a dog’s unfathomable certainty about what do as soon as she crossed the threshold of the hospice.
In the Jewish tradition the word for mining this sort of seam is Midrash, exploring the story between the words. I feel like I spent the whole afternoon in that space that is Midrash. And there still really aren’t words to describe what it felt like. But I can share some of the stories with you. After all, as long as I am breathing, I have time.