Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The golden tree

There's a tree in the hallway of Kavanagh House, and it's made from tiny gold plaques that are engraved with the names of people who have donated money to the facility. There are hundreds of plaques, and the tree reaches from the middle of the hallway almost to the ceiling.

My little nephews and niece were visiting Dad tonight, and the youngest, Jonah, 9, was fascinated with what he called "the golden tree." He and I were looking at the names, and soon his brother, Noah, 12, and sister, Greta, 10, joined us. They began reading the names, dates and messages out loud.

Most names were, I believe, were ones of older people, judging from the way names seem to wax and wane in terms of popularity. There were Idas and Junes and Maes and Dorises, Wilburs and Warrens and Elmers and Alberts. Many bore such inscriptions as "Love you, Grandma." The kids giggled at one that said, "You were a rock star!"

But as we read, I started to see a few names that made me awfully uneasy. Meghan. Bailey. Jaden. Claire. Names that could, I suppose, be those of older people, but probably aren't. One said something about a granddaughter. I swallowed hard.

Dealing with the certainty that a parent is dying is difficult enough, but I absolutely cannot fathom sitting in Hospice with a child. With apologies to the Lion King, dad really is following the circle of life -- now I have that song in my head, and I really can't stand it -- in that he is dying because he is old. As I have been telling my kids, this is the way things are supposed to work.

My heroes are parents who have lost children, but young people who have lost a spouse or partner are pretty high on the list, too. There's a woman across the hall from Dad who can't be older than 40. People come to see her daily, and as far as I can tell, she cannot respond at all.

After the rest of the family left and I had tucked Dad in and left the room, I told his night nurse, Vicki, how ashamed I felt to be so sad -- that the names on the golden tree and the woman across the hall made me feel really wrong about my sadness. But Vicki said, "Grief has nothing to do with age. You're grieving for the part of your life that's over, and that you will never get back."

The floodgates opened. I am a grown woman with two children in college, and there I was, feeling as emotionally raw as a little child. Vicki kept talking, and she suggested that perhaps I also am grieving for my mom, who died when I was very small. I didn't cry then, as I didn't understand. But now, more than four decades later, maybe the emptiness and finality were hitting me in duplicate. I stood in the lobby trying to hide the tears, and I wanted my mommy.

Vicki gave me a booklet to read and commanded me to go home and get some sleep, and she seems to mean business, so that's what I'm going to do. The booklet is called "Living at the End of Life." Not exactly light reading, but probably exactly what I need right now.


  1. I can see the family resemblance there Lisa! Your mom looks like a movie star-so beautiful!

    So many prayers for you, your dad, and your family right now. I spent a little under a year as a hospice volunteer and have seen what a challenging, and oh so thoughtful and contemplative time this can be. Prayers for peace and comfort.

  2. Never feel ashamed to grieve. If you didn't, it would mean you had lived a loveless life. You are loved by your dad, and you love him. And you are sad you won't be able to say that in person anymore. But after he is gone, you will just know.