Psalm for a Selfish Hospice Volunteer

At the end of my first in-home visit as a hospice volunteer, the elderly wife of my “client” thanked me profusely and, having asked where I lived, offered me gas money.

“Oh, no, I can’t do that!” I exclaimed with jovial horror. I was forty-two years old and hadn’t negotiated gas money since nights of joyriding and under-age drinking with my high school friends.

“Are you sure?” she asked, making surprisingly earnest eye contact. She was an elfin woman with white hair cut like a boy’s, combed in a side part.

The pained expression on her face told me the problem: my help felt like a handout; she did not want a handout.

I told her I was sure. After the stern instructions on refusing gifts and money I’d received in my hospice training, I considered any compensation from a client’s family as a cross between payola and elder abuse. There are moments when, for mysterious reasons, I don integrity like a chastity belt, and this was one of them.

I was a hospice volunteer for roughly one year. I’d like to say my motives for volunteering were entirely virtuous and uncomplicated, but I can now admit this was not the case. Between extended fits of childrearing, my mother had been an RN, and then, after she retired, she was a volunteer hospice nurse for another fifteen years until she became too old to drive. Her whole life has seemed dedicated to serving others, including raising ten children. She acted as if some formal service was a life obligation.

I’d like to say my motives for volunteering were entirely virtuous and uncomplicated, but I can now admit this was not the case.

I felt the pull of this idea, the sheer lapsed-Catholic guilt of it, and I also sensed that serving others, especially in a charged context like hospice, was not a simple thing. I wanted to serve and I also wanted to reflect on what it meant to serve. Since I was a fiction writer, this reflection would take the form of a story. I planned to become a hospice volunteer at an outfit that provided in-home care, do good, and get some cold hard insightful facts for a novel I was considering.

My first assignment was providing respite for three to four hours, once a week, for the aforementioned elfin woman, whose husband was dying from C.O.P.D. I sat with the man. We watched TV together. He liked hunting and fishing programs. Meanwhile, his wife ran errands, had lunch with a friend, escaped her death watch.

I didn’t find myself counting the minutes until her return; instead, I immersed myself in the incredible tedium. I tried to pinpoint the best way to describe one of the sounds his oxygen machine made — cymbals clashing under two feet of water. I made conversation. I asked him simple questions that took him five minutes to answer. He told me about farming, about how calves were born feet first with their heads between their legs. If she was having trouble, you spoke softly to the mother cow, so she wouldn’t get up, and then you grabbed the forelegs of the calf and pulled. I logged this information. You never know when a well-rendered lifestock birth will provoke an epiphany or two. When it was time for lunch, I’d fetch him a bottle of Ensure, or a mushy pulled pork sandwich, or just an illicit ice cream bar.

His wife’s gratitude was intense and unsettling. I hadn’t counted on her being affected by my presence. I assumed I would simply do my job and go unremarked upon as a person. But after that first offer of gas money, there were other awkward parting scenes in which she inquired in great detail about my family, praised my character, gave me a stuffed rabbit for my daughter, and, yes, continued to offer me cash for gas. I told her I was on sabbatical from teaching, that I had plenty of time. My weakness with the rabbit only steeled my resistance to the money, which always seemed to pain her. Once, when she was laying it on too thick, I baldly said, “No, I’m not really a good person.” She didn’t seem to hear this.

Once, when she was laying it on too thick, I baldly said, “No, I’m not really a good person.”

I was plagued by some of my not-so-great moments as a person, and, also, increasingly by the “research,” the selfishness, it was now clear, that had landed me in this place. The more she praised my altruism, the more clearly I saw its absence.

During training, we had been given a poem written by a veteran volunteer called “A 23rd Psalm for Volunteers.” The poem’s speaker says that volunteer work “maketh me to forget the self/in remembering others,” and the poem concludes, “The light of my candle of service/shall flow in my heart forever.”

I wasn’t exactly feeling this. Still, I did try to rationalize what I was doing: maybe being altruistic and selfish at the same time was actually a good way to live, making sure sacrifice doesn’t go too far? My mother’s near-perfect altruism inspired in me significant awe and admiration but also noteworthy amounts of terror and depression. And isn’t every fiction writer guilty of turning anecdotes and relationships into material? Wasn’t that actually our duty? Clearly, this was a rare win-win situation because I was helping someone and getting inspiration for my book. Besides, the man wanted a male hospice volunteer, and we were a scarce breed. Some other poor sap would have had to do extra volunteering if I weren’t there to share the load.

But in the end, despite my rationalizations, I could never entirely shake a corrosive sense of false pretenses: I was secretly using my client and his wife in their hour of greatest vulnerability. On top of this, the opiate of my ambition inured me to the pain all around me. The Titanic was sinking and I had a one-man submersible idling portside. I had convinced the hospice to give me months of training, to let me join a close-knit volunteer family that I knew I would desert, totally unscathed by loss, when my sabbatical was over.

The Titanic was sinking and I had a one-man submersible idling portside.

These thoughts added another layer of awkwardness to our recurring tussles over gas money. Finally, one afternoon, she broke me: I did accept a five spot. I was willing to try to make her feel better by behaving worse, finally bringing my actions more in line with my inner self.

I went to his funeral, nodded politely at her invitation to go to lunch some time. I didn’t follow-up right away, wondering whether that would just be extending the subterfuge, and soon I was back to teaching and too busy to think about it much. I sent her a Christmas card. I couldn’t help noticing that she never sent one back. Maybe she finally came to the realization that I never truly “glowed with the knowledge/of my service.” Instead, I exploited that “knowledge” in my novel.

Still, “A 23rd Psalm for Volunteers” said it best after all: “Surely the rewards of my job/far exceed what I have given.” So what if my sense of my character had taken another hit? I had sold my novel. And honestly, there had been some good in helping others; there had been some good in writing about it.

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