Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Messing With Your Head

Working in hospice messes with your head.

I know, some of you want to award me the gold medal in the newest Olympic event of DUH. But sometimes when you work in the culture you forget that. It actually becomes normal. Give me a crowd of grieving people surrounding a cold bed, and I am money. People actually hush when I walk into a room. "It's the chaplain," they say in whispered tones. Damn right, I think to myself. Clear a path people, because I know what I'm doing. I know what to say, what not to say, how to put people at ease, how to make people laugh, how to pray.

And that's weird. I am reminded of this every time someone outside of work asks me what I do for a living. I am the only person I know who can suck the life out of the most raucous party by merely saying what my job is. People look at me as though I just said "I am a hitman and you are my next target."

There are other clues that working in hospice makes you strange. I spend an inordinate amount of time imagining what my death will be like. Seriously. And it's not as disturbed as it sounds. I see it almost everyday, how can I not? I imagine my last breath in comparison to what I see in the line of work. WASP types tend to die with one or two people around, usually including a hired caregiver, in a echoing house. Hispanic people die with their houses bursting at the seams with extended family. I like the idea of being surrounded by loved ones in my last moments, but then I'm like "Dude. Can I get a little space people? I'm trying to die here."

I also think about my funeral. You would think that as a pastor I imagine a formal religious ceremony with lots of scripture and singing and talk of resurrection. I don't. Is it wrong that I want my funeral to be a place where people open lots of good wine, sit around in cozy chairs with a fireplace, and tell hilarious stories about me? I'd prefer to be toasted, rather than prayed over. And my friends, if they were still around, would have some seriously funny stories to tell. Sometimes I do and say stuff now because I want people to bring it up at my funeral. I want my friend Sean to tell the story of how I finally worked up the courage in college to talk to this girl I had a crush on. Nicole. She ran cross country, and wore little purple shorts. I found myself unwittingly standing next to her at the cafeteria salad bar. I worked up my courage, removed my tongue from the bone-dry bottom of my mouth, and said "Tofu huh? You like tofu? Who likes tofu?"

Nicole and I did not end up together.

Sometimes working in hospice makes you nihilistic, like what does it matter anyway? Our lives are all going to end the same anyway, so I'm going to sit here and watch tv and eat cheese today. Usually when I think like that it means I need a vacation.

But most of the time it goes in a different direction, and I guess that's why if I was really pressed I would say that I am grateful for these years as a hospice chaplain. Working so much in death has made me realize that my dreams are worth pursuing, and they need to be pursued without delay. The desires that we all have will one day die right along with us. They will stop pulsating in us just as our heartbeats will cease. Don't procrastinate on your dreams. There is not some ideal moment out there when everything will fall into place. Don't wait until retirement to do what you really want to do. If it's worth doing, it's worth starting now.