& OPINION: They are ugly, they are rotting, they stink of
death, the room stinks of death, you stick your fingers up their
asses to make them shit, help me understand this. Why are you
First of all, I object to your characterization of my working
environment. The beautiful moments I share with these ‘dying,
rotting, wretched human beings’ – to use your ‘unkind’
words – more than compensate for the inconveniences you
outlined in your question. Those of us who choose to go through
unpleasantness and pain -- not unlike someone who decides to do
100 push-ups every morning, -- do so because the rewards more
than offset the discomfort. The fitness and general well being
enjoyed by the person doing the push-ups is at least equal to
the energy and effort spent, otherwise he wouldn’t do it.
Are you following me, Mr. Lewis.
& OPINION: May I rephrase my question?
You don’t have to, I know you have to sell your magazine,
but one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be counted among
the ‘dying and rotting and stinking and incontinent’
and you will not feel you deserve to be characterized by that
kind of language. (Lewis, humbled -- i.e. ostensibly out of character
-- with an impatient nod, encourages his interlocutor to proceed).
question, what I think all of us palliative care volunteers have
in common is that we have been abandoned in some terrible way:
quite a few of us were given over for adoption, some of us have
been abandoned or rejected in our relationships, marriages, friendships.
And it hurts us to see others abandoned by either their families,
or by life circumstances, especially when they are dying. But
we are doing it for ourselves, too. We need to feel needed, we
need to feel connection, again and again and again because we
know what it’s like to be cut off. What they give back is
so strong, so totally unconditional, so real, so transparent,
you become almost addicted to being that appreciated, just as
they become addicted to your care, your love. We are not heroes,
Mr. Lewis. We get as much out of it as they do.
& OPINION: Are you obsessed with death?
I’m obsessed with life. Being with the dying is part of
& OPINION: Explain?
The dying have so much to teach you about life. The near-dying
have lost almost everything, some of them can hardly breathe,
some can’t see, or hear – just being with them makes
me acutely conscious of the beautiful world I inhabit which they
have lost, a world that is mine now, but a world that won’t
always be there for me.
& OPINION: What do you say to the person who accuses you of
being afraid of death, of using these people for your own means,
to get used to the idea of death, to satisfy your curiosity about
what it’s like to die. Are you like the boxing fanatic who
can’t see enough fights because he's obsessed with death
and frustrated by it because you can only get so close to it and
Your analogy is a good one. And yes, we are fascinated, obsessed
with death, the mystery of it. And what they say and see before
death is so interesting: some of them see angels, some of them
talk to their dead loved one, some of them report their loved
ones coming back, some are scared because they don’t know
if there’s a next world.
I’m there because I fear death, but I love the emotion of
fear even more. But prior to all this – prior to what you
would call our ‘morbid’ curiosity, prior to our fears
and obsessions, prior to what is hidden from us -- is the fact
that we care for them because they need us and we want to care
because we want to be needed.
& OPINION: How do you help those who are afraid?
By being there, as their link to life, accompanying them, as far
as I can, to where they are going, where accompanying is more
of an emotion than motion. For some of them, just being touched
puts them at ease. Most people at the end of their lives are like
children: they want attention, to be held, soothed and reassured.
What most people don’t realize is that dying is more mental
than physical. On the other hand, there are some people who are
so convinced they are going to meet their spouses, or parents
they almost can’t wait to cross over.
& OPINION: How do you deal with all the deaths you witness?
I accept them the way they are and have no right to ask them to
stay longer. But it took me a while to learn that. My attachment
to them is now defined by that limitation which allows me to cope
with death on a daily basis What is sometimes more difficult to
deal with is the attachments they form with us: they want us to
always be there for them but we can’t. We have other patients,
we have lives outside palliative care – but it’s hard
for them to understand that. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves
that we have our own lives, our own families that need us.
& OPINION: Is there a gender factor?
Most definitely. Women are drawn to this kind of work much more
than men, but not exclusively. From a caregiver’s standpoint,
I have more facility with males because they are more direct,
more honest about their needs. In terms of their response to dying,
women remain more attached to material things than men, more concerned
about the neatness of the room, their physical environment, their
appearance. Men are more focussed on the bonds between themselves
and the people that remain in their lives. I suppose you could
say men are more spiritual at the end.
& OPINION: Will you be disappointed if someone like yourself
isn’t around when your time comes?
No, I have myself and I have my God, and I don't expect anyone
to be there. I don’t believe I need someone like myself
because I've been preparing for this all my life. This might sound
strange but I've been wishing for death all of my life because
I love life and dying is part of it.
& OPINION: Your views on euthanasia?
I personally don’t believe in euthanasia. Only God can make
& OPINION: Have you ever helped anyone cross over?
As you can well imagine, it doesn’t take long for myself
and my colleagues to become very close to the people we look after
– as well as their immediate families. It happens, in special
circumstances, that we make cocktails available. We do not administer
them. But I would rather not discuss this in any more detail.
& OPINION: When you look at how other people live their lives,
do you consider yourself normal?
Absolutely not. We don’t have regular friends, regular relationships,
regular anything. And we always seem to find each other. I guess
we live on the edge of something even though I’m not sure
what that something is – only that were happier there than
anywhere else. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying
that we’re better than other people, only that we are special.
We have a gift and we know it, like a musician knows of his gift,
but the nature of the gift is that it must be shared, otherwise
it is a gift that isn’t given.
& OPINION: Thank you, Mique. This has been a pleasure and
learning experience. I’m still not sure if I can make the
leap to what makes you tick, but thank God you and your fellow
‘angels of mercy’ exist. May your tribe increase.
I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my life.