Greetings from Virginia Beach. I've spent the last week down here with family — cancelling my trip to Left Coast Crime, which I'm sorry about, but this was more important — because we're all dealing with the usual life-cycle issues that any big family goes through from time to time. (And while I mention that, fierce congratulations to my cousin Christine and her husband Patrick, who welcomed their third son into the family earlier this week. At last count, I had 21 first cousins; I have lost count of how many first cousins-once-removed I have, but it's somewhere in the dozens.)
My brother James and his wife, Sara, are mourning the death of her mother, Linda, after a long illness. Linda lived with James and Sara in the last years of her life, and we took her into our family as she took us into hers. She was kind and funny and optimistic almost to the very end, and her faith was awe-inspiring.
The last couple of months of her life were terrible and terrifying, as so many cancer deaths are. Sara and James, their daughters Gina and Kristan, our brother Ed, our sister Susan and others saw to her needs, drove her to and from doctors' appointments, and in the end sat by and watched, pushing the pain pump so that she could die in peace, surrounded by people she loved.
Last night James and Sara got a condolence visit from Angela, one of the hospice nurses who had tended to Linda in the last months. This lovely woman came on her own time, after a full day's work, partly to mourn but partly to celebrate Linda's struggle, which Linda believed (and I believe) would end in a homecoming. Sara and Angela talked about one of Angela's colleagues, who had also been a great help, but has quit the hospice service because she just couldn't do it anymore.
"I don't know how you do it," said James. Angela (I swear I'm not making that name up) must hear that all the time, but it's true, because the hospice service here is nearly overwhelmed, and will be increasingly so as the baby boomers age. The nursing shortage is more than a decade old, and although the situation had improved a bit over the last decade, it's about to get a lot worse — a lot worse.
Because let's get serious: could you do that work? I could not. It's hard to imagine who in my circle could, although I know a lot of wonderful people. It's hard enough when it's someone you love; if you've been through it, you know how courage and compassion can fail, how helpless you feel, how exhausting it is, how frankly scary all of this can be. Life is the biological imperative; most of us don't go easily.
It's none of my business how much Angela earns, but apparently the median income for hospice nurses is about $60,000. That's not poverty level, but that shames me. It should shame all of us. No, you can't buy compassion — but God, shouldn't we be rewarding the people who do the hardest work of all, the work that makes us (well, me) shudder and pretend that reading books for a living is work, too?
I have no answers, but this is a conversation we need to be having. Forget missing aircraft, misguided foreign military operations, the latest celebrity divorce, or your outrage about whatever kind of sex people you don't know might be having or not having. We all die. We don't get a choice about that. Who is going to help us on that final journey, and how are we going to pay them?
Many years ago, in a conversation with a friend about my grasshopperish attitude toward money and financial planning, he said, "I'll tell you this: Stephen Spielberg is not going to die in a public hospital ward."
We cannot outsource compassion and care, but we can do a better job of rewarding the people who do it for a living.
Thank you, Angela and all your colleagues. And Linda, safe journey home.