I won a prize for my latest poetry collection. Winning isn’t everything, I know this. But it’s nice. For a moment you get to feel wait, I’m the best?! And even though comparing poetry books is like saying this apple is better than this orange, it’s a lovely moment.
The day my prize was awarded I was not at the award ceremony. It happened in Ireland last week, at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo. I knew about the prize a couple of weeks beforehand, but when you are a nurse and it's mid July and you ask can I take five days off next week because I won a prize, you are told congratulations, that’s really cool, but no. There are three other nurses taking that week off and they booked it last January. That is how it works.
Plus short notice flights from New York to Dublin were running at $1500.
So I made a video one morning at my kitchen table saying good evening everybody, I really wish I was there in person, and thank you very much for this lovely honor. A few days later, my editor accepted the award for me in Sligo, and they played the video.
At the moment when my editor was graciously accepting my award and they were playing my good evening everybody video, I was driving away from a harrowing hospice visit. It had been a challenging few days: I was assigned one of those patients who come on service already in crisis and it just gets worse. She and her husband were like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Nobody had walked them through what it would mean for her body when she abruptly quit the life-saving treatment she had been receiving. That task fell to me.
The walking through, the choice of words. How to say it. You only have a very short time to live. Those weeks you thought you’d have, you don’t have them. You have days. Gather your family around you. I practiced my speech as I drove to their house the day after I met them. I already felt hugely fond of them both. I cried in my car.
Over the four days, I spent many hours with these two people. Once her body was forced to try to operate without the treatment, my patient became very ill indeed. There were some things we could do to mitigate the suffering, but in my book, not enough. And the timeline was so truncated. Things progressed rapidly. The conversation went overnight from maybe she could start treatment again? to how many days does she have left? She had seven.
By day six, it was clear that her body was shutting down. I spent much of that morning trying to get her comfortable, getting the hospital bed, educating them and listening, listening, listening. My patient was very hard of hearing. After I communicated as best I could with her and she nodded and smiled a little and then fell into a doze, I talked with her husband in our regular voices about her impending death. It was unnerving, but we both knew that even though she was right there on the couch with her head on his shoulder, she couldn’t hear us.
He told me how they met. He told me about their many years together, their kids and grandkids, the property they bought, the life they built. Now and then, he would look sideways at her there with her head on his shoulder and his eyes would fill with tears. He would enter that state of knowing that she was close to death, days, maybe hours away now, and here we were talking about how they had rescued their dog and built their house and how he had taken her three days a week for six years for her treatments.
The details came into stark relief. I heard about how he would run the weekly errands while she was in treatment, because they wouldn’t allow him in with her. Covid. I heard about the last few treatments, when he begged to be allowed in with her. She was frightened and running out of the will to live. He begged to be allowed to sit by her and comfort her. He was told no.
There were many other things he told me as we sat in his living room that took my heart and wrung it out. At one point I said that I thought they were exceptional people, that his love for her was exceptional. He gave a small dismissive shake of his head. We’re just normal folk, he said.
Later, after she died, I thought a lot about that thing he said. Normal folk: I meet a lot of them in my work. Invariably, I drive away from my visits with these normal folk marveling to myself how extraordinary they are.
Thor Pederson is a Danish man who just spent ten years visiting all 200+ countries on earth without flying. “I stayed in the homes of many, many strangers during my travels” he said in an interview with CNN, “and I made it through every country in the world…unharmed. Either I’m the luckiest man on the planet, or the world is in a much better place than most people are led to believe by the scary, dramatic news on social media and news channels.”
In my work with the dying, I consistently meet people who bear this out, this theory of Thor Pederson’s. I knock on the doors of their houses and I have no idea what I am going to find inside. More often than not, I find love, fierce loyalty, self-sacrifice, humor, and extraordinary courage in the face of life’s greatest challenges.
My patient died the morning after my poetry award ceremony. Around the time that I was witnessing her death and attempting to console her distraught family, my prize was being announced on the morning news in Ireland. Part of me wished that I could have been at the ceremony, being a prizewinning poet, doing a reading, shaking hands with the judges. Most of me was glad that instead, I was with this family on one of the hardest days of their lives. Poet, hospice nurse: I don’t value or love one facet of my life more than the other. I’m happy I have them both. Apples and oranges.