hospice and gardening

Years ago I found out my uncle had been diagnosed with cancer. I’d just moved away to Pennsylvania to go to massage school and based on his prognosis, I’d just make it home in time to say goodbye.

When I finished school I of course bolted home and went to my mothers to see family and my ailing uncle. My uncle was so disfigured he was barely recognizable to me. He was bloated but his legs had grown thin and withered while he’d been on oxycontin for months. I found it difficult to look at him much less speak with him for prolonged periods of time.

I mustered all of my sense of care and after discussing it with family decided I should give him a massage. I’d just finished school, he’d been having some pain around his hip and I certainly couldn’t make the situation any worse. I worked on him and had a chance to really connect with my uncle in a way I hadn’t previously. He couldn’t be any more needy and I couldn’t have been any more nurturing. People that ill don’t get much in the way of nurturing touch.

My uncle passed away weeks later and I felt comfortable that he knew I cared and would always remember him.

I still felt uncomfortable however with my initial response to seeing him. Deep down it was fear. I didn’t like death, didn’t like the idea and had an aversion to the state. My grandmother had mentioned the hospice volunteer who would come by the house and I asked her what hospice was. She told me it was just people who would hang out with my uncle and make sure the family had what they needed.

I decided that when I got settled as a massage therapist. I should look into it.

One of my first patients was a man named Alvin. He was in a home that tended to end of life patients and he’d grown up in country Louisiana. Here I was this young white kid wandering into this older black man’s life and asking him “What’s going on?” Well, he was wasting away from AIDS. I was doing my best to talk about things, find common ground and just let someone know I cared. He encouraged me to come back anytime I wanted. Said he liked talking and it was a good break from his life in the home.

I wondered how I’d connect with him. We had such different lives. He’d grown up in the country and I grew up in the suburbs. Upon my return visit we began discussing gardening then from there discussing food. He lit up and began discussing all the things he used to grow. We wandered from discussing greens like collards and turnip to southern peas and okra.

This despondent man turned warm, with a smile having fond memories of meals with family and friends. Cornbread made with buttermilk in a cast iron skillet paired with southern peas and rice. Cabbage and greens served for new years. Deep southern traditions helped a young white kid and an older black man bond. There was something universal we’d been able to connect over, food and family.

I mentioned my conversation with the staff while we discussed his condition. Upon my next visit I was surprised to find the staff chipped in and bought pots with vegetable plants in them. They wanted to know if I’d like to help Alvin plant them outside in the grounds flower beds. I discussed with Alvin and he seemed excited.

We got a small hand shovel and the plants, went outside and as I wheeled Alvin up to our first planting spot he started digging with a fury. It was like giving a small child crayons and paper, he went to town. We spent 30 minutes or so chatting, putting peppers and a few tomato plants in the ground. I realized it was the first time I’d really seen him forget about his condition. It was the first time in months he was really alive in the moment instead of worried about what was to come. Be here now.

A few weeks later Alvin passed on. We never harvested a single pepper. That wasn’t really the point. The point was planting seeds, putting things in the ground in the present moment. Relishing moments of being truly alive is the cure for worries about life fading away.

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”—Masanobu Fukuoka (One-Straw Revolution)