by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on May 15, 2017, as “Hospice in the VA” It is republished here with the author’s permission.
The VA hospital is like a labyrinth: various wings, multiple floors, rooms that have obscure purposes, hallways that dead-end, signs that guide you to places where you do want to go. It is an easy building for losing your way. Most people who enter the building eventually find their way out of the hospital. Some don’t.
I went to visit Duane on Thursday. He’s in hospice. They don’t call it hospice at the VA. The section on the 8th floor of A-Wing is referred to as palliative care. It means the same thing but sounds nicer somehow. Why is it necessary to use a euphemism? I mean I wouldn’t call the hospice “Your Last Stop,” but why refer to it in a way to keep a person, probably a visitor, from thinking about death? It’s all about death.
A nurse took me to Duane’s room. He was lying in bed, talking with some guy about his pain medication. Duane was covered up completely with blankets, and he had a knit cap on his head. All I could see was his face. The nurse told him that I was there in the room with him. Then she and the man left the room.
The hospital room had the usual medical paraphernalia: monitors, an IV drip, charts. There was a note on the wall near the head of Duane’s bed that read: ” ‘Dewey’ Duane Dean”, and underneath his name, it said: “We appreciate our veterans!” Next to Duane’s bed was a television screen showing some sitcom movie with Dick van Dyke. Nobody was watching the TV. It was just there babbling, providing background noise so that the silence would not be overwhelming. Some of Duane’s personal effects were nearby: a collection of pictures of Duane’s family and a couple of images of Padre Pio.
I came up to Duane’s bed and said hello. He looked up at me, and he slowly extended his hand from under the covers. I took it.
Duane said, “Your hand is ice cold.”
“I’m a cold guy.”
Duane didn’t reply. He held on to my hand and dozed off. I remained standing next to his bed. It seemed strange that all I could do was hold on to his hand. I turned off the TV. I didn’t want the distraction. I watched Duane sleep fitfully. I held on to him. I raised my left hand over his head and tried to say a blessing. I watched. He slept.
Duane woke up. He looked intently at me. He asked, “How are you?”
I lied. I said, “I’m okay.” Well, I guess it’s all a matter of degree. Compared to Duane, a man with an aggressive brain tumor, I was doing great. I just didn’t feel like that. I didn’t ask Duane how he was. I don’t ask questions when I already know the answer.
Duane asked, “How’s your son?”
I wasn’t expecting Duane to ask about Hans. That threw me off. I told, “He struggles. The war didn’t do him any good,” and I felt suddenly very sad.
Duane said, “War never does.”
Then Duane asked me, “Does he believe that God loves him?”
Another curveball. Does Hans believe that? Do I even believe that?
I told Duane, “Hans believes that God has a purpose for him. But it’s hard for Hans, after what he did in Iraq, to believe that God loves him.”
I paused and said, “Hans did some really bad things. He will struggle to make his peace with God for the rest of his life.”
Duane said, “He’ll get through it. God will give him enough time.”
My vision blurred a bit as I pushed tears away. “I never expected to hear my son tell me about killing people.”
Duane said, “Nobody expects that. God will get you through it too.”
Will He? Maybe Duane is right. I put a lot of stock into the words of a dying man. Duane may be mistaken, but he’s at a point where he is not going to lie to me. I think that approaching death strips away all pretense. It all becomes very, very real.
It was getting too hard to stay.
“Duane, I’m going to go now.”
“Okay,” he said, as I gently released his hand.
“We’re in this together, Frank, although we came with different purposes.”
I replied, “But we will all wind up in the same place.”
“People care. That is what Church is about.”
I thought about my recent experiences with Church, and said, “Sometimes.”
Duane replied, “When we listen.”
“I’ll try to listen.”