As a hospice volunteer, I've had the privilege of sitting by the bedside of people who are living their dying. With every person I've met at the last stage of their lives, I've learned many lessons about living and, especially, about the grace in dying. As I look back at my hospice experiences, I know that I was quietly drawn to the subject of ethical wills as a result of my time with one man.
I was asked by a family to tape record stories about the life of an elderly man for his children and grandchildren to listen to after his death. I recall driving to the rural home of his daughter where he lived and, at her request, let myself in the house and found the tape recorder she had left for me to use. I went into the bedroom and sat down next to the bed and introduced myself to the gentleman -- telling him that his daughter had asked me to record some stories about his life. "Oh, no, I don't want to do that. I don't like the sound of my voice anymore" he said. His voice did seem strained to me but he was clear and understandable. I sat with him in silence for awhile, wondering if he was ever going to start talking again. I looked around the room for something to ask him about ... then noticed a big tattoo on his arm ... and asked "where did you get that great tattoo?" He started telling me the story of the tattoo ... which lead to a story about his work in Africa ... which lead to another story about his life ... and, finally, an hour or so later, he said it was time for him to rest. I thanked him and said I'd be back next week to see him again. I left the tape full of stories next to the recorder for his daughter and let myself out of the house.
The next week when I returned, I was surprised to see the man sitting up in his bed with a sense of readiness to get more of his stories recorded. As soon as I got the recorder and microphone ready to go, he immediately started telling a story which I sensed he had been waiting to have recorded. I was blessed with another great hour of listening to his life stories and hoped that his loved ones would enjoy hearing him tell them as much as I did. Once again, he knew when it was time to stop. I thanked him once again and said I'd see him the following week. I left another tape full of new (old) stories for his daughter and drove home wondering what new life adventures he'd tell me about next week.
The next week's storytelling never happened. I received a call two days before I was to see the man again and was told he had died the night before. Such is the reality of being a hospice volunteer. You learn to cherish the moments, knowing that each contact you have with a person may be the last. Yes, I knew he was going to die and yes, I would have loved to hear even more stories about his interesting life. Mostly, I was happy that I had been invited into his life to help bring those two tapes of his stories into existence for his loved ones to hear again ... and again ... and pass along to the next generation of his family.
The value and importance of life stories and life lessons of family members really touched my heart in the few hours I spent with this dying man. Such stories from individual lives and what a person learned on their life journey can be an integral part of an ethical will.