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seventysomething: When it’s time to stop fixing life’s holes

Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour has been in the business of airing voices worth listening to for more than 40 years: presidents and poets, pundits and press agents, commoners and kings. Recently, we came across a quiet voice that spoke to us and that, we think, might speak to you. Enough said. Here is former hospice chaplain and current blogger Susie Kaufman.

We are fixated on fixing. When I was a hospice chaplain, I always thought I had the best job in the office. The hospice staff diverged from the medical model, devoting its best practices to keeping the patients comfortable at a point along the living-dying continuum when all the treatment options had been exhausted and none of them was working any longer. Still, there were a great many questions to ask, problems to solve. The nurse had to figure out which medication would alleviate George’s intractable nerve pain and which would help him sleep when he was overwhelmed by anxiety. The social worker had to assess Margaret’s caregiving team to determine if her husband and daughter were up to the challenges. I had no such agenda. I was not required to bring my laptop with me when I visited patients and their families. I was just there, doing the hard job of not fixing.

I was a chaplain from a Jewish background with no traditional credentials, no ordination. I approached people empty handed, without a communion wafer to offer, a string of rosary beads to worry. I was, to say the least, an anomaly in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a floundering mill town where there were Catholic parishes that catered to the Irish, others that drew the Polish families and still others where mass was said in French. There were additionally the usual mainstream Protestant churches and a great many storefront Pentecostal iglesias. My liturgy rose like smoke out of the fire of the stories that people told about their lives. At first, many of them would deny the importance of their experience. They would say “I don’t know. I grew up in Chicopee. Went to work the night shift. Got married, wife and I had a couple of kids. That’s about it.”

But with a little prompting, Red, a World War II vet at the Soldiers’ Home, reverently described the stillness and patience he learned, waiting for a deer at the edge of the dark forest, his preferred cathedral. Daniel told me how fortunate he felt growing up on a farm where there was plenty to eat, how during the Depression he saved his apple cores to give to hungry boys at school. Mrs. Murphy spoke rapturously about Elvis, his portrait prominently displayed alongside the Blessed Virgin on the walls of her apartment. Some of the stories were tragic, parents outliving children. Some patients were so estranged from their families that no one ever came to visit them. Nurses with years of experience imparted two crucial lessons. They taught me, the novice, the greenhorn, that sometimes men who seemed charming and gregarious in old age had abused their wives and children, and they taught me that I couldn’t fix all the brokenness that came hobbling out of the past. I began the long study of being with people, which is a far, anguished cry from doing for people. Whatever the arc of the story, I told the hospice patients that their wanderings were sacred like Moses at the Burning Bush, like Jesus fasting in the Judaean desert. I told them the biblical figures shared their fear, their yearning and sometimes they believed me.

I am retired from hospice now and no longer have the same story-listening privileges. Still, the narrative of life is all around me and my witnessing remains essentially the same. In the supermarket, assaulted by fluorescent lights, lurid Enquirer headlines and candy in improbable colors, I find myself porous to the young women and old men on the check-out line. This one is expecting her third child in four years. That one just buried his wife. It’s only the convention of separateness that restrains my instinct to try to make it all better. Still, when someone I love is in trouble — and when is that not the case? — I continue to feel the need to fix the hole where the rain comes in. I forget, I remember, and I forget again that deep listening is often the palliative that people are wanting and not getting; that being willing to look someone else’s pain in the eye without blinking it away is, for the most part, the best I can do. In that optic embrace, in the loving appreciation we share, the two of us, the speaker and the listener, become our most fully human.