Lost and Found by D.D. Stenehjem
“Lost and Found” is a sound version of the classic therapeutic grief assignment called: “The Loss Timeline”.
I designed this sound piece in 2010. The trumpet you hear near the end is an actual recording of my father Jerome Stenehjem playing. The laughter you hear— is from a 1/4″ recording of a family thanksgiving in the 50’s. Thanks also to my husband Mike for mixing the piece. Oh, and the narrator is me.
The Middle: Hospice 2011/ by: D.D. Stenehjem
A few days ago I made my usual trip to the nursing home to visit my patient. I walked the long hallway to her room, turned the corner to enter her room— and she was gone. Everything had been packed away and emptied. All that was left was a small pink stuffed squirrel laying on her mattress. It was kind of shocking. Actually, it was really shocking. It’s never the intent for a hospice volunteer to come across a scene like this, but wires were crossed at the central office and no one had notified me of her death.
So, that was it. Poof. Gone. Nothing but a stuffed squirrel, laying on an undernourished nursing home mattress. Even the squirrel looked like it was clinging to life.
One of the reasons that I got involved with hospice was to resolve an issue from my past. I believe that those of us who are drawn to hospice work are trying to sort out one issue or another. I feel that one of the reasons I was drawn to this work was because I never got the chance to say goodbye to my father before he died.
I was 27 years old when my mom called me to tell say that my father had been making choking sounds in his sleep and that the paramedics were in the process of trying to revive him. I remember driving to Pasadena from my apartment in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles feeling completely stunned. I prayed for my father. I prayed that he would survive. I prayed for his safe passage if he was dying. I prayed that I would get there in time to see him alive. When I turned the corner onto my parent’s street, I saw a big fire truck. The firemen said that an ambulance had brought my father to the hospital. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my father was dead.
That night I stayed in my parent’s bedroom with my mom. Mom and I held hands all night and cried. In the morning I awoke to the sound of an alarm clock ringing in my father’s bathroom. As I got up to turn the alarm off — I felt a chill running down my spine, realizing that my father had been the one to set the alarm clock the night before. He wasn’t able to shut it off the next morning, because he died before it went off.
This first hospice experience wasn’t anything that I’d imagined it would be. I thought it would be about holding hands with my patient and putting a cool washcloth to her head, while talking about spirituality and afterlife and, yes… there would be ample time to say goodbye. Lots of goodbyes. My patient and I had experienced many nice moments together in the spring and over the summer. I remember one afternoon in particular, when we sang “Don’t Blame Me” and walked the hallways of the nursing home as the other patients and staff looked on. I also remember how she would hug me and make me promise that I would drive home safely. And she would often walk over to the door at the top of the stairwell and prop it open a bit to watch and make sure that I got down the stairs safely. In the last few months, she was mostly sleeping and didn’t want me to stay. Another volunteer— one with a therapy dog, had gotten close to my patient. She seemed to be able to reach her in a way that I was no longer able to. Maybe my role was to help her when she was more active. Perhaps I was the spring and summer visitor that didn’t make as good a winter companion.
Last night as I stood over the sink, washing dishes— I started crying. I was crying for my patient, but I was also crying for my father. Or as I’ve come to learn, I was also crying for every person and thing that I’ve ever lost. Bereavement acts like a tonic that brings forth all the grief from our past. We don’t just mourn the person we’ve just lost. I mean, we do— but not exactly. We also mourn what once was and can no longer be. And this usually includes a little bit of everyone and everything we’ve ever tried to hold onto but couldn’t.
When I was a young adult and living with my parents for a brief time, we’d gone out to dinner together, but for some reason I’d taken my own car. I arrived home a little later then them to find my father waiting for me on the front step. He said he was watching to make sure that I got home okay. He said that he would always be there to make sure that I got home safely. I knew in that moment what he meant. He was saying that he would always watch over me. And I feel that he has. In the 23 years since he died, I’ve thought of that comment hundreds of times as I’ve walked up to my front step, struggling to find my keys in the darkness. Even though he’s no longer here, I’m reassured by his presence. I have this image of my father sitting on a cloud somewhere, smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of coffee and smiling down on me. Watching my every step.
Why is it that we chose life experiences thinking we’ll get one kind of lesson out of them and then end up getting an entirely different lesson? I thought hospice would be about saying goodbye and getting that closure that I never had with my father. Instead, I’m left with pink stuffed squirrels and ringing alarm clocks. But maybe it’s not the “end” that we should look to as we try to gain closure. Maybe it’s all about what we get from the middle part—like the stuffing inside an Oreo Cookie. It was in the middle of my journey with my hospice patient, not at the end, when she lovingly watched me descend a staircase to make sure that I got down safely. And it was years before my father died that he reassured me that he would always watch over me. In these quite moments, these moments in between, we often get our closure. Yet we are so often looking at the bookends in life that we don’t see the volumes of books in between. This is where we get our expressions of love and memories that nourish us. Actual death is often more like trying to get on a flight. It’s a busy time. And who ever has a decent goodbye conversation in an airport?
I’m going to continue hospice work, but for different reason than what initially brought me to it. I’m going to do it for the quiet, in between moments, that can have great beauty. I’m going to do it for the service it provides to exhausted family members who need relief from care giving. I’m going to do it because it’s comforting to be a part of a process that is usually so dark and hidden that it’s not even talked about in our culture. I’m going to do it, not because I need to master my past and say goodbye to my father— but because I now realize that I don’t need to. My father is still a part of my life. He’s there at every dark corner, reassuring me with his presence and helping me do things that involve courage and dark shadows. It’s okay that we didn’t officially say goodbye, because everything we experienced together as father and daughter, all the precious parts in between is my closure. I was just looking at the end of the story and not in the best part of our story — the middle.