T he paper assigned me to cover the summer benefit for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, billed as the Summer Soiree. I had my notebook and pen at the ready, determined to do a good job reporting on the events of the evening. It was a beautiful night out at Farm Neck Golf Club. The tents were packed, the food delicious, and the silent and live auctions aggressive.
I sat down at my table and spoke to the woman next to me. Her name was Margaret Oliveira and she was there because hospice had helped with her mother.
“My mom had cancer,” Margaret said. “I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do about cancer, didn’t even know about hospice, really. But they helped her and I couldn’t have done it without them. That’s why I’m here.”
I nodded, dutifully jotting down notes, trying to stay focused, but my mind began drifting to my own experiences with hospice. Years ago I too had never really heard of the organization nor knew what they were about. Then my mother in law, someone I had known since I was 16 years old and who I counted as a mentor, became sick with breast cancer. We didn’t know what to do, either. But the hospice organization in Pennsylvania moved in and helped us manage the duties and the pain management. This, in turn, allowed for us to attend to our overwhelming grief.
When our family looks back on that time, a period of unbelievable loss, we also marvel at how beautiful it was. All of us gathered together at home, our matriarch involved in the planning of her memorial service, and then the day-by-day movement from life toward death. And at every moment these angels of hospice taking care of us and guiding us, so that we could focus on what was actually happening, thereby breathing life into our grief.
I excused myself from the table and walked around, eavesdropping on various tables. At each one I heard more conversations about death. How rare to be at an event, let alone a beautiful summer benefit, and have so much talk turn toward death. And yet the evening was not a sad one. Indeed, it felt bigger and more alive for it.
As the evening continued I found myself sharing with a new friend my own story about Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. They had helped care for my grandparents, Bill and Ann Harding, in their final days.
When Pop was dying he began to hallucinate. Mostly, he saw a young boy dressed in a wrestling singlet taunting him from the corner of the living room. At first I felt uncomfortable about the ‘little fella,’ as my grandfather referred to his opponent. But Julie Anne, our main hospice nurse, assured me it was quite normal. Her knowledge of the complex and often bizarre life of death calmed me and gave me the courage to sit with my grandfather through many difficult days. And because I was there with him during that time, I do not think back and only feel the ache of loss. I also remember those long afternoons sitting together on his front porch on Pennacook avenue, sipping beers from Offshore Ale and talking in a casual, unguarded manner right up to the very end.
Later in the evening, Terre Young, the executive director of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, spoke. “I know you are all here tonight because you understand what our work is about,” she said.
How true, I thought. So many of us did understand because we had experienced firsthand the care and love that hospice provides. Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard is also somewhat unique in that it has no limits on the amount of time a patient can stay in their care. They are not limited to only helping with the dying process, either, offering essential bereavement services too.
“Guess what?” Ms. Young continued from the podium. “The hospital has promised us room in the old hospital.”
A roar went up from the crowd and several people shouted, “Hooray! Out of the trailer.” This was a reference to the small, not even double-wide, space they now occupy near the hospital. It seemed a perfect coda to the evening. An organization that brings dignity and a spiritual space to the dying process, mostly by enabling their clients to sit in the same room with death rather than hiding it away, was now about to get the physical space they deserved.