Giving Thanks for Hospice

Molly Cabe and Carol Ley, harpist for Angel of Shavano Hospice, play a duet in our living room, November, 2011

A year ago, this house was filled with people. Molly and her sweetie Mark were staying in the guest cottage, Richard was ensconced in the hospital bed in our bedroom; friends and family came and went along with nurses, home health care aides and others from his hospice team. Even while I appreciated their support and love, the parade of people often overwhelmed me. I craved peace and quiet.

Today, it’s just me. I have peace and quiet in spades, and of course, I would trade it to bring Richard back, his smile beaming like sunshine. (Ttechnically it’s not just me here: Buffy Noble, an English poet, is staying in the guest cottage with the Terraphilia Residency Program. She’s very quiet though.)

My late love and his incandescent smile….

The approach of Thanksgiving has me thinking about what I’m thankful for. The list is long, beginning with the love and support of my wonderful family, the generous community of this small town, and the rich fellowship of friends and readers and colleagues.

Right up near the top of that list is hospice. Last year I got to know two hospice organizations: Visiting Nurses Association of Denver cared for my mom until her death in early February. Seven months later to the day, Richard’s oncologist told us it was time to refer him for hospice care. So the day after we returned from The Big Trip, our three-week, nearly 4,000-mile-long drive across the interior West and down the Pacific Coast from Washington state to southern California, his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice made their first visit.

What is hospice? Simply put, it is team-oriented, compassionate care for people with a terminal illness or injury, and their families. Hospice care focuses on combining therapeutic medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support to allow people to live the end of their lives in dignity and comfort, whether in a hospice facility or at home. The word originated with shelters for travelers on pilgrimages in the Middle Ages; the first modern facility to employ hospice principles in caring for the terminally ill was established 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician.

None of us want to think about death. But if we do, most of us would prefer to die at home or in a comfortable facility with expert care. Why wouldn’t we?

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

That’s where hospice comes in. When my bright and tenacious 79-year-old mother’s body began to fail, stressed by decades of living with what her doctor said was the most severe case of rheumatoid arthritis she had ever seen, and aggravated by the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, Mom was sure she would be “fine” soon. But after she stepped out of bed one night (having forgotten she could no longer walk) and her brittle right hip shattered, she was sent to a rehab center. All she wanted was to go home with Dad, and the Denver Visiting Nurses Association made that possible. By the time Mom drew her last breath, holding Dad’s hand as she had for more than 58 years, she had come to look forward to visits from her hospice team, and her sparkling smile bloomed.

Then in September, it was my love’s turn. The two months between when we got home from The Big Trip and his death on November 27th could have been dominated by fear and grief. Instead, thanks to the warm and skilled support of his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice, especially his nurse, Will Archuletta, and the presence of Molly, who spent the last five weeks of his life with us, love and laughter and sweetness prevailed. We were blessed, and hospice was a big part of that.

Thanksgiving 2009: Richard, Dad, Mom, and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter

So in this time of giving thanks, I am thankful for Dame Cicely Saunders for her vision and courage, for the Veteran’s Administration for embracing hospice and palliative care, and for hospice caregivers and organizations everywhere.

I encourage you to learn about and support your local hospice organization. Because much as we hate to think about it, they’ll likely support you or those you love one of these days.

(Two other outstanding hospice organizations in Colorado are Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs, and The Denver Hospice.)

On the Road Again….

US Highway 285 across South Park

I’ll be hitting the road in a few minutes, headed to Denver tonight and flying to Miami tomorrow for a week of reading submissions to the annual Young Arts program. Over the coming week, my fellow writing panelists, poet David Lee and novelist Dianne Nelson-Oberhansly, plus our terrific Coordinator, sculptor Mary Lee Adler, will evaluate 200 or so 20-page manuscripts from outstanding 17- and 18-year-old writers all around the country. (The other writing panelist, poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, can’t join us this week.)

Our task: select the top 25 young writers to attend Arts Week in January, where they’ll take workshops and master classes (last year master class teachers included Robert Redford; this year, Bobby McFerrin is on tap, plus novelists Rob Van Waggoner and Beth Kephart). They’ll see performances and shows by other young artists in dance, music, theater and visual arts, and prepare for a gala public reading of their work.

U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts medal (Photo courtesy of Young Arts)

Arts Week is an intense and inspiring gathering; these talented kids take home a renewed passion for their work, lasting friendships and mentors, plus scholarships for college. And a handful–the best of the best–are honored as Presidential Scholars in the Arts in a ceremony at the White House. Heady stuff at any age, stratospheric for 17- and 18-year-olds.

I’m excited about discovering this year’s crop of submissions, even though I know it’ll be serious work. I’m excited about simply going to Miami, even though the most I’ll see of it will be the twice-daily walk between our hotel on the shores of Biscayne Bay and the new Young Arts campus. Still, South Florida in November is not a shabby place to be holed up inside reading!


Cottonwoods line a stream in the Oklahoma prairie along Highway 412.

Before I hit the road, I want to share a story from my long New Mexico-Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas road trip.

I stopped at the Starbucks in Enid, Oklahoma, a regular stop for Richard and me on the drive between south-central Colorado and northwest Arkansas. (It offers free wifi and great hot drinks, both of which are in short supply on that 800-mile trip.)

The last time I stopped there was a year ago, on the way home from that rushed trip to take Richard to see his Arkansas family while his failing body (barely) allowed him to travel with dignity.

Richard had gone back to the car to get something, then had wandered into the home healthcare office next door, thinking it connected to the Starbucks. The staff, he told me later, very kindly redirected him next door and turned his confusion into a gentle joke. (Later, a staffer came to the Starbucks to check on him. She took me aside and asked if he was okay. “No,” I said. I told her he had brain cancer and was in hospice care. “I’m a hospice nurse,” she said. “Just come next door if you need help.”)

This trip, I remembered that small incident of kindness and on impulse, stepped into the Carter Healthcare office to thank them for being so kind to my love. I said that a year ago my husband had gotten confused thinking he could get to the Starbucks through their office and I wanted to say thank you for how kind they had been to him.

“I was there!” said the woman sitting at the desk. “That was me!” I thanked her and explained that he had brain cancer and his tumor had given him spatial confusion. She asked how he was. My eyes filled. I told her that he had died a month later, and that hospice had been a huge gift for us.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” she said. “That’s why I do this work. It’s an honor to help people at the end of their lives.”

Kindness in a cup of cocoa….

I thanked her and left without even getting her name, tears in my eyes, focused on the long drive ahead. That brief encounter warms me still as an example of the power of simple, everyday kindness.

Kindness is basic to being human. As I walk this path I never imagined, my intention is to spread the kindness I’ve received, sending it rippling outward across a world that needs it more than ever.