My book, Loving Choices, Peaceful Passing: Why My Family Chose Hospice, will be available on Amazon and other online book sellers soon.
There is no guidebook on when, and how, to stop treatment of a terminal illness. Offered here is an intimate account of how the myriad end-of-life decisions affect a family. Bob Vallee had the courage to accept his impending death and lived out his final days at home in his daughter’s care. He passed peacefully, in his sleep, twenty-nine days after entering hospice.
At the heart of this deeply reflective narrative about choices in living and dying, the reader finds a story of acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and finally, awe for the fragility of life.
Peace is a place that lies between what is lost and what still remains. Kathleen Vallee Stein presents a lens-shifting view of role reversal as she takes on more, and sometimes unexpected, responsibility for her parents. Her service to her father was a gift of love and gave him the dignity we all deserve in the last days of our lives. Stein’s attention to detail sensitively recaptures events, without falling prey to nostalgia.
Read this book to consider choices you may make for yourself or the ones you love.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on December23, 2000.
My coworkers and I were subjected to a very convoluted office gift exchange for many years. We finally eliminated it after the lone worker who kept it going finally retired. Her concept, which involved giving a gift every day for four days, got very expensive. Her system was laced with guilt and peer pressure and was way out of sync with the spirit of the season.
Late last October we sat together in a staff meeting and lamented the waste of giving one another tiny packages of “joy” that didn’t really elicit said emotion. Most of us wanted to wish our coworkers well by word of mouth, perhaps by a kind deed, but certainly not by material possessions. There seemed to be no way out of this holiday quagmire.
After the organizer’s retirement, we all agreed not to continue with the current system, but stone silence greeted the call for what to do instead. Finally, one soul spoke up.
“We are all blessed,” she declared, “but others are not.” She wanted to “adopt” a a family. We could visit our largess on them, the truly needy, and not on one another.
The rest of the staff members chimed in. Yes, yes, yes. Through the Salvation Army we received the names and ages of the children in our adopted family, along with their wish list. They didn’t ask for much: a coat, shoes, hats, a toy car. We quickly divided up the list and went shopping. We bought what they wanted, and more.
This, we quickly concluded, was fun. When we shopped for useless but cute gifts for our fellow staffers, it was stressful, a chore to complete. When we tried to select just the right gift for a child who needed our help, we reveled in the true spirit of the holiday. The stack of gaily wrapped gifts grew higher and higher each day.
We adopted the entire family and bought gifts for everyone – mom, dad and the four children. Gifts for the dad came as generously as gifts for the three-year-old.
The team spirit that came from our holiday project didn’t come from an outside trainer or hired consultant. It didn’t happen in a classroom or during a retreat but came from the best part of every employee.
Our staff is very diverse in religious backgrounds and faiths but we all caught the spirit of the holiday. It didn’t matter if we celebrated Christmas or not, we all wanted to buy a gift for the family. We all wanted to donate food and other staples to lighten their load and brighten their holiday. We all preferred to reach out to the family rather than purchase a gift that is not needed or appreciated.
My coworkers and I will awaken on Christmas morning, safe and secure in our homes, watching our children or grandchildren’s joy. All of us will pause at some point on that dear morning and imagine the face of a child we will never meet, tearing the wrapping paper off our personally wrapped present that contains her dearest wish.
We didn’t save the world or the city or the community, or even this particular family. We saw a need and filled it; we adopted a family and embraced the season as we saw it. And along the way, we had some fun.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on Dec. 3,1999.
The fish was the ugliest I had ever seen. I actually recoiled as my son proudly pointed him out in the aquarium. He loves fish. Most boys want a dog or a cat. Fish, it seems, capture my son’s imagination.
“Fish,” he told me, “don’t bark or jump on guests.”
“You can’t pet them or teach them tricks,” I replied.
They look at me sometimes, he claimed, and that was enough.
He brought the ugly fish home on a cold, dark December day. Jet-black, just like the winter night, the fish’s eyes were perched on the ends of hideous balls protruding from his unfortunate body. The rest of him looked like a regular black goldfish, but the awful eyes made me cringe. He was quite out of place in the aquarium.
After a few visits to the tank, I began to admire the fish’s moxie. We bonded and I started to call him Bugsy. He glided past the more elegant fish, ones with tiger stripes and brilliant dots of color, with his big baseball eyes held high. He found his way and found his place in the underwater world.
A few days before Hanukkah began, my son came to me, expressing concern for Bugsy. It appeared that the black scales around the horribly shaped eyes were coming off. We looked at Bugsy and felt a terrible sadness. We turned away.
My son felt the fish was looking to him for help. He didn’t know what to do. Although I appreciated his concern, I knew that his beloved pet was a $2 fish and could be easily disposed of. He rejected that idea immediately and said he would call the fish supply store for advice.
He got busy with school and work and didn’t consult the store. When the other fish began to nip at Bugsy, he removed the fish from the tank and put in him in a big jar of water.
Bugsy was on death watch. We could not know for certain if he suffered, but nonetheless, we felt his pain. Darkness descended.
The next day, after his geography final, my son planned to release Bugsy into a fountain in a park to let him die with dignity, but first he promised he would stop at the fish store to see if anything could be done. I said goodbye to Bugsy as my son walked out to his truck, gently cradling the big glass jar in his arms with the fish swimming blissfully in tiny circles.
Less than 30 minutes later, my son returned, holding the big glass jar aloft. Bugsy, it seems, had contracted a virus. All he had to do was put some pills in the fish tank for a period of time and Bugsy would recover quite nicely.
He showed me the pills, eight in all, in a tiny plastic packet. Eight pills, eight days.
Hanukkah! Bugsy was our Hanukkah miracle . . . his recovery lit the night. A tiny fish that could have been tossed out when in distress was given a second
chance by a compassionate young man. Bugsy is holding his own and we are quite optimistic.
We hope he will survive the odds and light our winter nights, as the lamp lit the dark nights of the Jewish people centuries ago.
We light the Hanukkah candles to keep away the winter darkness and find our miracles where we may.
Kathleen Vallee Stein