Jefferson Almanac
10:57 am
Thu September 1, 2011

The Razor's Edge

Sandy was in her mid-eighties when she died last May. She was a soft radiance of light in the time I knew her. She was elegance, even in infirmity; not a trait many can pull off authentically. She favored bright colors over the fashion-safe palette of mauves and dusty rose pinks. And she was unfailingly kind and patient, even with those she disagreed with. She could—as so many say and so many cannot do—”disagree without being disagreeable.”  She was a world traveler who made a pleasant, cozy home in Etna, and filled it with art, music, books and many friends.

So when Sandy entered Hospice, it really was because she was on her final voyage. The thing about visiting someone in Hospice, is that you can’t ask them when they are going to get to go home.  It’s “The Big Unsaid” that hangs over the conversation; it’s talked around but never directly at. Very hard to avoid the topic and yet, avoiding it is required.

When I visited Sandy in hospice, I stupidly brought her a living plant. Why that was stupid is because a living plant requires watering and care, things a person in hospice doesn’t need to worry about.  A living plant is a long-term commitment, something most of us can justify because we don’t have “The Big Unsaid” looming over our every moment or action. Most of us who visit hospice the first fifty times cannot wrap our minds around the notion of limited time. I would go a step further and say that most of us  live our lives like we have time to squander on thoughts and actions completely unrelated to “The Big Unsaid”—time is limitless. We are all a bunch of children at the core of things; children who luxuriate in the notion that there is plenty of time to do everything we want to do.

Sandy couldn’t see to read anymore, which had to be frustrating for someone who spent a great deal of her life reading. By her hospice bed was a copy of Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge; as good a novel as one could ever find given her situation. I was grateful for the chance to read to her, as the conversation was getting a little forced—I’d already  gone through the usual topics: food,  family, community and didn’t want to venture into any areas that would make her sad or afraid.

Maugham published The Razor’s Edge in 1944. It’s the story of a guy named Larry Elliot who returns to America after WWI with what we would now call severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. Back then, they didn’t have a diagnosis or a label that might help explain Larry’s post-war behavior.  Given his contacts and family connections, Larry could have reentered his privileged life but instead headed to Paris where he read, studied, and worked, before ultimately traveling to India to find God.

I read Sandy a chapter about a dinner party. The narrator (who is the author), tries to draw out a young woman who is really a flat-liner at the art of conversation. After a series of awkward conversational attempts, the author is ready to give up when the girl says something so insightful that the author is taken aback and is subsequently at a loss for words. It was a short interchange but one that knocked my socks off and when I looked over at Sandy and she was smiling and said something like, “that was good.”  It was good and I was glad she had that book on her night stand, and glad that I got to read it aloud and glad that we were in such a warm and welcoming place enjoying it together.

Organizations like Hospice act as a bridge between those of us who assiduously avoid thinking about and/or discussing death and dying, and those who are actually personally going through that process. And thank God for Hospice and organizations like them. If it were up to me, I’d be bringing live plants and making plans for decades, never daring to deal with the truth of the situation. And I know I’m not alone in that penchant for avoiding reality...it is a common human trait to avoid the unpleasant. And what could be more unpleasant than facing the reality of one’s mortality?

One of the founders of the Hospice movement, Dr. Cicely Saunders observed, “We do not have to cure to heal.” I have to imagine when she said that a whole bunch of medical professionals breathed a big sigh of relief.  In Hospice, “The Big Unsaid” is dealt with daily and in that dealing, it becomes demystified and, I have to think, way less scary. Communities with the good fortune and, more to the point, with the moral priority to fund and support hospice, gift their communities daily with a loving framework to practice healing right along with them.