Hospice House by John Bolton
Lee and Elaine Hampton sat in the Dr. Allen’s waiting room. Lee was in a wheel chair. Little was said. They had been married for forty five years and would not make it to forty six. Lee was dying of stomach cancer that had spread to his bones. He was seventy and Elaine two years younger.
Cheryl, Doc’s long time nurse, put the Hamptons in a room. Doc came in and greeted them as he used the hand sanitizer on the wall by the door. Then he held his hand out and shook with Elaine first and then Lee. Doc thought he knew why his patient was there, but he inquired just the same.
Lee skipped the chitchat. “Doc, I’m failing. And I’m weak. Didn’t think I could walk in here and back out. And I’m really, really tired of the pain. My whole body aches and throbs. If I take enough meds to cut the pain, I don’t do anything but sleep. I think I’m still of sound mind. And I want to take you up on that hospice house.”
Doc Allen nodded and thought before verifying, “You don’t want hospice at home? You want the hospice house?”
Lee sighed deeply, taking Elaine’s hand, pulling it to him and kissing it. He said, “Elaine wants me to do hospice at home. She wants to take care of me like she always has. I won’t do that to her. Or the family. It’s too much. And I don’t want to die at home and leave that memory. You said the hospice house can keep me comfortable and take the burden off the family. That’s what I want. I’m ready for it and I’m ready to die.”
* * *
Hospice house was a blessing. Lee was mostly free from pain and sleeping or dozing. He would often wake and speak with visitors and staff. He was relieved to have the burden of his care taken off the family.
It was a nice place too. There were framed prints and colorful quilts in the halls and rooms and lots of flowers. Each room was private, homey and had a window to an outdoor courtyard with bird feeders and a small pond. There was a comfortable couch and chairs and the couch folded into a bed. Family took turns staying the night with Lee.
Every patient’s door had their name on it and some were personalized. Lee’s door was covered with photos of him and his family and friends. A page and a half biography told about his life. A sign with large letters read,
I’m glad you came to see me. I’m going to a better place pretty soon, so come in and talk, live and please laugh. Talk to me too. They say hearing is the last thing to go.
Please keep the visits short and no more than three people at a time. I don’t like crowds! If there are more, please take turns and relax in the common area.
Inside the room an electronic photo album changed every few seconds. Gospel and blues and old timey music played on CD player. And sometimes a homemade CD of Lee playing played too. He’d been an amateur wood worker and then three years ago, found the hobby of building and playing cigar box guitars. Lee thought making instruments and playing them was about the best hobby ever.
Hospice might shorten a dying person’s number of final days, but it seemed like everyone that visited was won over. After three days, Lee reached a point where he only awoke once or twice a day. On the fifth day he developed a throat rattle and the nurses gave him oral drops that quieted it.
The family had been taught about the dying process and knew apneas are a sign the end is nearing. Lee started to have apneas – periods where his breathing paused for ten or more seconds and the apneas began to come more often and last longer. He was comfortable and at times could hear his visitors and feel the comfort of someone’s hand.
That night after midnight Lee did not awaken, but he felt alert and alive and a since of well being. Something was happening. Soon he saw a warm beam of light that beckoned. Somehow he willed himself to follow the light along a path. The path made a bend and around the corner to a where an angel sat in a large and sparsely furnished large room. The angel was a male and robed in white. He sat on a simple stone bench.
The angel said, “Welcome Lee. We’ve met before, but I don’t think you remember. You can call me Jacob. Are you ready to go on this time? To eternal life with your creator?”
Lee felt peace and awe and a longing to go. He said, “I’m a poor sinner, but if I can go on to a better place, then I am ready.”
“Very good,” said the angel. “What do have to recommend you for Heaven?”
“Well, I’ve done a lot of things that I regret. I’ll confess them all if I can remember them. I claim Heaven by the forgiveness of my savior, Jesus Christ, the son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. That whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have life everlasting.”
“Do you really believe it?” the angel asked.
“Ahh. I’ve tried to. I wish my faith was stronger. Seeing you now? I do believe it.“
“I know you do. I’ve been with you in all your lives and appeared to you at the end of each life. I have not always looked the same to you. What we must do is determine if you are ready for everlasting life or another life on earth. Lee, you have vague bits of memories of your other lives. Like déjà vues. You’ve liked to read in this life. You would read a story about a time and place. Parts of some stories felt very real to you. Do you remember those?”
Lee felt embarrassed, curious and afraid all at once. He had never seriously thought he’d had a previous life. He sheepishly asked, “Was I a black man?”
“You were. What else?”
Lee felt bits of understanding. “Whew. Is that why I like blues music and stories about blacks in the early 1900s?”
“I think so,” the angel Jacob chuckled. “That was your era. What else?”
“Was I an Indian? An American Indian?”
“Wow! Umm… How about a Scottish warrior and a fighter pilot?”
The angel laughed again. “Sorry, Lee. No fighter pilot. Yes and no on the Scot warrior. You were a border reiver, a raider. Some would call it a warrior. Some would not. That didn’t end well for you. Do you want to go back and try for fighter pilot?”
“Any more memories or guesses?”
“I used to love stories like ‘The Old Man And The Sea.’ Things like that. Was I a fisherman?”
“You were a fisher girl. A good girl. I think that was your best life, but it was too short.”
Lee stopped himself from uttering, ‘Holy shit.’ It seemed inappropriate. “Wow again, Jacob. But if that was my best life, then why didn’t I go to Heaven after I died? And oh, did I have any more lives?“
“No, Lee. This life that is about to end is your fifth try. It’s customary that now you relive each life in order. It will just take an instant and you will see every good and bad thing that you did and that happened to you. You will be given knowledge of how you lived and how you felt. But do not fear. All your guilt’s and fears will be gone. You will feel accepted and forgiven. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready, Jacob.”
“Okay Lee. After each life I will ask you questions and you can ask a question of me. What we’re looking for is why you think you didn’t go on to eternal life after each life.”
Lee felt a rush of cold air and the whoosh of his lungs struggling for their first breath. He fussed weakly and made wee gasps, but air would not come. The midwife’s rough hands grasped him and rubbed his body with cold straw. Air came and he cried weakly. He felt the warmth of his mother and nursed from her breast. And later he slept.
He grew and over time his mother came to love him dearly. It was a rough start in life and it got no better. They were poor and often hungry. They lived on the north side, the Scot side of the Border. The border was a rough and dangerous place with raiding nearly every winter. His name was Angus Graham. His father was unknown other than the fact that he was one of three raiders from the south who had raped his mother when she was fourteen.
They had no land of their own and Angus worked the fields from the time he was eight. There was never enough and with his mother’s blessing and instruction, he stole what he could.
There was no school for Angus, no church and just bits of religion. Christian from his mother and pagan from his grandmother. Angus did not take to either.
One late autumn day when was twelve, he was fishing for their dinner when riders crossed the stream. Angus hid in the bushes. What else could he do at twelve? The raiders took all their grain and dried berries and fruit. There was nothing else of value. That winter his mother died of hunger and frustration. Angus lived by stealing on both sides of the border.
When he was fifteen and had most of a man’s size he joined a band of reivers. On his first raid, Angus took a girl against her will and stole a pony. By the first snowfall he had a saddle and light armor, a good pike and a battered sword. He’d had a part in killing three men, but none of them in single combat.
After the new year, raiders came from the south. It was winter and past the usual raiding time. The reivers saw them coming and knew they were out matched. They scattered. Angus galloped his pony into a copse of trees by a stream, then got off the pony and tried to hide. But the raiders were too close and spotted him.
A young man not much older than Angus came at him with a sword and shield. Angus ran and two other riders herded him toward the young swordsman. Angus threw down his arms and begged and tried to scramble away. A pike slammed into his lower side and he fell to the ground shrieking in pain and bleeding. The swordsman raised his sword and ended his life.
Lee saw the angel Jacob again. He said, “I was a poor boy along the border and a bastard to boot. But my mother loved me. I don’t think I had much of chance to be good. And I wasn’t good. I was mean and resentful. I stole because I had to. Then I stole and ruined things for fun. I raped a girl for the thrill of it. I did a lot of mean things.”
“You did,” said the angel. “Why didn’t you go on to eternal life?”
Lee held out his hands and said, “I have the impression it would have been hell for being a terrible person. Or maybe just eternal nothingness for being an atheist.”
The angel Jacob nodded. “Very astute, Lee. There is a hell and there is a nothingness. You were given another opportunity. Any questions?”
“Yes,” Lee said. “Could I have embraced that pagan religion of my grandmother and saved my soul?”
Suddenly he was a baby again- a girl baby in her grandmother’s arms and then her mother’s arms. Their small house smelled strongly of something that Alana would later learn was fish. She was much loved by her family and her tiny fishing village. She loved them back with a fierce heart.
Alana had a wonderful life by the sea. She learned to read and knit and sew and to care for the babies and small children. And she learned to sail and fish.
The priest came often to the village and Alana accepted Jesus as savior. Somehow it was very important that she be good and strong and brave. At the age of fourteen, Alana fell in love with a fisher boy of her same age. One early autumn day and late in the day, the sun was setting and Alana stood on a rock twice her height and watched the boy swim and dive in the sea. He surfaced and screamed out in agony. Alana knew it was real and not a game. She dove into the water, swam as fast as she could to the spot where her love went under and dove for him. Alana came to the surface again and then went back under. The lives of the young couple ended.
Again, Lee was with the angel Jacob. In spite of what happened, he was calm and at peace.
Jacob said. “You were Alana. You felt what she felt. Why didn’t you want to go Heaven after you died in that life?”
“I wanted another chance at love. I wanted to love and be loved.”
Suddenly he was born again, this time in a smoky lodge made of buffalo skins. Then the people were on the move. Little Teal bobbed along in the pack on his mother’s back with the sun on his brown head and laughter and happiness in his eyes. The people were on the move, following the buffalo.
Teal was raised up in the way of the people. At fourteen, he went alone into the wilderness to seek his vision and his spirit guide. He sat on a butte in Paha Sapa, the black hills, for six days and nights with no food and just sips of water. He chanted and prayed with what he thought was proper spirit and yet no vision came. Teal grew discouraged and despondent. Finally, he gave up and went back to the village with a made up story of a bear with a cut nose. As he told his story to the medicine man, he pulled out his knife and slashed across his own nose.
Teal, now called Cut Nose became a warrior of the kit fox clan. He watched and wanted Swan, a pretty young girl of his people. She was receptive, and Cut Nose courted her and fell in love. But to win Swan, he needed four ponies to give to Swan’s father.
Cut Nose soon got his chance. Three young men of the kit fox clan went to the land of the Crow people on a horse raiding mission. Cut Nose acted confident and boastful but inside, he was afraid. Before they left their own lands, a mounted party of five Crow swept down on the three young warriors. One ran. Cut Nose pulled an arrow from his quiver and fit it into his strong bow made from osage orange. The enemy closed and Cut Nose loosed an arrow that struck a Crow brave in the leg. Before Cut Nose could let his second arrow fly, his head was crushed by a war club in the hand of a strong Crow warrior.
Lee could see the angel Jacob again. The angel said, “You died bravely enough.”
Lee said, “I did. I feel proud of that. But I had doubts that I was worthy to go on to a happy hunting ground.”
“Yes. Could I have gone to that happy hunting ground?”
“That was above my level to decide. There is a happy hunting ground, but it was not certain you would have achieved it.”
And suddenly he was a baby in the arms of a new mother. She nursed him, but he couldn’t seem to nurse. His mother comforted him and sang to him and did the best she could. His name was Toby. He felt warm, safe and loved. And hungry. He was born with a cleft palate, called a hare lip in those days. His mouth and lip were malformed. As a baby he had a hard time nursing. As he grew, he had a hard time talking so people could understand him.
He grew up on Dockery farm in Northwest Mississippi. He went to school and worked in the cotton fields from the time he was six. It was a good life, but having the hare lip made it hard in a lot of ways. He was athletic and had friends but he despaired of finding a girl to love him, because of the way he looked and talked. It was more a lack of confidence than a reality.
Toby loved two things, baseball and music. By fourteen he was skilled and fast enough to play center field with older boys and grown men. Baseball was popular on Dockery. A great and happy surprise was that he could play harmonica. Even with the right side of his mouth not closing right, he could direct air and was getting good at the harp. That was a big thing on Dockery too. Toby played ball and harp about every chance he got.
He made it through eighth grade and then worked full time on the farm and in the wood shop. When he was sixteen he was just maybe finding a girl he liked and who liked him. Her name was Cleopatra and she was called Cleo.
Before he ever got that first awkward kiss, things came to a sudden end. He was riding on hay wagon with Cleo and some other workers and he was clowning around. The front wagon wheel dipped into a rut and Toby went sailing off and landed just wrong on his arms and head. His neck was broken.
Suddenly Lee was back with the angel Jacob. And this time he stunned and breathing hard. He said, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming. Gees. I wish I could have lived it longer and seen where it went. Why did it end like that?”
Jacob said, “I liked that life too. Your answer to why it ended? You don’t get that until you go eternal. Tell me. You were a good church going boy. Why do you think you didn’t go eternal after Toby?”
Lee puffed a big breath out of his mouth and thought, Huh. I can still do that. He thought a minute and answered, “It was like when I was Alana. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to experience love and more life.
“Wow. Toby wanted so much to love and sing and play music. He and Alana wanted love. I got those things in this life. I have a lot to be thankful for. I am. Thankful.”
The angel Jacob nodded his head. He said, “Yes. That’s one of the things we look for. You were a long ways from perfect. You said and did too many hurtful things when you were young. You were a smart-ass for sure. But you got to live long enough to turn into a good human being.”
“Again Jacob, I thank God for that and you too. What happens now? I still feel ready.”
“Then it’s on to your maker and savior. I can’t promise you a last wish. But I ask you. If you could have a last wish – what would it be?”
Lee said, “One wish. That’s easy. Comfort for Elaine and my family.
* * *
Elaine retold her son Ron the old family story of Lee knocking down a nest of angry wasps. They both laughed and Elaine cried. She sat back in her rocker and wiped her tears away and honked her nose into a tissue. She realized she felt ready and at ease with Lee’s passing. She hoped it would be soon. She said, “Oh I hope Lee heard that story and heard us laughing. He would have liked that.”
Note: Hospice in the home can be a very good thing too,