Max was gone when I arrived this time. Down here in the satellite ward, our little 4-room hospice and respite wing, we each have a whiteboard outside our doors. Usually it will have the occupant's name, and it might have a message such as "PLEASE limit visitors to 3 at a time" or some other such caring admonishment. More often the boards are decorated by loved ones, especially the kids, with drawings and notes, and hearts, like a giant 'get well' card, except minus the 'get well' bit.
Max had been here I think nearly 3 months, and in that time I'd not met him. We don't typically meet, we clients (that being the preferred term to 'patients' these days), except perhaps by accident and through strange channels. Immediate neighbours get to know each other's television preferences for example. And it's not done to ask about other patients, especially down this end of the building. Max's whiteboard did not tell me his surname, but said in one place "Max The Music Man" and in another "Max The Muleskinner" and featured a particularly bad drawing of a guitar, all anatomically incorrect, surrounded by hearts and "love you grandpa"s. Max was old but not very, and had some disease that was killing him incrementally. He did not seem in much pain. Of course, with just these few clues the temptation is to run wild with speculation as to who Max is, what amazing things a musician/muleskinner might have lived to do and see, but here ... what I am seeking in connection is a small and simple feeling-out thing. Like an auric touch, or something. Max had many visitors, but more and more wished he didn't. That last time two weeks ago I noticed, on my peregrinations past his door, shuffling to and from the kitchen, he would usually be just sitting on the side of his bed, back turned, staring out the door. I understand he did not go home. Or rather one might say he went Home.
I'd gotten used to Max, the faces of his regular guests making tea in the kitchen. There's an odd combination of distance and immediate intimacy when someone like me - clearly a client of The Ward - meets someone else's guest. They are already vulnerable and in an unusual place in life's journey, and of course the rote greeting is something along the lines of "how are you going?" but here that almost never gets asked up front. Instead, a lovely thing happens, aided and abetted by my inability to speak anyway - we just look at each other a bit, and look away, and maybe stand a little too close to each other, and let our non-verbal talking do the talking. So much gets said in that little kitchen in the silence broken only by the burbling pump on the fishtank, or the whisper of a kettle boiling. Quite a profound sense of connectedness can be had by two strangers in a room standing inappropriately close, touching shoulders, leaning back against a benchtop and contemplating the fish together, in the face of All This. I think people become very aware of how they are projecting outwardly in such times and places, and I like that I can 'converse' with people on that level. I liked most of Max's guests, apart from a couple of pushy men about his own age. The sort who hadn't really been such great friends through life perhaps, but now feel they have some role to act out, some agenda of their own to salve at Max's expense, and which he suffered through with grit and strength if not with perfect grace. They were not available to me on the regular human bandwidth we use in The Ward. Shut off. Oh well.
Sometimes, clients are nameless, according to the whiteboard at least. Next to the soft-feeling Kathleen with such gorgeously-gentle visitors is one such nameless older woman, arrived today or last night, accompanied by two women younger by 25 or 30 years, perhaps daughters. Maybe there are no whiteboard markers handy today; after all there was a conference down the hall yesterday. But then, there's another phenomenon I have noticed over this last year or more - the Nameless tend not to be here for long. My sidelong glance (this is allowed under the Unspoken Rules Of The Ward, as long as it is done with respect and love; we can always pull our curtain if we do not wish to be seen) would tend to confirm this expectation. You can see the weight on her face now, and the distinctive gibbous aura of waiting on the other two women that I have seen so many times on the loved ones of those Close To It Now.
I've said it before but it's a privilege to be here, to have had such a time to sit with all this wonderful end-stage reality. Not all the deaths I've sat through here have been good, or easy, they've all been different of course, and probably half of the clients like myself go home rather than Home at the conclusion of their stay, but it's the life here, the nuances and flavours of how people are in the teeth of it all that I love.
It's true, I am romantic, and always have been to some degree, on the whole death thing. That's a discussion for another time perhaps. But here's to Max, one of my longest-term neighbours. I understand from things overheard in passing and from the things I felt that he was in the last weeks eager to go, and I am glad for him now.
Going home is still something I expect to do for now; I am not worsening so rapidly that this will likely present much of a problem. But already I am looking at that time when I shan't. I wonder if I'll know in advance, whether I'll be leaving home knowingly One Last Time, or whether events will just transpire that way. There is always the Space Junk option, of course (and if you are the prayerful kind, if you believe in intercessionary thoughts and so forth, that is the one thing apart from sufficient day-to-day comfort that I would ask you to pray for - hurtling space junk and a spectacular fiery demise. Yes, seriously.)
In the meantime, it's a beautiful, perfect showery overcast autumn day. I'm going to go and breathe some more of it.