Talking to Death
The clock struck 12:03 p.m., and I told myself I would wait until 12:10 p.m. and then go inside. But in between those seven minutes, I sat in my car contemplating on going back to school the next day and telling Professor Millner I couldn’t do it. I knew my grade would suffer, but I couldn’t get myself to go inside the khaki building.
I can say (with confidence) that there are very few occasions in my life where the knots in my stomach overpower my thoughts and send me running for the hills. In that moment, failing to immerse myself in something I felt uncomfortable with for an assignment — and the class for that matter — seemed like a tantalizing option.
I eventually turned the car engine off because the clock struck 12:10 p.m., and if my legs couldn’t do the job, I knew Florida’s fall weather would send sweat dripping down my face, and I would eventually have to succumb to the heat — and I did.
As I walked toward the west side of the building toward two automatic sliding doors, there was an unspoken certainty surrounding the 15.8 acres of property — and it was death. No matter how many flowers were planted, no matter how many lakes and park benches were designed for comfort, Avow Hospice guarantees death, which almost justifies the overuse of grey patterns inside the buildings.
This wasn’t my first rodeo with Hospice. My grandmother was admitted into Hospice in 2009 with stage four cancer, and a family friend (who was like a father) was also admitted to Hospice with stage four pancreatic cancer.
This time was no less tragic, but it was different because it would the first time I was meeting a dying stranger.
When I walked inside the khaki building, I was greeted by a woman in a white coat, which only added to the iciness. I gave her my name, and I told her about my journalism assignment.
It was a little awkward to indirectly say, “Yes, I am using one of your dying patients as a human experiment for personal gain. They make me hella uncomfortable and I need a grade so, what better place?”
I think that was one of the main sources of my anxiety. Not so much death, but the guilt I was feeling. I’m going to be using people’s very limited time for a f*cking grade because I want to pass a class.
I knew deep down that that was what was important to me. Sure, I felt sympathy, sadness and wanted to talk to the patients. But my original mission wasn’t to go there and volunteer my time.
After I talked to a woman at the front desk for a while about wanting to volunteer (which made me feel a little better), she decided to phone a woman named Peggy, who told me it was unlikely I could speak to a patient that day because of HIPAA laws. Besides, there was a vetting process that took about a month to complete with a drug test, background check and interview included.
I felt naive for thinking I could just waltz in and talk to a dying a stranger. Of course there’s a vetting process, they can’t just let some random homeless person walk in. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Now what? My first immersion idea failed and now my plan b was going down the tubes.
As I was getting ready to leave, Peggy told me to go to the Frances Georgeson building to speak with her supervisors about visiting a patient for the assignment. Maybe they could help me find a way around the bureaucracy.
I knew the building a little too well.
In fact, I surprised myself a little. After seven years, I knew exactly where the side door that read “WELCOME. For the security of our patients: Please ring bell for admittance” was.
I couldn’t remember worth a damn where Hospice was located. I had to use a GPS to get there. But if I knew nothing else, I remembered that Hospice had a grey, iron door that kept life and death separate.
In the five minutes I waited outside the iron door, I observed a doctor, a woman and a priest standing in a circle. The doctor began flailing her arms violently, and the priest just held his Bible. I can only imagine there was some tension because of some horrible news.
It was the first time that I felt sad seeing a priest and a doctor together. It’s sad knowing no god or medicine can reverse a flawed human body designed for terminal illness.
After a few minutes, a nurse greeted me and led me toward an office where I met Dawn Kolderman, a nurse and supervisor at the facility. I explained the assignment to Dawn, and she made four phone calls before sending me back to my car without an answer. She told me to call back in a few hours, and she would let me know what we could do.
Damn HIPAA laws.
I went home and waited two hours before calling back. I knew I shouldn’t have gone.
When I called later, Dawn gave me the green light, and I was to meet a patient as soon as she was alert enough to sign an agreement that would legally allow me to speak to her.
To be honest, I was very excited to meet this woman. Dawn had told me she was the most alert and insightful woman in Hospice and clung tightly to her faith to keep herself busy.
My heart sank. My happiness quickly fused with anxiety, and the knots came rushing back.
The source of this anxiety wasn’t that I had to sit in a room with an ill patient and an invisible guest. I’m personally not afraid of death or dying, and I wasn’t even scared that she might die on me mid-sentence.
What makes my extremely uncomfortable — and it’s a question I grapple with when I get philosophical at 3 a.m. — is living life and then being told I have 6 months, 1 week, 3 days to live. How does someone cope with that? How do I even begin to talk about it? How does it feel to know I can close my eyes for the night and never wake up?
Another source of anxiety sprouted. How do I ask a patient these questions? I’m curious as to how they think, but am I even supposed to ask? Will they bring it up themselves? What if they bring it up, what do I do? Do I change the subject? Do I talk about it? Everyone knows that’s the elephant in the room. You’re in Hospice because your body is failing you.
For the first time in my life, I felt scared to talk to another human being. Legitimately, fearful.
A few days later a found myself in Dawn’s office again, anxious to meet this “oriented” and “awake” woman. But Dawn said something that startled me.
“I’m glad you came,” she said. “Dedra is having some… Thoughts. I think it would be good for her to talk to someone.”
I followed Dawn down the hall, until she stopped at a room with an open door.
“Dedra, Alexandra is here to see you. Do you mind if she comes in?”, Dawn said.
In almost a whisper, I could barely make out the word, “No” by who I could only assume was Dedra.
I walked in slowly, expecting to see a full sized woman with maybe a bandana to cover a bald head. Instead, I saw a woman with a full head of hair, whose bones were swimming in an oversized hospital gown.
Dedra was as pale as a ghost, and her cheekbones exposed the rapidity of her body’s decline. Dawn pulled a metal chair up next to Dedra so I could sit, and she left the room. I was warned about Dedra’s deteriorating health, I just think ____.
I introduced myself to Dedra and reluctantly explained the assignment to her. Dedra barely had enough energy to keep her eyes open, but it was obvious she was using every bit of her strength to talk to a stranger.
For a moment I feared we would have nothing to talk about. We had nothing in common. We weren’t close in age (I didn’t ask, but Dedra might have been in her mid 60s. I just turned 21.)
Dedra grew up in New Jersey, I grew up in Florida. Dedra loved to play the piano, and some of her best days included listening to classical music or rhythmic jazz. I couldn’t play an instrument if my life depended on it. Besides, I liked electronic dance music and heavy rap.
Dedra was ill, but she was an artist. I had my health, but I was lost.
“Hunny, you’re so young it’s okay to feel lost,” Dedra said. “But this is your life to live. The worst thing you can do is be what other people want you to be. Do what makes you happy. You won’t feel lost forever.”
Dedra and I were so different, yet in our differences we realized we both had a love for writing.
“Is it just journalism? Do you ever go into fiction?” Dedra said.
“I would like to! The only thing is, I’m not a creative person,” I said.
“The thing about journalism is that when you take something thats real and you get into it and you learn it enough, it can get into your soul,” Dedra said. “Pretty soon, you can take that piece of knowledge and there’s a way to fictionalize some of it so that nobody knows it’s real. You can do that and make it your own story. No one will know.”
“I never thought of it that way. I always thought fiction just comes to you. It never came to me, so I never tried it,” I said.
“It won’t just come to you,” Dedra said, “It has to be lived.”
A whole new world open up to me. For the longest time I thought you were born with a creative mind or you were not. Some of us were natural Lewis Caroll’s or JK Rowling’s. But Dedra opened up an entire new world for me. Fiction, can be lived. I just have to live more.
Dedra talked in whispers and at times, I thought she had fallen asleep on me. At one point, her brother Tony walked in and brought her a pair of glasses, gave her a kiss on the cheek and left.
I told Dedra I didn’t have any brothers and sisters, and it must be nice to have such a special bond.
“It’s nice when one of them cares,” Dedra said. “It’s nice, but the other doesn’t care enough. My sister lives in Denver and she doesn’t feel like she should come up and see me.”
I think I opened a can of worms.
“She won’t come,” Dedra said. “I asked her to and she won’t come.”
“Maybe she just feels like she doesn’t want to see you like this?”
“She’s a real coward and I think should grow up. She’s an older sister and she should stand up to the plate. I would have done it for her. I wouldn’t have left her all alone up there. It’s so strange.”
I choked. I didn’t mean to open up old wounds. I’m making this visit worse.
“Were you guys close?”
“I thought we were.”
“I don’t know your sister, but people have weird ways of coping and maybe her way of coping with the situation is pretending like it’s not happening? Not that it makes it right, but people cope differently.”
“I guess. My sister-in-law says ‘you’re stronger than your sister’ and that’s for sure because… There’s no reason for her to hide from me. What is she afraid of?”
I was furious and at a loss for words. What kind of human being are you to refuse to visit your dying sister? I told Dedra people have different ways to cope, but even I didn’t believe those words, so I knew she didn’t either. I tried to be sympathetic with Dedra’s sister, Dottie, but it was really difficult for me to accept. I wanted to scream, cry and hunt down Dottie.
“I don’t think thats on you. That’s not your burden to carry. I know its easier said than done to say, ‘just forget about it’, because its obviously not something you can just forget about, but I think that your energy and your love should be with the people that are here and love you unconditionally.”
“I agree, and that’s my focus. You know, she calls me? She says ‘hi how are you’ and we talk. At the end she says ‘I love you’ and I say ‘I love you too’ but in the end its just words. I think she does love me, but it’s not very deep.”
“Well hopefully she realizes that what she is doing is wrong. But until then you can’t hold on to those negative feelings. You have to love and enjoy the people around you.”
“I’m not holding onto any grudges or anything like that. I’m at peace. I just want her to be at peace.”
All I wanted to do at that moment was hop on a plane to Denver, find Dottie and scream, “HOW DARE YOU? YOUR SISTER IS DYING. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT? SHE IS NEVER COMING BACK. HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF, YOU SELFISH POS? SHE’S HURTING FOR YOU, AND YOU DON’T EVEN DESERVE IT.”
I couldn’t believe that I, a stranger, had already visited Dedra more than her own sister. What hurt me the most is Dedra’s emotional pain, and how little it affected Dottie. I felt queasy. Dottie knew Dedra wanted to see her, and she couldn’t put her own feelings on the back burner for one visit. That’s all Dedra wanted. One visit.
I felt an ache in my chest. What if Dedra dies before Dottie changes her mind? Her siblings are all she’s got. Dedra has no husband, no children, no parents. Dedra would die with her brother next to her bedside, with an empty void in her heart, because her brother’s love could never heal her sister’s sting.
I had to change the subject. I started talking about cats again because that was something Dedra and I bonded over. I didn’t want Dedra to feel angry and sad when I was supposed to be her comfort. I felt like I failed her. I was supposed to bring her joy, and instead I tapped into her sadness.
As the conversation continued, Dedra started to close her eyes for longer periods of time and her whisper disappeared. Finally, with all the energy she could muster, she said, “I’m so glad you came today hunny thank you.”
That was my cue to leave.
I grabbed her bony hand and kissed it. “Thank YOU Dedra. I promise I’ll be back.”
As I walked back to my car, I felt an inexplicable surge of happiness that completely eclipsed all anxious feelings that were present just a few days before.
Hospice, a place that is known to foster death, had left me feeling a sense of purpose. I promised Dedra I would begin to write a fictional story about her cat Pansy, and I promised her I would comeback.
Nothing in the world mattered on my way back home. Everything in the entire universe seemed so minuscule; so frivolous.
Maybe we didn’t notice it at the time, but Dedra and I were healing each other.
I’m going to visit Dedra again this Wednesday. This time, there’s no assignment.