Jack was a World War II veteran. He had advanced cancer. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy no longer helped and he was referred to hospice services.
He had enlisted in the Army very early in the war. He was a farm boy and could, according to his wife, fix anything. The Army appreciated his talents and assigned him to the motor pool – he would keep the jeeps, trucks and any motorized vehicle running. Jack served in North Africa, Italy and finally in Germany.
When the war in Europe ended, Jack returned to the U.S. by sea and landed in Florida. He was met at the docks by the military brass and told that they needed him to go to Panama – there was work to be done there. Jack was a little disappointed about not going home right away but also eager to see a different part of the world. He was assigned a flight to Panama and this was when the excitement started, according to Jack. They became totally lost over the jungles of Central America. Turns out, the navigator on the small plan was new and soon seemed to have no idea where they were. Jack shared that he couldn’t believe it. He had escaped serious injury all during the war in North Africa and Europe, and now here they were, lost over the jungle and running out of fuel – they were going to crash and die in a place where no one would find them. Jack said, “I was really scared!” At the last moment, they found the airstrip where they were to land. Jack kept saying. “It really was a miracle that we came out of that one alive.”
This was the story that Jack told over and over. Of all the experiences he had during the war, this was the incident that seemed to dominate his thoughts – the total helplessness of feeling lost and scared over the jungles of Central America. This was the story that he would return to week after week. His family even apologized to me. “He is obsessed with that story,” his wife told me. She thanked me for being so patient, by listening to the story so often.
I reflected on this after hearing the story several times and I wondered if there might be more to the story. So the next time I visited and he again told the story, I asked the question, “Is that maybe how you are feeling now – are you feeling a little helpless, lost and scared?” Jack was quiet for a long time and I actually thought, “Maybe I should not have asked that.” Then he answered in a near whisper “Yes.” And when I looked up, I saw a tear running down his cheek.
Through his tears, he spoke of his love for his wife and family and his deep concern for their future. He said he did not fear death, but rather the unknown – the process of dying. He felt helpless. After all, he was always able to fix things but this he could not fix. All of this simply made him feel lost.
As best I could, I normalized his feelings. I shared with him that in my experience as a hospice volunteer, I had found many who felt this way at the end of life’s journey, wondering what the future might hold.
I had learned over the weeks that Jack was a man of faith. He had told me early in our visits that he was a Christian. So we explored the hope of the Christian message. The promise of life eternal – of the promise of divine comfort and that marvelous promise from God Almighty, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” We spoke of his wonderful family – an incredibly loving wife, very capable and caring children, and beautiful grandchildren. It seemed to bring Jack a certain comfort that I had not sensed before. Later on his wife said to me “I don’t know what you did for Jack, but it really seemed to help him.”
Jack’s courage in sharing his inner thoughts with me is something that I will never forget. It was truly an honor for me to be present for him.
Jack died soon after this, and his family asked me to share some words at Jack’s funeral. I was honored to speak of a wonderful gentleman who had become a friend. I spoke of the honor to be invited into their home at such a sacred time in their lives. Once again, the blessing of being a hospice volunteer was so rewarding.
by Steven B., volunteer