Today, I’ll start here: Growing old is not for sissies.
The most notable transition in my life of late is a job shift from counseling at the Children’s Advocacy Center to providing counseling at Hospice of East Texas. It’s a PRN gig about twenty hours a week, and I have the opportunity to do private practice on my off days. After difficult goodbye(s) (s) (s) to my sweet former clients and colleagues, I walked out of the CAC feeling quite brave and quite grateful for the opportunities set before me. It’s not everyday that a flexibly scheduled, well paid, meaningful job opportunity shakes my hand and says: “Hey, just thought I’d let you know, I’m here if you need me.” Over the course of two job searching weeks, that had happened. Twice. So, on I went, hospice at one side and private practice at my other. My heart was open, my knees were knocking and my eyes were full of everything. Mostly, I was hoping my knees would just stop knocking.
Now, two weeks in, I’m deciding whether variety is thrill, or whether it’s whiplash. The medical setting will make me a better t crosser and i dotter. I have a few crookedly-crossed, halfway-dotted consonants in my life, so I’m gladly practicing. Non-profits easily attract the idealistic-holistic- hippie (but don’t put me in a box) type. Hospice, as one might gather, attracts doctors and nurses. While I’m sure some of these medical folks have an easy-breezy side to them, I’m staying preeetttyyyy buttoned up in my blue scrubs, name badge and hair pulled back.
My private practice is the opposite. There are purple walls, a large sandtray, and throw pillows with neon owls. My clients talk a lot about Angry Birds (fine) and Justin Bieber (no he’s not your boyfriend), I have no boss, and the shag rug makes everyone want to take off their shoes, including myself. See what I mean? Whiplash, right?
My counseling clients don’t remember 9/11 and my hospice patients tell me stories about D-day and working for the New York Paper Company in 1951. Can you imagine if I took off my shoes at hospice? I don’t think that would go over well. In fact, I’ve made a practice of singing happy birthday twice while I wash my hands in the hospice bathrooms. There’s a sign that says that staff should, so, I turn off the faucet right after “birthday to youuuu…” and feel quite satisfied, knowing I’ve just dotted another i.
One foot in front of the other, friends.
So, my mind is buzzing with the life experiences that these people, my clients, are going through. They seem very different. It seems very different to hear a teenager talk about the shame she carries than it does to watch a ninety six year old man kiss the shell of his wife. They are both profound and even more, profoundly sad, yet I think the connection is beyond the loss and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors doctors like to offer me when I tell them about my work (just kidding. kind of.)
Very beautiful people whose anecdotes and insight line my bookshelf have written about the way learning how to die well means learning how to live well. How life is this mysterious and delicate string of births and deaths to which we must hold honestly. Honest holding, for me, is honest trusting that God has orchestrated this life and death balance in such a way that the death will bring the life abundant, which ultimately is closeness to God: wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of PEACE (Is.9:6). I want to walk the life-death-life-death tightrope, more than I would want to walk the life-life-life-life-life tightrope if it makes for such communion. Besides, I just don’t think I can balance very well when I am pretending to be in charge.
Dying people, hands up over head, nearly face to face with their Creator is not life-full. It is death-full and squeamish and oh-so not pretend or in charge for that matter. And this is the gift Hospice has given me: We are all going there. We will all take our last breaths, leave ourselves, get made-up like clowns and get put in the ground. Eeeeeessshhhh.
So what if we weave our mortality, the knowledge of it, into ourselves in a different kind of way? I know we can do this in a carpe-diem kind of way. I have been on this bandwagon, let me tell you. Be the change. Save the world. Suck the marrow out of life. Seize. The. Day. I can totally talk on this because I love it, but tonight I won’t. I think hospice is teaching me something much different than grabbing life by the horns.
Hospice has this kind of whisper-speak to it, that goes: “be gentle, be very very gentle.” I don’t know that it’s a passionate whisper speak. I also don’t know that it’s the kind of thing I want to proclaim with zeal and fervor. Strange isn’t it? Strange for something so rich to be so quiet. But I am quiet. Because hospice says this, too: “be careful. be very very very careful. you are so young.” And sometimes, I don’t know how to try to be humble other than to try to be quiet.
So, I sit, wonderfully small by the bedsides of people who have lived their life. And when they speak, I listen and let the age-old wisdom pool around my heart. Growing old is not for sissies and really and truly, I want to do it well.
As for my living clients with their shoes off and their chewing gum? Indeed, they are in the thick rather than on the edge. But you know, they are dying, too. They are dying to the comfortable life-life-life balance and replacing it with a finer life-death-life one. They are feeling the weight of the necessary losses. For these clients, I think: You are brave. Growing up is not for sissies, either.
So tonight I think I will put extra honey in my tea, kiss Luke’s sleeping face and thank God for the space to Grow Up so Grow Old might make a graceful entry (maybe, hopefully…I know I am so young) Oh, and the kind souls in my life who help share the load? Thanking God for you, most of all.