Enjoying one bite at a time in hospice

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Whether in good health or in hospice, the reality of death shouldn't stop us from savoring life.  

By Guest Blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

My mother died a year ago. She spent her last eight months at Peggy's House, an in-patient hospice facility in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It's walking distance from the high school I attended, only a very short drive from the house where I grew up. Mom was a cancer survivor from the 1970's; it took a long time for that disease to bring her down.

I received the news of my own cancer a few months before my mother died. I was told I only had six months left; however, I continued to live alone for a year, and dear friends helped me celebrate with great gusto my first and only "Carpe Diem Day," the anniversary of the day a patient/survivor is first given the cancer diagnosis.

Shortly after that, my pain level increased and my energy level decreased. My family thought I shouldn't live alone anymore, and my brother and sister-in-law invited me to stay with them.

Three months later, here I am, living at Peggy's House.

The day I moved in, several staff members remembered us from when they had taken care of my mom. Others had that look on their faces, "I know that I know you...but how?" Once I got into my room and displayed a large photo of my mom for visitors to see, it helped the situation greatly. All I had to do was point to the picture, and before I could say, "Did you know my mother, Co...?" I heard the response, "Oh, Connie!" I never realized my mom had made such an impact on the staff here. They truly loved her.

When I tell people I am here, they are sometimes surprised. I am still fairly independent. I take care of myself without any help, and I can walk short distances with a cane or walker. I continue writing and even working part time for Tomorrow's Present, the youth leadership ministry I began in Milwaukee. In fact, I cooked my own lunch a few hours before moving into Peggy's House.

So what am I doing here? Why didn't I wait until I had "really bad pain," or needed assistance with my daily grooming and feeding?

Well, the decline of the dying is not always linear. The week I happened to move to Peggy's House was a good week. I even packed all my clothes and personal items myself. However, two weeks before I came here, I had some pretty bad pain. Then, one week after I first arrived, I had a lot of pain again. Both times, I began to wonder if I would live only another few weeks. (Doesn't such pain indicate the end is near?)

But then I improved, at least temporarily. The pattern of good days, bad days, and awful days is not predictable.

Partially predictable, yes. Because my digestive system is not functioning well, certain things, like eating too much or eating the wrong things, will always bring me pain. I can also get pain from doing too much and not resting enough. However, there are times when we have no idea what's causing the pain. It's just "a bad day." We never know when the bad days will come or how long they will stay.

I feel full even when I'm hungry, so my meal portions are always very small. I mostly eat things like scrambled eggs, soup, and baby food - since it's easy to digest. I can still manage noodles, a small amount of saltine crackers, or half a piece of toast. I savor every simple bite.

Years ago, I remember reading that people who tend to overeat get more pleasure out of anticipating a meal than they do with the actual eating of a meal. They usually eat quickly without much enjoyment. They don't pay attention to what they are eating at the moment, so they miss the whole experience. They are not satisfied; they don't feel as if they really ate, so they start looking for something else to eat. Soon, they are eating more without even thinking about it.

That information changed the way I viewed my meals. I started eating more mindfully. I realized that while I was chewing something, if I closed my eyes and concentrated on it, I enjoyed it much more. In fact, if the phone rang, or if I thought about something other than what I was eating, my perception of the flavor actually vanished for those few seconds. I literally stopped tasting the food in my mouth while my mind was preoccupied with something else. If I watched TV, I could eat a whole meal and not remember it.

Besides being a great insight regarding why we overeat, isn't that a great metaphor for life? Focus on what you are doing, or you will miss it! If you try to take in everything, you take in nothing. So much for multi-tasking!

Because the variety and amount of food I eat is so limited, the way I approach my meals now is even more critical. I take my time, and try to make everything last. I linger over every mouthful, and put my spoon down after every swallow. I marvel that my tiny amount of food is probably more than what many people in poverty get to eat all day.

When I pray my grace before meals, I realize more than ever before what a blessing it is to be eating anything at all.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.