What an ironic name, I thought while entering through the white French doors of a deceptively small one-story building. The sterile scent of antiseptic mixed with the smell of age associated with nursing homes and hospitals was overwhelming and made me feel even more on edge. As a volunteer, I had been tasked with visiting and talking to residents in hospice, but my social skills ranged from marginally awkward to speechlessly awkward. Once, a guy once told me it was his birthday, and instead of wishing him a happy birthday like a normal human being, I responded with, “Oh, that’s the same day my grandmother died.”
In an attempt to avoid awkward silences after saying hello, I thought I could play music for the residents instead. Thus, armed with my violin and bright yellow music stand, I marched past the front desk, down the wide, carpeted halls, and stopped in front of the first open door.
Sunlight was streaming in through large windows and bounced off hardwood floors. Cards and colorful pictures drawn by children were hung lovingly on the walls, and a middle-aged woman sat in a wide, green armchair surrounded by vases full of flowers. She smiled invitingly at me as I rapped my knuckles against the doorframe.
“Look, Mom,” the woman said, “you have a visitor!”
I looked to my left as I entered the room. An old, frail woman was sitting up in bed, pajamas barely hanging on to her skeletal frame. A shock of white, curly hair framed a face containing a set of deep blue eyes that crinkled upwards as they gazed through me. The old woman didn’t say anything (Parkinson’s Dementia, the diagnosis read), so I set up my stand, pulled out my violin and played a few pieces of classical music.
At the end the old woman gave me a few soft claps.
“Mom was a piano teacher all her life,” her daughter said while I was packing up to move to the next room, “she can’t speak much anymore, but I’m sure she loved it.”
When I walked into her room the following Saturday, the old woman immediately clapped and made excited motions of rosining a bow. She danced in bed, waving her arms, rhythmically twisting her torso and wiggling her toes to the notes of an old Hungarian folk dance. Her daughter recorded it all, adding to the collection of memories she hoped to pass on to her children.
With each passing week, coming to hospice became easier and the fear of having actual conversations with the residents started to disappear. We never spoke of the weather or of television shows or even of medicine or illness. Instead, people talked about their lives after the musical icebreaker. A husband and wife met playing music at church — she was an organist, he a trumpet player. A 19-year-old girl dying of cancer pulled out her clarinet for a duet. An old man didn’t want music but wanted ice cream, so even though it was 10 in the morning, I pilfered two cups from the cafeteria, and we sat together eating chocolate ice cream while watching Saturday morning cartoons. A family crowded around a woman with agonal respirations and told me after the final notes of Felix Borowski’s “Adoration” that their mother loved classical music but could never afford tickets. “This was the first live performance she has ever had, and now it will be her last.” A man with ALS painfully pulled off his oxygen mask for a moment just to whisper to me in a hoarse, raspy voice, “I played the violin for 40 years.”
He was gone the next week.
Death and dying have always been topics that seem taboo. In college, we feel invincible; we feel whole lives lie ahead of us. We throw ourselves whole-heartedly into mud volleyball and rowing makeshift canoes across St. Mary’s Lake, the thought of injury never crossing our minds. We stand for four hours on six-inch wide benches waiting to sing the Alma Mater at the end of home football games without expecting that one day, our knees might no longer be able to hold us and may ache with the threat of rain. Looking back, I was terrified not of the small talk, but rather that volunteering in a hospice program would force me to acknowledge that these individuals were at the end of aging, the end of life.
Nursing homes, hospitals and hospice residences are mirrors of our future, and this is perhaps what makes us uncomfortable, perpetuating the fear of the sick and the elderly. It is easier to keep them locked away in a venue that is in between the world of the living and the dying. The reality, however, is that these buildings are far from simple vestibules to the next life; they are dwellings housing a great, diverse spectrum of the human soul. The experience of serving these resilient individuals at the end of their lives in an attempt to make them more comfortable and enjoyable is both humbling and gratifying. And so, a name like Alive Hospice is in fact not an ironic name at all; rather, it is the perfect descriptor of a place where so many phenomenal people gather with inspiring stories that truly teach what it means to live and to love.
Grace Ho is an internal medicine intern at Eastern Virginia Medical School. She will be starting her neurology residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center later this year.