Saturday, October 23, 2010

I May Not Be an Iron Chef, But I Rock the Hospice Kitchen

We don't usually have opportunities to connect with the residents of the AIDS hospice. Many come to us too late. With only weeks to live, they have no time or energy for sharing their stories or the steps of their journey to this quiet 8-bed haven for their final days. Usually most of the residents are from the streets and are at or very near the "actively dying" stage. So as volunteers, we concentrate primarily on food, clean sheets, and mopped floors.

Today was different.

Most of the 8 residents were eaters. Two were very alert. Two would have been even more communicative if only I'd known their heart languages. So today I started my shift as a short order cook. Betty even wrote down the orders so we could keep the oatmeal/boiled eggs separate from the fried egg with toast! The first hour or so we were boiling, flipping, scrambling, and buttering fast enough to impress Houston's The Breakfast Klub.

And like most family cooks, as soon as breakfast dishes were in the sink, I was searching for what lunch would be. Omega House does an incredible job of making the most of all donations. I can't begin to list all the reasons I'm impressed with Sandy and her leadership of that place. Still somedays I'm just not inspired with what I find in the fridge and freezer. I know better cooks than me could have manifested a feast out of what I found there, but I didn't see it. So I announced to my fellow vol that I was heading to the supermarket. As per her character, she gave me cash to split the bill.

Consulting with her by cell from the aisles of the store and after I discovered a special on chicken, we agreed a King Ranch Casserole was in order. Back at the kitchen counter, I overheard our trainee discussing life with one of the residents. Soon we were all engaged in hearing about histories, desires, and even funeral plans. No one tried to "shush" him. No one tried to pretend that we weren't sitting in a hospice for the dying. We all just shared information about what we knew regarding the end days. And even our youngest vol had knowledge of that.

When the buzzer rang from Bed D, I had just sat down for a cup of coffee (ok and a doughnut ... but really those things are always there and I just couldn't let them go to waste!). I rose and discovered that one of our only two female residents was awake and wondering where her husband had gone. After a brief look around, I suggested to her that he might have taken a walk.

"Ok," she said. "I just go in and out so much I had wanted to tell him something while I was awake."

Clearly, she cherished the moments when the drugs didn't take her away. So I asked a question. She responded. I asked another and her story grew longer. That's when I sat down and let the journey unfold. I left a few twists and turns later to get her a salad and grateful for the opportunity to put a story to the woman in Bed D.

Back in the kitchen, the timer went off and we pulled the brown and bubbling (as all casserole directions suggest they should be) concoction from the oven. Cheesy goodness topped chicken, chiles, sour cream and tortillas to a calorie-laden delight. Since everyone had been smelling the sauteed onions and baked goodness for almost an hour, I had a line of folks ready to test it.

Our most talkative resident proclaimed it "heavenly" and it received good reviews from vols and our favorite nurse as well. But the best moment came when our French-speaking African agreed to a taste after I pulled the word for "chicken" from the recesses of my limited French vocabulary. After one bite, he smiled up at me and said, "Yes, more."

Somedays the length of the conversation doesn't matter. Merely a connection will do.

No comments: