Year To Live Project: Farewell Team Boehm
Brene Brown has said, “The bravest among us are the most broken hearted. We risk heartache when we choose to love. The choice to love is the choice to be vulnerable. We simply cannot love without sharing ourselves fully, and that is the definition of vulnerability. We will have our hearts broken if we choose this path. We will be rejected and we will experience heartache as we mourn losses due to death, betrayal, and misunderstandings. Knowing this risk and choosing love is one of the most courageous steps we will take.”
This quotation flashed on the screen of my phone as I sat in my car, right before I pushed the “airplane” mode button and placed my hospice rock onto my center console for the last time. It seemed fitting.
Goodbyes are no one’s cup of tea. No one I know enjoys them, looks forward to them, or handles them with anything short of awkward pseudo-grace. But given that my Year To Live Project involves a year of travel, goodbyes are something I’m going to practice whether I like it or not. And now, the time had come for me to say farewell to Team Boehm. With a short prayer, a deep breath, and a “get in there, I got you” I pushed the double doors of the Santa Fe Care Center open and stepped into the world of the dying.
“Traver!” Jerry exclaimed when I walked into his room. He pumped his fist in the air victoriously at his proper recall of my name. I was overjoyed upon hearing this, too, as lately I had been turned into a “Jeremy” through most of our conversations. Whoever this Jeremy fellow is, he must be a looker.
Jerry was in good spirits after returning from the doctor and hearing he qualified to have his catheter changed from a urethral insertion into something that went directly into his bladder, thus relieving the constant pressure on his “you know what.”
“Not that I need the damn thing anymore, I tell you,” he told me. “None of the nurses around here are my type, you know, and all the other women here belong in the looney bin. Plus, I’m still a married man. And at ninety-three, my legs don’t work so good, let alone anything else.”
“Looney bin” was demonstratively acted out by Jerry making circles in the air around his head while he did his best Stevie Wonder impression. Jerry had been a one-man show since the first day I arrived. The heavy-set nurses were spoken about with puffed out cheeks and an exaggerated sway from side to side with his arms holding an imaginary beach ball. Whenever he started talking about them I had to jump in with an, “Alright, alright, I know who you’re talking about. They’re doing their best here, too.” Idle thoughts are the devil’s something or other.
We talked a bit about my upcoming trip to South America and Jerry reminded me, “Lots of crooks down there from what I hear. I hope you don’t start any trouble.”
I assured him I’d be on my best behavior and let him know this is going to be my last time coming to see him before leaving, but that I would swing back through in August if all went well.
“Hopefully I’ll be dead!” Jerry exclaimed jubilantly. “I’m thinking about slipping the doctor an extra twenty when they knock me out for my operation and telling him to crank up the volume a bit too high and send me on my way.”
Jerry smiled as he said this. We’ve discussed his desire to die on virtually every visit. It’s something I understand is part of both his truth and his frustration. Jerry doesn’t want to die; he just doesn’t want to live the day-to-day nursing home experience any longer. When he first brought this up I had a hard time with it, but now I know it’s part of the deal.
I reached into my wallet, pulled out a less than crisp twenty-dollar bill, and snapped it twice. “Here you go my friend, I’m happy to contribute. Just put me down for twenty in your will and don’t leave it to some Jeremy guy.”
Knee-slapping laughter ensued and Jerry handed me a mini Snickers bar to share with him.
“You’re a good egg, kid,” he told me with a mouth full of chocolate and peanuts. “Most of your generation isn’t worth a bag of rocks, but you’re a good egg. If I had a million dollars, I’d give it all to you. I hope you know that.”
I figured that was Jerry’s way of saying thank you. Either way, he left me with that thought and a “you take care of yourself down South” as I hugged him and thanked him for letting me get to know him.
“Hopefully, I’m not here when you get back!” he called out as I made my way into the hallway. I had to stop a few feet out of his view and gather myself with some deep breaths and two fist thumps on my chest. One down, two to go.
Next up was Julio. He was busy playing with his new tablet and didn’t look up until I sat in the empty wheelchair beside his bed.
“Look, bro, I put pot leaves as the wallpaper,” he said. “Wallpaper” was pronounced in Julio’s signature “H” heavy manner – “ha-wallpaper.” He showed me the backdrop of his device. It was, in fact, pot leaves.
“That’s great,amigo. ¿Cómo estás?” I asked him. Julio had been letting me practice my shitty Spanish with him and mercilessly ridiculing any mistakes – when he wasn’t downloading pictures of marijuana, pistols, or Hot Ha-wheels.
“I’m dying, how the fuck you think I am?” he replied with his heavy accent. “You want a Hershey’s kiss?”
Julio had previously described the nursing home as something like a prison and if that was the case, he’d be the guy that could you get you whatever you wanted. His drawers overflowed with chocolates, Oreos, and bags of piñon that he’s willing to sell off in small quantities. For a guy who couldn’t leave his bed, he still managed to operate a small enterprise.
“This is my last visit,” I told him. “I head back to California tomorrow, and then Guatemala.”
“Good,” he said with a smile. “I was getting sick of you anyway. Too many damn gringos up in here as it is.”
He paused and then asked with seriousness, “Will you come to my funeral?”
I wasn’t prepared for a question like this, nor the speed of transition from jovial to grave in our conversation. I did what I’ve found to be one of the greatest teachings from my time in hospice – I took a deep breath and let the silence in the room be something that didn’t need to be filled immediately.
“Would you like me to be there?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I would,” he said. “I have the address of where it’s going to be in my jacket.”
He reached into the pocket of his leather motorcycle jacket, the one that lives next to him in his bed. The one with the big eagle he stitched onto the back himself. The one he’s going to wear when he “gets out.”
After screwing up his face intently as if he was searching for something and couldn’t find it, he finally smiled a bit and said, “Here it is….” as he pulled his hand out of the pocket and beamed his toothless smile – while giving me the finger.
I laughed with relief and gave him a big hug, telling him to please take care of himself as best he could.
“I ha-will,” he said. “Thank you for keeping me company…pendejo.”
One more hug and I was out the door. Two down. And I felt it coming.
“EMELIO!!!” I yelled as I crashed through his already partly open door. It was my standard entrance. Part WWE, part hospice. It made us both happy.
I had a few moments with Emelio before Mary, the volunteer replacing me, was due to arrive. We had all met the week prior to let Emelio get a feel for her. This week she had promised to bring homemade cherry pie and both Emelio and I were eagerly awaiting her baking prowess. I could tell she had a heart the size of New Mexico and the brains of a New Yorker, so I rested easier knowing Emelio would be in good hands. (Thank you Mary, if you’re reading this!)
I asked him how he was feeling and got a quick flick of the thumb upward, signifying all was well. I asked him if he was in any pain and got the quick flick of the thumb downward and a smile. This was our usual routine.
“Your back hurts?” I asked him. Thumb flick up.
“You want me to rub it a bit?” Another thumb flick up.
Emelio has some hearty scoliosis and since I was not legally allowed to give him any acupuncture, on the weeks when my needles are as absent as my belief that the law should dictate helping a man in pain, I gave him a fifteen-minute back rub. We did this until I got the double thumbs-up and knew it was time to stop and get back to seeing what train wreck of a family Dr. Phil was helping on the television. Sadly, I wish I’d had a shot at being on his show.
“August,” Emelio said without sound. I had gotten to where I could read his lips and interpret the volume-less words he pushed through his scarred lungs.
“Yeah, I should be back in August,” I told him. “I’m going to be keeping tabs on you, so lay off the smoking as best you can, ok?”
Emelio stopped smoking cigarettes after my first visit with him and switched to vaporizing his nicotine. I think it’s helped. Every week he seemed to be a tad more upbeat and perky.
“I’ll try to stay alive,” he whispered and then punctuated the statement by playing an imaginary violin in line with the Spanish music belting out of his stereo. After letting him listen to George Jones during a visit, I showed up the next week to find Emelio’s old stereo out of the closet and hooked up to equally ancient speakers. Needless to say, both work and his apartment is now often filled with music from the ‘50s.
“Please do,” I told him and fought back the idea he might not be here the next time I was. I’ve grown quite attached to Emelio and saw him more often than anyone else on my roster. He taught me the most about how much life is left in a person with a sub six-month diagnosis, as well as how human someone who is dying still is. Take away the mechanical chair, the humpback, and the lack of a voice box, and he’s just like most of the guys in my life. He likes boxing, fishing, and drinking coffee. I like boxing, fishing, and drinking coffee. I’m not sure what I expected coming to work with people so close to death. I didn’t expect to find them so similar to all of us who are still living.
Mary arrived and it was time for pie. We gathered in a semi-circle like little kids on Christmas and each dove into our respective plates. Mary was a tad nervous, given that her creation was being ladled into the mouth of a man who spent his life as a baker. The question loomed heavy over the room.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Is it anywhere close to the pies you used to make?”
Emelio, not known for being verbose, managed to push out what sounded to be a “pharumph” between bites of the homemade goodness, followed by an equally insulted, “No!”
We all laughed at his bluntness, while I was sure I’d died and gone to heaven myself, tasting every ounce of love that had been baked into each slice of that pie. Mary’s a fucking god in my book.
I asked for some time alone with Emelio and steeled myself for what was to come. I choked back tears knowing this was the one goodbye I’d been dreading for weeks. We locked our hands around each other’s forearms and I told him how blessed I felt to have gotten to be a part of his life and how honored I was for the experience.
He left me as he had often done in the past with few words, but heavy sentiments.
“Thank you…August…Thank you…August,” and two upward flicks of his thumb. For Emelio, that was as good as a novel.
I gave him one last great big hug and walked away before crashing back through the door and yelled, “FAREWELL MARTY, FAIRWELL EMELIO!!!” one last time for us both – and then sprinted to my car and fell apart.
So many people have asked what, if anything, I have gotten out of hospice. They ask the question as if hospice work is only about giving. The truth as I know it is that I am walking away with far more than I gave.
It was an immense privilege to be allowed to enter into these people’s lives at their most vulnerable time. What is not written about above, or in my previous articles, are the thousands upon thousands of private moments I experienced with them. The laughter occurred daily, and while I made it a goal of mine to try to make them each laugh at least once per visit, often it was them who had me shaking my head and clutching my stomach. Humor may be the very last thing to go.
These people don’t care how much I can deadlift or how well I can defend a choke. They don’t care if I can teach a butterfly pull-up or how well I know my acupuncture point combinations. There’s nothing I can teach them or do to reverse their diagnosis. They’re going to die regardless of anything about me. For the vast majority of my life, my body has been my source of strength and employment – from bodyguarding, to MMA, to acupuncture, and finally to coaching CrossFit – without strength and physicality, I was unemployable. Hospice took every skill I had worked so hard to craft over the years and threw them right out the window.
All these men cared about is if I was present. They watched to see if I broke eye contact when they shared something they feared. They were curious if I would treat them the same on the days they were near comatose as I did on the days they were up and alert. Did I make it about me? Or about them. Did that waiver? That lesson may have been the greatest of all. Presence over performance. Presence over all else.
I most certainly got the better end of this deal with each of these beautiful people pushing me to learn more about myself, about holding space, and about being present – I learned more than in any other training in my life. I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for all of the ways they helped me heal from the difficult situation I left and still dealt with while sharing time with them.
Having been with the dying, it most certainly seems like dying is the easy part. Living on the other hand, that’s what takes grace, honesty, grit, and fortitude. For now, it’s time to say,” FAREWELL SANTA FE!!” and crash out through the door of this chapter of the project.
I would like to personally extend a heartfelt thank you to all of you reading along for your support during the last few months. Hospice work comes with a hearty price, despite being incredibly rewarding. I know how much it meant to the people who were seen by volunteers, and how much good it did. I saw it with my own eyes. Every volunteer also needs a team of their own and you all were that for me.
Thank you from somewhere between San Diego and Texas, please stay tuned for updates over the next few months from Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua…and some darkness.