"There are no online reviews for hospices," I said to my 79-year-old brother shortly after he announced he was stopping dialysis. Though we knew his decision made this the first day of the rest of his life, we both laughed. He'd been hospitalized for months with serious problems. In his condition, I would have made the same choice. He'd never married and I was the closest family member.
"Our turnover is high," the woman at the hospice told me on the phone, assuring me that within days, there would be a bed. Hospice conferred normalcy on dying, but I thought the exit signs were redundant. I'd brought with us spaghetti and Diet Coke, the two things my brother requested. "This spaghetti is delicious," he said. "What is it?"
"It's spaghetti to die for." Again we laughed.
No brother was more devoted or generous. It was my turn to give back. We agreed to make his remaining days as much fun as we could. I bent the hospital straw the way I'd seen nurses do and placed it in his mouth. After taking a sip, he let the soda slosh around on his tongue as if it were a grand cru. "How much Diet Coke did you get?" he asked.
"Six cans. For you, that's a lifetime supply." I could see he was enjoying my dark humor. "How about I interview you and I'll read your words at the funeral?" I opened the pad I'd brought, not sure what I would ask until I started. "Do you remember my first word?"
"Stop smoking." Jack probably imagined I would scold him about not taking care of himself, as had been my habit, but I laughed.
Two days before Jack would die, as I was leaving his room, I heard him singing, "The sun'll come up tomorrow." I returned and we sang together.
I reached for my iPhone and played a song from our childhood home, the tearjerker, "My Yiddishe Mama." "How are you not crying?" I asked.
"I'm thinking about what I want Mama to cook for me. Maybe gefilte fish."
"I have bad news for you," I told him. "I have her grinder." That got the biggest laugh.
After my speech at the funeral, the rabbi was clearly overcome, telling the gathering, "I've never heard anything like that."
I'd talked about his final days and read what my brother wanted to say to each person he loved. Then the video I'd made came up on a large screen showing Jack smiling and saying, "Hi everyone." He paused and went on to say the words I'd suggested, which is how he ended every phone call: "Okay, bye now."
Hospice had freed us from the burden of unsupported optimism and given us a gift; we were accepting the inevitable. I continue to remember my brother saying, "These last few days with you are the best thing I'm taking with me."
Recently a friend asked for help with the eulogy she was writing, essentially a biography of her mother. I was aware that after decades of difficulties, the two had finally softened and made peace. "The mother I'll mourn is the one I knew in her last month," she'd written.
Knowing she and her daughters were having issues, I said, "This is your chance to let the girls know it's never too late to work things out." My friend expressed what was in her heart, saying she planned to use her remaining years to make things better with them. I saw her daughters tear up, each taking one of her arms and holding on as the coffin was being lowered into the ground.
It helps to use this as a creative experience. Rather than just commemorating the deceased, it's a wonderful chance to communicate a meaningful message. Taking control is likely to be the start of the healing process. A mosaic artist, I offer another way to cope with grief by celebrating life. My clients provide photos and I transform an ordinary cremation urn into a "creation urn." I invite you to see my work online here.