Midrash at hospice, with dog

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.

Lucy chills out with crossed paws

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.

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22 responses to “Midrash at hospice, with dog

  1. E is one awesome lady–so glad she got to enjoy you and Lucy and all.

  2. Joy, this is just so full of imagery that it took me with you to the midrash space. Thank you for posting this. It is one of my favorites.

  3. I was getting peckish that there hadn’t been any Crooked Lines and then then this one came about E. I had been there the previous week and we had a rollicking time as you can imagine. The subject of dog came up and she made me promise not to come without Tipu. Good to know that Lucy has greased the skids.

    I had wondered about the bed issue. And Lucy is not a small dog . . . We’ll see about Tipu. I reamed him out for being on a bed once without being invited so he is very careful. We’ll see!

  4. Joy + E +Lucy +Bach/Lieberson = Midrash moment to last a lifetime. Thanks for this post–a sublime close to a nearly perfect day. And what a beautiful mantra: “As long as I’m breathing I have time.”

  5. Oh, and Tipu, I hope you and Lucy can spend time together. Nothing finer than a couple of well-mannered dogs bringing comfort to others!

  6. Jennifer Brock Olson

    Joy, I’ve been enjoying your blogs for some time now. This one was especially timely. Thanks so much for it and all the others I have been enjoying.

  7. The power of a pet, a friend & music can make people feel at peace. It’s always worked for me & bless you for bringing it all to your friend E.

  8. Marcia Bird-Werntz

    Joy dear,
    This was the best yet — and they have all been good! This one left me weepy but thrilled at the same time. What a wonderful ministry you have…..and you thought PW was the one who had that pervue, right?

  9. Joy my friend,
    This is super. About your best. We all need or will need this type of love in our lives sometime. To give to one who desires something special, as in this case, is a blessing on your part. You and Lucy provided E with something that means so much to her. God bless!

  10. Thanks for sharing this on Crooked Line. When you talked about it at coffee hour yesterday, there was much laughter; this morning over my oatmeal, there were tears, mostly of joy [oops] and gratitude for your way with words, for your gift to E, for Lucy, the Intuitive Helper Dog. As E’s scribe, I’m grateful for your having captured thoughts we’ve yet to record. Walking through this with E and helping her write about it is the gift of a lifetime. I pray that I’m even somewhat worthy of her incredible mind. Thanks, you amazing woman.

  11. Doch ich habe genug.

  12. Joy! Joy! JOY!! What a WONDERFUL experience so beautifully and poignantly expressed. Though we have not had opportunity to get personally acquainted I have been richly blessed (hummmm, wish there was a better word . . . no, NO, I don’t, because I HAVE been blessed) by your wit and winsome love affair with words. I’m sure you’ve heard this countless times, but your writing NEEDS to be published and shared beyond this blog so that others can laugh, weep, marvel, wonder, and wander through the grace of your words.

  13. Thank you for inviting me into such a delightfully poignant moment. I was there. My life is richer for it. I treasure the experience and will come back to this place often.

  14. Stunned, as usual. Can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said by others.

  15. Today as we celebrate love, I celebrate you. You continue to amaze me, delight me, move me and challenge me to greater loving. Most of all, dear daughter, you bless me in inexplicable ways. Thank you.

  16. Beautiful story, beautiful words. You are a blessing to others through your actions and your words. I feel blessed when I read your words and I’m sure E felt blessed by your being with her. I too, like Danny, am waiting for your book.

  17. Stunning, heartfelt, sweetness, such a gift you are sweet joy. Peace to you and your friend E and Lucy. Love is love.

  18. Joy,

    You and Lucy are perfect companions for someone on this phase of life’s journey. Your expression of the Midrash was so beautiful. It seems a lot of life is exploring the words between the words as vocabulary is limited and life’s energy is eternal. I was a Pediatric Hospice nurse for a while and it was my favorite job. What I discovered was that the process of death is every bit as holy as the process of birth, although admittedly not as joyful much of the time. But it can be life’s most peaceful place. How lovely for all 3 of you to spend such precious time together. Memories, laughter, music, philosophy, theology, meaningful conversation, warmth, affection, joy and Joy. Thank you for expanding my heart and life by sharing such beauty.

  19. Thanks so much for this, Joy.
    That recording of Lorraine is so sublime it scares me.

  20. J,

    I’ll call you J based on salutations in comments above. Please forgive me if I’m mistaken.

    I sat with E last evening at the hospice along with her husband D and we spoke about Lucy’s visit. E related part of the story, but was confused on some details. She explained that there was some Internet story about it in the drawer and asked me to bring the printout to her. Seeing she was somewhat tired, I took the liberty of reading the story aloud to E and D before handing her the papers. I’m not a gifted out loud reader – I need to stare at what I’m reading and concentrate on the printed words, punctuation, and capitalization to properly render the tone and mood of the text. So it was not until the end of my recitation that I looked up to see E in tears. It would seem that your and Lucy’s visit continues to bring E comfort.

    My visit ended some 20 minutes later as E was tired, but I’ll be back to see her today and as many times as I can. If I’m lucky, I’ll also get to meet J and hold paws with Lucy.

  21. Pingback: On balancing peaches and grief | The Crooked Line

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