Katherine Arnup, PhD
Associate Professor (Retired), Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Photography by narice28
"We have a new man in Room 7," the hospice co-ordinator explained in our morning briefing. "He's 76, Indian, and very private. And he doesn't like appellations."
"You know, like 'sweetie', or 'dear'. He doesn't really like that sort of thing," the coordinator explained.
"Who would do that?" I asked, incredulous.
"The nurses are used to doing that in the hospital."
"No problem," I said, a simple promise since I never use appellations.
She continued with her briefing. Kiran was a "real gentleman. He is estranged from his only son, and his wife died many years ago, so he has no family in Canada. I gather he was a professional engineer of some importance."
I walked down to the residence to get my instructions for the day.
"I think Kiran would like some company," the nurse told me, as I approached the desk. "He's missing intellectual stimulation. Would you sit with him for a bit?”
"Are you sure you don't need me for anything else? Has everyone been fed already?" I resisted being pigeon-holed as the "intellectual," because of my job as a professor. At hospice, I steadfastly maintain, I am "just a volunteer."
"No, that's fine," she responded. "Just go check on Kiran."
I poked my head into his room. "Hi, Kiran," I said. "I'm Katherine. I'm a volunteer. May I come in?"
"Certainly," he said. "Come right in."
His tiny brown body barely made a dent in the hospital bed where he lay propped up on multiple pillows. He was wearing blue and grey striped pajamas that fell off his shoulders as he tried to straighten himself up. I stood cautiously beside his bed.
"Get a chair," he instructed me, in a clipped Colonial accent. "You don't need to stand there."
"Oh, sure," I said, quickly pulling over a small metal chair, embarrassed to realize that I’d been hovering over him. "How are you feeling today, Kiran?" A voice inside my head yelled back, "How the hell do you think I'm feeling today? Can't you see I’m dying?"
Kiran did not, of course, say this. "Not too well this morning. I have this pain." His hand rested on his chest.
“I'm really sorry to hear that," I said genuinely. "Have you had your meds yet?"
"I have a patch," he said, indicating the two-by-two translucent square on his bone-thin upper arm.
"Oh that's good," I said, in a voice that sounded far too cheerful. "They work really well," I added, remembering the patches I used to change on my sister Carol’s arm.
"I understand you were … are an engineer," I said, quickly correcting my misstep. "Where did you work?"
"For the federal government mostly. I was eventually in charge of all the government buildings in Washington."
We talked about his travels, my work, his education, mine. He laughed at my jokes, listened intently to the stories of my first year students. Before I knew it, my shift was over.
I have no idea how tall Kiran was because he almost never stood in my presence. When I first met him, he was able to move from bed to chair, chair to bed, a one-person assist. Sometimes I was that person.
"He's not always aware of his limitations," one of the nurses told me. Not always aware of his limitations. And I am painfully aware of mine. Grinding to a halt some days under the awareness of my limitations. I couldn't save this little man. I couldn't stop my sister from dying. And there sat Kiran, unaware that he could no longer walk or even stand unassisted.
I took his elbow to guide him to his chair. Suddenly his knees gave way, and I thrust my hands under his armpits just in time to catch him. "Hold on there," I said, more as an instruction to myself than to him. "Don't sit down yet." I marshaled all the strength my ninety pounds would allow. "Wait till I tell you."
His armpits were wet through his cotton pajamas and undershirt. The simple exertion of moving from bed to chair lathered him. He breathed heavily as I guided him the final steps to the small leatherette chair by the window.
"OK, now, one two three and down," I instructed.
He slumped into the chair with a force that seemed disproportionate to his tiny frame. His face was ashen, his eyes massive brown orbs in pale sockets.
"Thank you," he said, with some difficulty. "I'm fine now. You can go."
I'd been dismissed. "Sure," I said, as I prepared to leave. "See you next time."
As soon as I arrived at his door the following week, Kiran ordered me to take my place next to his bed.
"Sometimes I just wish there were a pill I could take and it would all be over," he said.
Despite my years of volunteering, this was the first time someone had talked of suicide. "Think fast, Katherine," I coached myself.
Kiran continued before I had a chance to respond.
"And then I think, what if I didn't have the courage to take the pill? And then I wonder, why wouldn't I be brave enough?"
"I suspect you'd be brave enough," I said. "I think you're very brave."
I knew that wasn't enough. I was thinking about caring for Carol in the final months. "I wish I could just die," she had said. "I'm ruining your life."
A palliative nurse had come to my rescue. "Tell her it's an honor to care for her. It is, isn't it?"
"Oh yes," I'd said, "there's no place I would rather be than here."
"Then tell her that," she'd suggested.
I moved closer to Kiran. "If you had killed yourself, you never would have known how many people loved you. You never would have met me - and I never would have had the chance to meet you. I really care about you. And so does everyone here." I was trying not to get too personal, though I knew we were in way over our heads already.
With each assertion about the people who cared about him, Kiran's eyes widened. "Oh," he said finally. "I hadn't thought about it like that."
He never mentioned his wish to end his life again.
One morning, Kiran beckoned me to enter his room as soon as I appeared in the doorway. "Come in, please, Katherine. Sit down. I have something I need to speak with you about."
I lifted the small metal chair from the corner, and stationed myself by his bed. In the week since my last visit, he had shrunk perceptibly, his pyjamas now barely hanging on his shoulders. He waved his hands as he urged me to settle down quickly.
"There are some things I need to talk about," he said. "You see, I have this deadline."
Death, the final deadline.
"I guess we all do," I stumbled.
"Yes," he acknowledged, "but mine is much more imminent than yours. And there are things I need to do."
We talked about his son, Sami, a thirty-five year old man pursuing his third university degree. "He is such a disappointment to me," Kiran explained. "He just can't seem to settle down."
"Sometimes it takes time,” I said. "I used to be a huge disappointment to my family. I dropped out of university, much to my father’s horror. I didn't even speak to my father for three years."
"What changed?" he asked, knowing that I now travelled monthly to care for my father.
"I grew up," I began, "and that took some time." I told him about dropping out of university, my years as a hippie, a revolutionary. "Then, bit by bit, we started talking again. I started to see the wisdom of his advice. Now, I tell my students, 'the older I get, the more I like my father!' I'm not afraid to acknowledge how much I've learned from him. And he's pleased to acknowledge that I've turned out all right."
"I should think so," Kiran said. "You’re a university professor, after all. Any father would be proud." He was thinking of his son, Sami, two unfinished degrees. Perpetual student. No steady job.
"Well, I'm not quite sure my father sees it that way. It takes a long time to let go of what you think your children should do. I know that's true with me and my older daughter. We parents always seem to think we know best. And of course, sometimes we do!" I said, and we laughed.
I thought of my monthly visits to my father, slowly dying in Toronto. I was longing to talk to him like this, to tell him about my talks with Kiran. But he had no desire to hear about my hospice work, which he viewed as putting pressure on him. Nor did he wish me to probe into his feelings about dying.
In the twelve weeks I had known Kiran, I had never met his son, Sami. Although Kiran told me he didn't have a "real" job, he never came to visit during my daytime shifts. Still, I couldn’t seem to let go of the hope that somehow they would reconcile before Kiran died.
One Monday, during our briefing, I learned that Kiran was bedridden. No longer able to get up to his chair, not even to the commode beside his bed. When I reached his room, he was lying still in his hospital bed, pale beneath his brown skin. Still, his eyes opened wide when he heard my voice.
"How is your father?" he asked, remembering that I had been due to visit my father the previous weekend.
"Stable," I said. "And very tired. It's hard to see him this way - a man who was so active and full of life."
"Yes, I can imagine," Kiran said, understanding my meaning all too well.
"Is there anything you'd like, Kiran? Shall I read to you?" And so I read stories from the newspaper as he drifted in and out of sleep.
“You can go now,” he said as he jerked awake. “I'll see you later.”
On Sunday, when I received a request to do an extra shift, I leaped at the chance to see Kiran one more time. He was very still when I approached his door. I walked to his bed, touched his hand lightly. He looked up at me and smiled, before closing his eyes again.
An hour into my shift, the front door buzzer sounded. I answered on the intercom.
"It's Sami," a young male voice said. "I've come to see my father."
"I'll be right down to get you."
At the door stood a young man, unmistakably Kiran’s son, though he looked far younger than his thirty-five years, with a stunningly beautiful face, and soft dark eyes like his father’s. I unlocked the front door.
"I'm Katherine," I explained as we walked down the hall. "I've spent a lot of time with your Dad over the past few weeks." He nodded, impassively. "He's an amazing man. He talks a lot about you." Again, no response. "He loves you very much."
"How is he?" he asked.
"Mostly sleeping," I said. "I don’t think it'll be long now."
When we arrived at Kiran's room, I spoke quietly: "Kiran, Sami's here to see you."
"Thank you," he whispered. He motioned to Sami: "Come in. Close the door."
For the rest of my shift, the door remained closed. I left without saying goodbye.
The next day, I heard the news.
"Kiran died late last evening," the coordinator said in my morning briefing. "It was very peaceful, and his son Sami was with him."
Later that morning, I stopped into Room 7. It had already been cleaned for the next patient, Kiran's few possessions removed. His chair was by the window and I could imagine him sitting there, quietly reading the Washington Post.
Katherine Arnup, PhD, is an historian, interdisciplinary scholar, and recently retired Associate Professor at the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood: Advice for Mothers in Twentieth-Century Canada (UTP Press, 1994) and author of more than two dozen articles on motherhood, on lesbian and gay families, and on death and dying. Her research report, "Death, Dying and Canadian Families," was published in 2013 by the Vanier Institute of the Family. Her most recent book, "I don't have time for this!" A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself, will be published in March 2015.