Have you ever read one of those travel articles that highlights the top places to visit before you die? Or, have you seen the articles at the other end of the spectrum, the places to avoid? This article falls somewhere between those two extremes. This essay will describe the three communities you really don’t want to visit; however, unfortunately, you will most likely have to visit at least one of them, if not all of them, during your lifetime.
The Cancer Community. Before my wife, Barbara, received her cancer diagnosis a few years back, I knew so little about this community. I had heard stories, of course, about people who had struggled with cancer and about the difficult treatments these people endured to try and beat the disease or, at a minimum, buy some additional time with their families. I knew, too, that I had driven by many of these business-like, brick structures with odd names, but I didn’t give much thought to what went on inside. Once inside, though, I was touched by all the kind professionals who worked there and by the patients themselves and their loved ones.
The doctors, the nurses, the technicians, and the administrative staff all treated us with patience and friendliness, qualities that must be so difficult to maintain day after day in that environment. These wonderful people all helped to make our appointments bearable, especially at first when we knew so little about what to expect and how to proceed in a suddenly uncertain world.
When we walked into the waiting room for Barbara’s first chemotherapy session, I was overwhelmed by the number and by the range of people who needed treatment. Who knew so many people were suffering in our immediate area? Some were in wheelchairs, some had obviously lost weight, others had lost their hair, and still others looked as if they had lost both their energy and their will to live.
Fortunately, most of these physically needy people had at least one person who had accompanied them to their treatments and who served as an advocate or a caretaker or even a spiritual advisor, someone who offered encouragement to those who needed a reason to persevere as much as they needed their medicine. In my role as caretaker for Barbara, I was so uplifted and inspired by these examples of love — family members or friends who cared enough to care for others. Fortunately, Barbara survived her long battle with lymphoma, but I will never forget our time in that community of compassion.
The Hospice Community. During the following year, our family walked into the hospice community when our 30-year-old daughter, Maria, experienced a cancer of her own. In her situation, an undiagnosed case of breast cancer had spread to her brain, and what manifested itself as intense, unending, and untreatable headaches brought us all to the hospital. There again, everyone was kind and compassionate, but Maria’s cancer had spread too quickly. In less than a month, the medical experts recommended a hospice wing where Maria could spend her final days in peace with her family without the headaches, neck and back pains, and other issues that had tormented her. The contrast was surreal.
The chemotherapy room was like a large, bright performance area full of medical personnel, patients, and caretakers, all playing their roles in a tragic drama that left everyone exhausted and drained. Maria’s Hospice room, on the other hand, was more like a softly lit, chapel where our family alone gathered to keep Maria comfortable and safe as she prepared to leave us. The staff was nearby and readily available, but they graciously respected our privacy and encouraged us to cuddle with Maria in her final hours and to tell her how much we loved her. By then, however, Maria could not react or respond to our affections. Maria spent only four nights on that wing, but those final days were comfortable for her and comforting to us, a prelude, no doubt, to the glorious reunion we will experience one day in heaven.
The Senior-Care Community. Prior to our eventual heavenly reunion, we continue to live in a third community, the senior-care community. By senior care, I don’t mean facilities where they merely cut the grass, shovel the snow, and provide meals. No, I mean facilities where the seniors can no longer do much of anything for themselves.
Barbara and I have been visiting two such facilities during the last year, and the experience is challenging. Conversation is difficult due to senior memory issues. Going outside is difficult due to mobility issues. And trying to appreciate life itself is difficult because the seniors’ lives are so far removed from what they once were.
Thankfully, the people who work in these homes have become a second family for these seniors, and the care is superb. From sunup to sundown, these angels of mercy are assisting with every imaginable task: from bathing, dressing, and feeding to entertaining, comforting, and encouraging. They are truly doing God’s work for God’s children.
When I was a college student, I worked during the summers and during the semester breaks for a florist, delivering flowers daily to communities similar to those mentioned here. As a young man, always in a hurry, I rushed in and out and rarely stopped to look at or consider the patients or the caretakers. Today, almost 50 years later, I move much more slowly, and as I travel, I try to deliver flowers of a different sort: kindness to the patients, appreciation to the caretakers, and prayers for everyone.