Those of us who work with hospice often hear people say, “I don’t know how you can do what you do.” The statement suggests that those whose work is hospice — the team of professionals and volunteers who work with dying people and their loved ones — must find themselves overwhelmed with the enormity of the task.
It is true that a requirement of specialized training and a standard of excellence demand dedication and commitment, and that there is an emotional and spiritual perspective that touches deep within the humanity of the hospice professional. There is also a complexity of value and meaning to the work of hospice that cannot easily be articulated.
And as so often happens, when words of definition do not suffice, there comes a story to relay the heart of that which is mystery.
There is a story about a water carrier who had two earthen vessels which he carried suspended from each end of a long pole held across his shoulders. One vessel was in good shape, and could deliver a full measure of water. The other vessel was cracked, and could deliver about a half measure of water.
The water carrier would carry the two vessels down the path from the house to the stream, fill each vessel to the brim with water, and then turn and carry them back up the path from the stream to the house, with the one whole vessel delivering a full measure of water and the other cracked vessel delivering about a half measure of water.
This was the work of the water carrier. Every day, walk down the path from the house to the stream, fill each vessel with water, walk back up the path from the stream to the house, one vessel delivering a full measure of water, the other delivering a half measure of water.
This went on for a long time, until one day, as the water carrier stood at the edge of the stream, the cracked vessel spoke.
“I am so sorry.” The water carrier was surprised. “What?!”
The cracked vessel said, “Look at me. I’m cracked. I’m broken. I am damaged, defective. Because of me you are not able to deliver a full measure of water, and for that I am so sorry.”
The water carrier turned and pointed up the path from the stream to the house. “Do you see,” he asked the cracked vessel, “how along one side of the path there grow grass and flowers, and along the other side of the path there are rocks and sand? It is your side of the path that grows grass and flowers. Because of your crack, as we walk up the path water seeps out along the way, nourishing the grass and flowers. Because of your crack, there is beauty along the path.”
This is the work of hospice, every day, along the way. Blessed to walk the path of balance and harmony between the fullness of that which is whole and the beauty of that which is broken.
Rev. Eloise Saltzgaver is a chaplain for Hospice of the Bighorns of Sheridan Memorial Hospital.