The One Thing that gave me a PhD in how to Live Fully.
My Monday morning alarm went off at 6:10 a.m., as I rolled over in regret to press snooze.
My Sunday night decision for “just one more drink” greeted me with a “good morning” that did not feel like sunshine.
I questioned why I agreed to work a shift at the AIDS hospice for homeless folks, when I already had three other jobs and a social life.
But, there wasn’t enough time to feel sorry for myself.
I jumped in the shower, put on my “big girl” pants, chugged a cup of coffee, and ran out the door with a wet head to the brownstone row house a few blocks away called Joseph’s House.
The autumn rain beat some life back in me, even though I would have preferred to be under covers. And despite my wake-up struggle, my heart was giddy-school-girl excited to spend the day at the place that taught me to love fiercely.
Working close to death has given me a PhD in how to live fully, appreciating both the ordinary and extraordinary moments.
I walked in the door and was greeted by “Kevin” in his wheelchair, who could be a stand-up comedian, has been shot four times, stabbed in the back by his mother (literally), and says hello to everyone on the street when I push him around the block to get slurpees at 7-11.
I squeezed him tight, did a “happy dance,” and we immediately fell into our normal banter.
“Juanita” walked up the stairs from doing laundry in the basement. My eyes lit up when I saw her, and I gave her a minute-long hug—with cheek kisses. I asked about her recent trip to North Carolina with her boyfriend. She was sick the whole time and worried it may be pneumonia. After a cigarette, I “mama-birded” her back to bed, folded her laundry, and tucked her under a fuzzy blanket.
“Ghedlom,” a political refugee from Ethiopia, wheeled in to get his morning coffee that he calls “painfully weak.” He asked if my hair was wet from the rain, and I said, “No, I just took a shower.” He joyfully clapped for me, and we all busted out laughing, because no one has ever been that proud of me for bathing, except maybe my mom when I was little.
I connected with a young Indian woman who’d taken a year off to volunteer before medical school, and told her she was on breakfast duty.
I would go upstairs to check on “Cathy,” who had just taken a turn toward actively dying.
I quietly entered her room, pulled a walker up to her bedside to use as a makeshift chair, and sat with her.
We locked eyes, and we both knew. In one long gaze, we had a silent conversation: she was not coming back from this.
She asked if I could grab a spoon for her fruit cup. I put the spoon in her hand, but her long, independent fingers were no longer strong enough to make it to her mouth. Without words, I took her spoon, scooped up a few pieces of pineapple, and she opened her lips.
This woman looks very different than me. She is older, African American, homeless, has AIDS, and is dying.
But in that moment, we were simply two human beings, deeply connected, and doing what is most natural for our species to do: take care of each other.
She ate the whole cup, one slow, deliberate spoonful at a time, and in whispered acceptance said, “I guess I’m like a baby again.”
This woman is fierce. She doesn’t talk much and is slow to trust, but she welcomed the cocoa butter that I massaged on her toothpick legs that had no muscles left.
She wanted to go downstairs to smoke a cigarette.
With a pre-fight stare down, we locked eyes. Then, I confidently told her what my Muay Thai coach tells me before a competition: “Let’s do this.”
She tried to stand up, but crumpled in my embrace, her shaky legs no longer able to hold her. I wrapped my arms around her like a slow dance, “heart pressed to beating heart,” until a wheelchair came, and we methodically made our way to the back porch.
Her hands found a cigarette but not a light, so I lit it for her. With her wasting body, she was no longer able to put the right end in her mouth, so I held it, and she puffed. After, we made it to the living room couch, where other residents—now called her “best friends”—gathered around to be with her.
It was both an extraordinary and ordinary Monday morning. Breakfast was still being served around the dining room table. Doctors appointments were still made, bathrooms cleaned, and laundry done.
But amidst the daily routine, we were naturally performing the forgotten art of taking care of the sick and dying. Our fear of death is not an excuse to hide away in nursing homes or hospitals. This day, we welcomed death into our home, just like a baby after birth.
My hangover from the night before vanished in the face of exquisite beauty, timeless grace, and profound human connection.
I remembered why I’d agreed to fit the AIDS hospice volunteer work back into my “busy” schedule.
Because these are the moments that matter the most.
The ones that force us to slow down and look fear directly in the eyes, knowing that we are not alone, and our differences are not that different.
An indestructible freedom is found when we choose to surrender our pride, embrace our innate vulnerability, trust human kindness, and break down walls that keep others out. We rediscover that we need each other to live and to die.
That is something goddamn beautiful and always worth getting up for.
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world
into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited
this world.” ~ Mary Oliver