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A journey that began in grief, and ended with a gift

This particular journey began almost twenty years ago, on New Year’s Eve 1998. I took my wife Marianne into Lions Gate Hospital for an MRI scan to find out what was causing nagging back pains.
Marianne, in 1977 shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. “She was absolutely radiant,” says her husband.

This particular journey began almost twenty years ago, on New Year’s Eve 1998.

I took my wife Marianne into Lions Gate Hospital for an MRI scan to find out what was causing nagging back pains. 

The scan showed eight spots where Multiple Myeloma had metastasized, life expectancy 10 weeks. Cancer! 

Marianne, a trained nurse, fell into silent numbness and I flew into a rage.

How dare they proclaim a death sentence? She is basically healthy! Aren’t there cures?

With traditional and intense homeopathic Chinese treatment she improved and at ten weeks, remission seemed possible. She had received kind attention from staff and especially volunteers and immeasurable support from Bowen Islanders. But then the cancer mutated and, with her children touching her, she passed away at home on May 30, 1999.

I felt amputated. The silence became almost unbearable, but the children and I found strength in one another.

A year passed and I remembered her wish to become a volunteer, had she survived. Upon the anniversary of her passing I went to Lion’s Gate Hospital’s “7 West” palliative care unit and visited every bed in which she had lain, imagining her there and asking my self, could if I take her place as a volunteer? Slowly, I said, “Yes”.

When I inquired how to become a volunteer, I was told that the yearly training program had just finished and my hard won courage all but evaporated.

Almost a year passed, when I received a call asking me whether I was still interested. I hesitated, but agreed to receive some reading material about the essence, the challenges and rewards of the work. The description of requirements focused primarily on personal attitudes, experience, inner strength, patience and the ability to listen and to show empathy without being overbearing. This was a challenge and I wanted to try. I passed through an intensive interview and was accepted. I had taken along the photographic record to illustrate the profound effect Marianne’s journey had on the children, me, family, friends and the Bowen community.

Our course, lasting three weekends, began with a greeting from the co-ordinator, who also had been the interviewer, saying, “We had 60 applicants and chose 22.” 

Looking around I saw only four men and eighteen women and asked why there were so few men.

 “If you don’t know by the end of the course, ask me,” came the answer.

We were told to offer our time and companionship and small non-medical comforts not only to the patients, but to their families and friends also.

We were to fit into a team of sixty, The Palliative Care Volunteers at Lions Gate Hospital, were given a mentor team and instructions how to keep house and to record any events during the two plus hours  of our shift, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, seven days a week. 

During the course we were split into two-person teams with steadily changing partners, learning how to greet a patient after having studied her or his ailment and condition in the record book, asking for any wishes, and the desire for companionship or privacy.

We were taught how to give physical contact, like massages, holding hands or simply touching. We asked to try and put ourselves into the condition of the person we were visiting. We are rarely able to correctly understand and feel the inner struggle of the person we are visiting. It requires a certain sensitivity and tact to understand and act, including the recognition that the person wishes to be left alone.

Very soon I began to recognize the depth of feeling and intelligence of the heart, combined with a profound inner strength of the women. I began to listen and look. 

Then something happened to me: I saw the feminine side of me!

I, too, so wanted to give, share and heal, freeing the expression of my emotions from convention and the dictates of gender behaviour. I wanted to show sadness and joy with tears and hugs, and I learned to be no longer ashamed!

I began to feel an inner balance I had not known for certain -  the Ying and the Yang. 

It filled me with rest and calm. 

At the end of the course I told our teacher about my discovery and with the warmest smile she gave me a wordless hug that seemed to last forever as if to welcome me to the new plateau in my life. 

When I began my Sunday mornings at “7 West” I had no idea how profoundly the last weeks, days, and hours of those,  who allowed me to accompany them on their journey, would shape me. I have seen the anguish in family members I myself felt when first confronted with that devastating news. I have helped in the struggle to overcome anger and hate in the last moments. I also have been awed by the serenity of a luminous passing in total peace and harmony. I no longer fear death. I fear pain, yes, but not death.

As I look at this, my journey into a new balance, it is Marianne’s legacy to me.


-- HC Behm