I visit a hospice patient who sings when he is turned. It is a grueling procedure involving two people, a pull sheet, and a lot of bodily rearranging. Sometimes his catheter is yanked. Sometimes his feet get wrapped up in the blankets.
Sometimes the skin on his shoulder and hip tears and burns. Even with the singing, it is difficult to watch.
Hank hasn’t gotten up and taken a step in almost a year. His legs just won’t support him.
But Hank is not one to complain, so he sings. It is not a familiar tune. There are no words. The truth is, Hank has never actually been a singer. This song is just a series of notes called out, something a little more delightful than the screams or moans that are a more likely and familiar response to pain.
There is, of course, a lot more suffering than just having to be turned and shifted by others. There have been numerous losses in the last few years.
He can no longer create the beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry he once did. He cannot read a book.
Recently, he has even been denied his one source of joy, the scenes outside his living room windows, birds at the feeders, because a neighbor in the apartment complex where he lives complained that the birds make too much noise, make too much of a mess, and the feeders had to be removed. And still, Hank sings when he is turned.
I confess that I don’t have Hank’s cheerful spirit. I don’t sing when I am turned away from the things I think I need. I don’t know how to remake my sorrow and pain into a melody, how to reshape my disappointment, soothe my anger. I don’t know how to transform my pain into a melody, but maybe that’s why I’m Hank’s chaplain.
Maybe there’s still time for him to teach me. Maybe I will learn to turn over my disappointments gracefully, let go of the things to which I cling so desperately, learn to be content no matter the circumstances.
Maybe if I’m fortunate and if I’m really paying attention and if I open myself to his lessons, I will learn to sing. And one day when I am asked, “Can you turn peacefully in the face of sorrow?” I will say, “No, but thanks to someone I once knew I can hum a few bars.”