I imagine we all think about it. I mean, it is an inevitability of life. But for some reason humans who possess the gifts of reflection and understanding, never want to talk about it. Yet there we are the moment we are born. And here we are now, descending further and further towards death.
The first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word is pain, suffering, loss of a loved one. But why is death seen as morbid when there are so many other facets to it? Without a flinch, every day, humans happily eat plates filled with seasoned death. Withered roses are nonchalantly replaced with sunflowers. A mosquito is slapped on a tanned thigh and flicked away without a care. The sun lives and dies and our feelings are of awe at the beautiful colors of its death. Spring is born yet soon dies to summer and summer transcends into autumn and winter; and our only acts of mourning throughout the year are to lengthen our sleeves or scream, “Happy New Year!”
Life and death are all around us yet the average human isn’t even aware of how integrated they actually are. Scientists who are aware can only understand ordinary matter which accounts for 4% of our universe. That leaves 96% of who we are, what we are and why we’re here, an enigma. Is it the weight of the unknown that makes us despise death? For death leaves us naked and vulnerable. It’s the end of control. It’s that moment in life when we have no choice but to jump, to let go.
“Why did you volunteer for hospice?” Many have asked me this question, more often than not with a tone of shock. I could never fully answer them because I really didn’t know. The first time I met Kirk he was sitting in his favorite chair. It was a rather large and comfortable dark chair that I can’t quite describe now as it’s become something of a blur in my memory. I do remember its personality though; it carried a certain robustness — if you can imagine a debonair chair — as he only ever got up from it a few times, it was very much a part of him. That day he perked up from this chair and asked me if I came from the Make A Wish Foundation because I was the answer to his wishes.
Kirk was a charming, unapologetically candid man, with a smile that could melt your heart and a wit that could melt your face. He had a beautiful wife, too. Her name is Katie. I compare her to an endlessly more graceful and intelligent Marilyn Monroe. She is really one in a million. So was Kirk and he knew it. But he’d never admit it to you. He wrote Katie hundreds of gorgeous poems throughout their life together. Whenever I visited I was always in awe of their genuine love and the beauty of the relationship they had with one another.
So, the first day I met him, after both of us listened to my hospice coordinator Marilyn and Katie talk for about an hour, they ran out of breath and Kirk quickly took the chance to ask me another question. He asked me the very same question that everyone had been asking. “Why in the world did you decide to volunteer for hospice?” By then it was probably the tenth time I’d been asked with a tone of, “You could’ve done anything else.” It was quiet then and I knew I should say something, but I still didn’t know the answer. “I don’t have a life,” I told Kirk. “Outside of my career anyway.” “Hmm” he responded, seemingly half surprised and half grateful for the honesty.
But was that really it? I mean, has society become so distorted that the burden of death is the greatest catalyst to unmotivated, honest conversations between two human beings? I don’t know. I was still searching. In fact by the end of our first hangout session I had a knot in my throat the size of a golf ball. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of, “Oh my God. This man that I’m volunteering for is dying.” It was the first time that feeling actually registered in my mind. I didn’t tell Marilyn at the time, but I wanted to run away. That was until I realized that I was dying too. The only difference is, Kirk had an idea about when he would leave. I didn’t.
By the time he had to dance from his man-chair into a hospital bed we had written five songs together (two of which are on my new album). By the time he was ready to go home, we had shared many laughs, had our little tiffs on whether I was more folk or country and exchanging the words “I love you” had become as regular as breathing. Human attachment had settled in and Katie and Kirk had become a part of who I am.
“What’s going on? Where am I?” Kirk woke up in his hospital bed. Katie calmly explained where he was and embraced him lovingly.
I was sitting in my own usual chair across from him and holding my guitar, the day I saw Kirk for the last time. By this time he was in and out of consciousness. I guess that would be the proper way to describe it. It was a real shock to the senses because I’d never seen him so vulnerable before. We were always joking about how Kirk had so much energy that he wasn’t going anywhere. He was going to outlive us all and I believed it. But the moment I saw him this way the tears came and so did Marilyn’s hand. I looked away from him so he wouldn’t see me. I needed to suck it up and be strong for his sake and for Katie’s. When I looked over at him again, he’d fallen asleep.
That whole day to me was a whirlwind; what with being told the urgency of seeing him as he may not make it through the night and the feeling of being in the presence of him while he was on his last days. But there is one thing I remember rather vividly. There was a moment where I looked across the room again and there they were again. The tears. I don’t see much of anything anyway because I’m terribly nearsighted and tears don’t help one bit. But in that moment I must have seen him as clear as day. We stared at each other for what felt like ages and I didn’t even have that mind-tugging that people feel when it’s too quiet and someone should say something. It was just peaceful; for that moment not a thought passed through me. Like the ‘me’ or ego was gone.
A week or so later he went home.
I don’t have an answer for anyone. I don’t even know what it all means. But by observation, I feel there’s an intelligence and honesty to true love that is unmatched by the variety of the explanations humans believe in on Earth. (I’ve actually got a couple hours worth of audio from a dialogue Kirk, Katie and I had on this very topic). I’ve always imagined one of the closest feelings to true love is the seemingly “unconditional love” of a mother for her child. But because we all are conditioned from birth and our ideas and our culture can’t help but scurry us faster and faster towards approval and success, maybe the only thing closer to pure love would be that which one experiences upon meeting death. Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps people volunteer for hospice to experience a love that so many of us go through life without. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our lives truly can be fulfilled by treating each other the way we’d love to be treated, without any ulterior motive. We can share a comfortable silence with a stranger or stand up for peers if they are bullied or participate in charitable events; even work together towards restructuring our society to end the perpetuation of the need for charity. Perhaps if we all could recognize the stillness within us we would see.
And if you don’t figure it out before you pass on, maybe by the end of your life the light will be there waiting for you. They say that’s when the secret to life is revealed to you. I feel that whatever the secret may be, it will have proven that life was never about you. It was never about how you looked, what clothes you wore, your religion, your sect, your popularity, whether you were the prettiest or smartest or had the most possessions… one day when your life flashes before your eyes, you may see that regardless of who you were on Earth, the only thing that ever mattered was how much you loved.