Saturday night challenged me. I spent the evening with long time friends, and new friends who help lead a child rescue ministry in Thailand and the Philippines. The organization uses ex-pats and former special-forces guys to work undercover exposing slavery in brothels. They turn over video evidence to local law enforcement and then hope they move in. The rescued girls (and boys) are placed in a variety of aftercare programs, where many never recover.
Two hours of dark and heavy, and stories illustrating the immense scale of suffering, threatened to suck me under. And I know something about these issues; I’m not ignorant to the plight of human slavery. I guess I like my ministry served with a larger side of hope.
A cigar, a smooth single malt and heavy faith chat with my long time friends afterward failed to lift the malaise. Why even bother with hospice, or with anything at all for that matter when at this exact moment, tens of thousands of girls are being brutalized by so-called “sex tourists.”
A twinge of despair brought about thoughts of uniting an army of my Christian activist friends and my pissed off feminist friends: We’d storm the doors of brothels, grab the hands of girls, and burn the damn places down as we fled to safe houses. Regardless of worldview, politics and religious beliefs, we’d link arms on this one point of humanity. The Russian and Thai Mafia wouldn’t know what hit them.
(Alcohol, tobacco, profanity, and threats… read on, Christian friend)
I still felt low Sunday morning, and smelled like I had bedded down in an ashtray. But low in spirit or not, I had a recruiting gig at hospice at 11 a.m. Tired and void of my usual chit chat, I quickly took my seat in a line of six people at the front of the room. For the next hour we explained our particular area of outreach to 30 to 40 volunteers-in-training.
Three others came after me in the line-up, including a dog-therapy-man with a doll of a golden retriever camped at his feet. He boasted that as a former soldier he had gunned down and water boarded terrorists, and now he and his mercifully sweet dog sat with suffering people. He chocked up a few times. Everyone was moved, though like me, perhaps conflicted. I thought, “This isn’t really a water boarding crowd. You might want to lose that bit.”
The last guy, Kevin, mentioned he served in “home care.” These volunteers come alongside dying patients and their families within a home setting. In a sense, they become part of a family during their most vulnerable time. The volunteer coordinator sang Kevin’s praises: He took all sorts of one-time assignments, like driving patients to doctor’s appointments, helping them grocery shop, providing respite care for families.
Kevin also had a long-term gig providing companionship to a dying man whose children had shut him out. The man had no support systems. On Christmas Day, Kevin drove him to a distant relative’s home so he wouldn’t have to spend the holiday alone. As he recounted this experience, the six-foot-five, 300-pound Kevin put his hands over his face and wept. I peeked to my left thinking two things: One, I’m deeply moved and uncomfortable. Would he get a hold of his emotions? And two, I knew the sound of that sobbing, the voice, and the man… but from where?
Kevin told the group he began volunteering after his wife died of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) two years ago. ALS strikes the nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord that control muscle movement. The mind stays sharp; the physical body becomes immobile. The person is imprisoned in a useless shell. Eventually they die from respiratory failure.
“That’s it,” I said, and leaned forward to look at him: “I served as your home care volunteer!” The two of us locked eyes. I felt tingly.
Jill was in the last stages of ALS when I entered their tiny circle. I provided her with companionship, and Kevin with respite care. At the time Jill could only move her eyes. She used the latest in technology to communicate: A machine that tracked retina movement and enabled her to talk looking at one letter at a time, as well as surf the internet and change television channels.
Other than Kevin’s boss at work, and Jill’s sister four hours away, they had no family or friend support. During my visits, Kevin spent time catching up on paperwork in the other room. I held Jill’s hand and learned how to carry on a one-sided conversation. The two of us watched TV arm-in-arm. I swabbed her mouth with conditioning gel every 15 minutes. She’d chime in every so often with a thought. I could tell when she laughed. There were many moments of silence.
Two-three hours later, Kevin would join us and we’d go through photo albums and talk about their life together before the illness. Then I’d help him prepare Jill for bed. When I left he’d always ask me to give Jill a hug, even though I had already planned to. I brought him homemade cookies. And knowing he subsisted on frozen meals, I made yummy dinners. When I realized they’d be alone on Christmas Day, I adjusted my plans and brought shepherd’s pie and homemade biscuits. The three of us watched television.
Christmas Day stood out for another reason: For hours Jill kept saying the same phrase over and over using her eye gaze machine. Kevin said it must be a malfunction and needed resetting. I thought Jill might be angry or upset. That night he followed me into the outside hallway and put his hands over his face and wept. I listened to his anguish, and words of despair. I looked at the ground. I asked to pray for him. And then I left, legs shaking.
I was reading at my favorite downtown café when I learned Jill passed away on Christmas night. I felt sick thinking of them… at him, just having lost his best friend.
Hospice rules prevent a volunteer from continuing a relationship with a patient’s family after the death, so I left Kevin a voicemail with my sorries and promises of prayer. Yet he never left my mind. I knew he worked at a large insurance company I passed on my way to my office. Nearly every day for two years I prayed for him on my way to the office. I did the same when I passed by their apartment on Academy Boulevard.
On Sunday, I witnessed a miracle. I encountered a man who received tender care from strangers, and now gave back. We exchanged multiple hugs and phone numbers. And it did my heart good to look over and see him talking among a group of men about God and hospice and caring for people. He was not alone.
A does not equal B in this blog, at least spiritually. I walked away from the training floating on clouds, and the heaviness had lifted, but it didn’t replace the burden of what I heard on Saturday night. It did remind me, however, that life is short and we live in a world of desperate need. It is my hope that the 10 people reading this piece will evaluate their situation and see if there’s a place where they can step out, even just a bit.