Finding Reverence in the Space Between Birth and Death
At the end of interviews with volunteers, I often ask for any last thoughts. Tony Diana had one pressing question for me,
“Do you ever feel like the patients become part of your family?—because I do, I sort of fall in love with them.”
This is what Tony brings to his hospice volunteer experience, a depth of love, compassion, reverence and sincere appreciation for the honor of spending months, days, hours or minutes with patients.
Ten years ago, Tony recounted a brief experience of caring for his parents who were both in the care of hospice at the end of their lives. Yet, it was an advertisement he read in the local newspaper three years ago that rekindled his passion for hospice and tapped within him a desire to serve others through volunteer work. For years now, Tony spends every Thursday evening with the children at Ryan’s House, a respite home for children in the care of hospice. He also makes adult patient visits in conjunction with the Hospice of the Valley Story Corp Project and Veterans Salutes programs. Hospice work certainly fills his days, but to this veteran and 35-year, high-ranking food distribution employee, Tony has fully embraced the present noting,
“I try to make sure that I live every day a lot better than I used to. I want to go to bed exhausted and wake up ready to take it all on again the next day,” a new appreciation for life is one of the many gifts he receives from volunteering.
Tony has the unique opportunity to visit with a wide age range of hospice patients and feels honored to sit with a 90-year-old or play with a 3-year-old. What these encounters have taught him is reverence for the toddler (who will never live to be 90) and the senior (who will never remember what it was like to be 3 again.) It is a wonder for Tony to ponder that segment of “life-time” and to fully appreciate the space between the bookends of birth and death.
Similarly, Tony observed that his concept of the “natural order of things” (i.e. between ages 3-5 this happens, and between ages 15-19 this takes place, and after 80 here’s what to expect, etc.) changed, being challenged and re-framed by his hospice work.
“People tend to think that once you hit 75-90 years of age, you have finished enjoying life. But, I’ve learned that people still have a lot of life to live, through the very last days of their lives.”
Storytelling is one example of an activity that supports living fully at the end of life. Tony describes the Hospice of the Valley’s Story Corp Program where he visits with patients who share a little window into their lives. He reminisced about a gentleman who emigrated from South America, and who (speaking through a translator) recounted coming to the US when he was just a teenager, and later, worked to bring his future wife to the states too. He was proud of his achievements and described the beautiful life he and his family were able to live in America. An American dream come true, and one that resonated with Tony, having grandparents who immigrated more than 75 years ago and shared the same love of country.
“These stories are a reminder of the connection we all share to one another,” Tony says.
That kind of connection is even more honest, heartfelt and visceral when interacting with young children. Tony recalled a beautiful visit with a young girl at Ryan’s House. He called her “the queen” because of her deep-throated laugh and sense of humor. Her twisted body and limited verbal abilities did not stop her from experiencing pure joy and laughter, from playing “peek-a-boo” with a pillow to showing off her perfect teeth through a big grin. When Tony got up to leave for the evening, he joked about his wife getting mad if he returned home late, a thought that made the little girl laugh even more. They ended the visit with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek. Tony walked out with the realization that in any other universe, this girl would be chased after by a thousand young men, and yet he felt he received what they never would, the special gift of being in her beautiful presence.
Tony recalls, “They help me, more than I help them.”
I reminded Tony that this sentiment is what inspired the creation of Windows Within Project, a place to record and share these meaningful experiences. He nodded, and then he said something even more poetic.
“The patients don’t leave us, they leave us with incredible gifts.”
The gifts have inspired Tony to do as much good as possible with his time on earth, and to live with a commitment to share abundant kindness and gentleness with others.
“I feel like a different person. I feel it and I see it,” he says.
We see it too Tony, through the ongoing love you share and the comfort you provide to others.
Tony is a volunteer with Hospice of the Valley
- Fully embrace the present, living each day better than the one before
- Honor living a full life-through the very last of your days
- By giving to others we receive the gift of personal transformation