Final words and frosting

I bet there have been times when you’ve started your day thinking, Today’s going to be good, a nice, normal dayBut then before you know it, it’s gone sideways six ways from Sunday and you’re left shaking your head, wondering what the heck happened. Today was almost that kind of day for me. And I say almost, because in looking back on it, there wasn’t anything bad about it, it just wasn’t the day I was expecting. There were no hair pin curves or detours, but I found myself in somewhat uncharted territory. As days go, I was not expecting these types of conversations. But really, I am a chaplain, so why should I assume things will be normal?

Today I spent time with a patient who wanted to write her eulogy. Now, this isn’t really that uncommon, but more often than not hospice patients are not generally cognitively able to formulate something that coherent on their own. Or, they are cognitively able, but lack the physical energy to write things down or dictate their wishes. Most of us are probably familiar with a eulogy in the sense it is a pastor or close family member speaking at a funeral service. In my lifetime, I have not yet witnessed a eulogy that was actually written by the deceased person, so this was a first for me in getting to speak to the person whom the eulogy was about, and assist in putting their life down in words.

I didn’t know what I was in for, and boy was it ever interesting! Consider it – I mean, really stop and think about it – if you had to encompass your entire life into a 10-15 minutes speech, what would you say? What parts would you include? More importantly, would you be honest or would you fudge it a little to make your life seem better than it was? As I listened to my patient talk about various parts of her life, she would pepper her statements with “But I really don’t want that included,” or, “No one will understand that, so leave that out.” Yet, what she was saying was the very essence of who she is as a person and explained a lot about her. Again, it drew me to think about what I would say.

In the end, I had a bevy of information from which to construct a eulogy, and one I hope my patient is pleased with. I was struck the most by how, despite all the things she said and all of the things she decided she did not want to include, the overall theme of what she was trying to say was not one of self importance. Amidst the funny stories, quaint memories and milestones reached, I heard my patient saying loudly and clearly, My life was worth living. My patient is desperate to show others that living matters, and life is to be enjoyed.

All of this was, of course, contrasted by the next patient visit. This visit was unique in that the man was a hunter, and mounted on his wall were three extremely large deer heads. I was glad to hear he hadn’t named them, but sitting mere feet away from a 10 point, 6 point and 9 point buck, I was slightly thrown off. Believe it or not though, this was not the part of the visit that was the most intriguing. Now, I am used to walking into a different living room every few days, and when that happens, I am acutely aware of my surroundings (hence the immediate noticing of the deer heads). But I also have no idea what types of people I will be encountering when I see new patients.

So as I am introducing myself to my new patient and his family, his wife shouts from across the room, “So, what parish are you from?” I wasn’t startled by this, as it is a common question. My response is always the same, and I tell her that chaplains with our organizations are non-denominational, and do not emphasize one faith over another. She did not seem mollified by this answer, and instead narrowed her eyes as she watched me. The visit continued and as I sat next to my patient and attempted to get to know him, his wife continued with her cross examination of me.

For the next several minutes, I was interrogated about why I was not practicing her religion and faith. I explained to her my faith of choice (which is not something I had to offer, but chose to), and she shook her head saying, “Isn’t that kind of like having the cake without the frosting?” So if I understood her correctly, she’s telling me that my faith is fine (the cake), but it’s not the best because it falls short of the faith she practices (the cake AND frosting). O…K….moving on. Let’s just say I sort of cocked my head a bit in response, and then turned and began talking to my patient again. Oy vey. The rest of my conversation went extremely well, and the Mrs. decided she would leave the room, rather than stay and listen. Did I pass whatever test she had given me? I don’t think I’ll ever know. I do know that I learned a lot about hunting today – dear, moose and bear. I was willing to go wherever the patient wanted to go in his visit, and I was just glad it no longer involved someone else questioning my faith.

The day eventually came to a close and I was glad for it. As I sit here typing and casually watching Jurassic Park (my husband’s pick, not mine, but I enjoy the movie), I have been pausing to think again about what my eulogy will say. And after that last patient visit, have now pondered how my faith practice will impact that life review. What do I want to say, and what image of me do I want people to retain? Hopefully I will have many more years to consider it, but if I’ve learned anything in my work, it is that I should not count on there always being a tomorrow. Shalom.