Armen Bacon: The call — and a calling to do more

May 23, 2014 

About a month or so ago, my phone rang. It was a longtime friend, Bill Grabe, one of the nicest guys you could ever know.

His smile lights up a room, and, that's probably a good thing since he spent his entire career as a dentist — looking into other peoples' mouths (including mine) — fixing teeth and fighting cavities.

When he retired a few years ago, I feared my smile was in jeopardy. On our final visit, he handed me a new toothbrush, a travel size tube of toothpaste, and suggested I floss more faithfully. It was time, he said, for him to chase new dreams.

When his name popped up on my caller ID, admittedly, I was surprised. Although overdue for a cleaning and annual checkup, I immediately knew from the sound in his voice this was an altogether different kind of call. As I listened, he shared his newfound passion as a volunteer at Hinds Hospice. Not as a counselor or anything that significant (his words, not mine), but as a handyman — painting baseboards, changing light bulbs, doing behind-the-scenes grunt work. And here's the kicker — he said it was the most life-affirming work he had ever done. "Never once have I felt in the company of death," he said. Instead, he added, "There is an intense feeling of peace here. People on the outside say it must be depressing but I don't find that at all. My work is rewarding and uplifting. It's given me a very optimistic view of life and humanity."

He asked if I had a few minutes, which of course, I did. He told me how Hinds Hospice quietly does its work in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties for more than 1,300 adults and children facing an end-of-life journey each year. This translates to hope and support for 2,000-plus families grieving the loss of a loved one. He paused here, and I must have let out a sigh on my end, both of us adding faces to the numbers, quietly tallying friends, neighbors and families we personally knew who had traveled this road and benefited from these services.

I had no idea that it was one of only two residential hospice homes between Modesto and Southern California. Last year alone, staffers drove more than 700,000 miles to care for patients living in remote areas. The stats he rattled off were astonishing. More than 270 volunteers.

Bill's voice softened, then cracked when he mentioned the Angel Babies program, which is how and why he got involved in the first place. The program serves families who have experienced the loss of a baby in pregnancy or infancy. His family, he confided, is very close to a young couple who had lost their infant daughter a few years ago. Watching their anguish was both heart-breaking and life-changing. He was also deeply touched by the TLC and compassion of Hinds Hospice during their time of unthinkable sadness and grief. So much so, it became his call to action.

A few nights later, I sat in my usual spot on the sofa and asked my husband to search movie options. As he began channel surfing, I noticed "Schindler's List" in the offerings. As difficult as the film is to watch, its message always resonates the triumph of the human spirit and the power of one person to change lives.

If you haven't seen this Spielberg epic, there's a riveting scene at the very end when Oskar Schindler is surrounded by Holocaust survivors whose lives he has single-handedly saved. He looks at them and begins sobbing, apologizing for not "doing more." Itzhak Stern, Schindler's friend and accountant, is quick to remind him that 1,100 people were alive because of him and that there would be generations to come because of his very human and heroic actions.

In the final scene, a beautiful Hebrew verse is recited that translates "Whoever saves one life saves the world." I never grow tired of hearing these words, a constant reminder that any one of us can make a profound difference in the lives of others. And by focusing on the needs of others, our own problems become less pressing.

Weeks have passed and Bill's phone call still plays full volume inside my head. Hinds Hospice has been a Valley treasure for 33 years. Sometimes we forget they're here because they work quietly and without fuss or fanfare. On the continuum of life, everyone eventually faces the last chapter. For some, the ending is swift, natural and spontaneous, while for others, it is more complicated. Few of us know the precise ending to our life's story.

During my first trimester of retirement, I have mostly written and lollygagged, following the strict warnings of colleagues about over-committing myself. In my spare time, I've tended to some internal housekeeping matters — like cleaning out closets, the garage, bolstering my cardio workout and taking a yoga class. The euphoria, I confess, is short-lived.

On an ordinary day, a call out of the blue made me rethink my time, purpose and priorities here on Earth. This morning, I can't stop thinking about the 270 volunteers who give their time, talent, heart and treasure to Hinds Hospice. Whether they are drivers, counselors, painters or light-bulb changers like Bill Grabe, they are earning their wings.

We can all "do more."

Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a collection of essays, "My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches." Email: armenbacon@gmail.com;Twitter: @ArmenBacon.

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