Listening for Life’s Subtle Cues
In talking with Dale Childs, it was clear that he invests heavily in the art of listening, not in the conventional way of hearing, but rather through his heart. By doing so, he often sees and trusts in life’s “sacred moments”. This special art of listening is something Dale has cultivated over the years and a talent he uses with hospice patients. Listening was even a part of his entry into hospice thirteen years ago when he felt an inner nudge to find more meaning in his life. What Dale sensed then was a gentle urge to seek out a richer life existence, filling a void that his IT programming career could not adequately fulfill. Ironically, it was through an IT workshop that Dale connected with a director of a newly formed hospice. He responded to her plea for volunteers and ever since, Dale has served in the role of hospice volunteer for several organizations, carrying out home visits and eleventh-hour vigils.
As Dale and I talked more, it dawned on me that his listening heart guides the interactions with his patients too. Whether he hears of a patient’s particular special interest, inspiration or life-pleasure, Dale steps in and uses his creativity to satisfy their interests.
Music was the inspiration for one elderly woman Dale visited. After faltering a bit with tunes from the 30’s-40’s, followed by Frank Sinatra songs, Dale discovered a CD titled “The Dementia Sing-A-Long”; these were the songs that brought peace and happiness to her days. Likewise, photographs of Dale’s Alaskan trip were the key to unlocking joy and awe for another patient. And, a simple post card sent by Dale to his patient all the way from Fenway Park, was the thrill of a lifetime for yet another patient. These intangible gifts, of appreciation and connection to patients are what Dale receives as a Hospice volunteer.
Sometimes, gifts did take on more tangible forms, as in the inscription one patient dedicated to Dale in a treasured book shared between them. It read:
“…Dale, he never came without an appointment and he was always on time. He came for a visit, one I always look forward to, one that always makes my date with him something to look forward to. Keep those cards and letters coming. Thanks Dale”
As an avid hiker, Dale is attuned to the smallest of nature’s cues, whether it be sounds of a gently rolling stream, crickets chirping in the dark night, or wind rustling through a forest. There are similar “sounds” he describes listening for during his visits with patients. One evening, he mentioned sitting with an eleventh-hour patient and in doing so, observed harp music playing via a CD player in the background. While listening, the player abruptly skipped and the music looped repeatedly—that was Dale’s cue that something was changing. He reached over and turned the player off. Only then did the patient’s breathing slow down. Within the silence in the room, Dale felt compelled to reassure the patient that it was “ok” for him to leave this world.
“I pay a lot of attention to circumstances like the CD player breaking. It has helped me validate my belief system, that if we pay attention to happenings in this physical world, there’s important information to be had.” Dale says.
A subtler cue presented itself on one of Dale’s last visits with an Alzheimer’s patient. He described her as non-verbal and experiencing great difficulty remembering who he was. But, there was something special that happened as she looked deeply into his eyes and whispered, “I love you.”
Without any hesitation, Dale said, “I love you too, but we’re always going to be friends, you and me.”
Within a few minutes, he was saying goodbye to her and reminding her that he’d see her in a couple of weeks when returned from vacation—he never did see her again. Acting upon little cues and seizing life’s special moments, is what makes Dale remarkable.
His sense of curiosity contributes to his patient interactions too. Noting his curiosity when the first laptop computer reached the market, he talked of a similar interest in the mysteries that surround death, especially those associated with his mother’s death in 1989.
“I was not able to be at my mother’s bedside when she died. I wanted that experience and yearned to understand why I felt this way.” Dale said.
Today, he is less afraid of death, having seen other people die peacefully within the Hospice environment. And, he wonders aloud about how best to communicate to others what death is actually like. He speaks of the experience as remarkable and profound.
Perhaps the best way to embrace life and death is to simply to follow Dale’s lead. I feel certain he would encourage us all to listen carefully…with our hearts.
Dale is a volunteer with Hospice of the Valley
- Listen for life’s subtle cues
- Seize life’s special moments
- Cultivate curiosity and creativity