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Hospice: Keeping Promises, Honoring Life

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I recently met a remarkable young man who cared for his grandfather in the elder man's final years of life, just as grandfather used to care for grandson. G. Beaudin, now in his 40s, spent his young-adult years being cared for and mentored by his grandfather, Bennes Mardenn, who trained at the legendary Group Theatre, was a founding member of the Living Theatre, and was a well-known actor, poet, mentor and teacher to generations of aspiring actors. G. -- as he prefers to be called, shared his grandfather's passion for a life in theater, working most recently in Berlin when his grandfather's illness beckoned G. back to New York. "I made a promise I'd be there for him when he made a turn for the worse," G. says, wiping away tears.

The care G. provided his grandfather, who died in 2010 at age 94, was at once ordinary -- millions care for their loved ones through aging, illness and dying -- and extraordinary. He was by his grandfather's side every day in the final two months, a time that took them through the full panoply of emotions -- gratitude, anger, forgiveness, laughter, sadness, and, foremost, love and respect. "His dying took a while," G. recalls. "It was a process, a growth moment so I could really be there for him when he needed me most."

To the end, his grandfather was still in possession of his poet's soul, robust humor and capacious generosity. Even when he could barely speak, he had a charismatic effect on doctors and nurses. But, limited by the effects of a stroke and suffering from ischemic colitis, Bennes could be difficult, too, and the two would fight. "I said, 'Listen, I know things are difficult, but screaming isn't going to help,'" G. recalls telling his grandfather. "'Give me your hand and let me take your pain.' In the end, I was able to ask forgiveness for getting angry at him, getting angry because he got old on me."

G. has an actor's gift, surely inherited from his grandfather, for bringing stories to life. He lovingly recreated a scene of the "sly and witty" Bennes -- pretending to sleep when visited by some of his more dramatic friends, then opening one eye and with impeccable timing, whispering to G., "Actresses." G.'s love and gratitude for his grandfather and the pain of losing him bubbled to the surface as he shared this intimate moment; the depth of their connection moves me to this day.

Throughout our conversation, I was reminded how powerfully one's final days are a reflection and continuation of one's life. What follows are some of the many lessons G. learned from his lifelong mentor, right up to the end.

It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love

In the Isabella Geriatric Center in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, Bennes Mardenn spent his final months in the bloom of new love -- holding hands, exchanging inside jokes, trading private smiles. He had last been in love in 1953, when his girlfriend of many years died of cancer. But when he heard Rebecca Holtzman bemoan her poor luck at a bingo game -- "Oy vey," she said, when none of her numbers were called -- the man who had trained in the Yiddish theater was hooked.

"It's a pleasure to listen to him," Rebecca told the Manhattan Times before Bennes's death. "He has so many stories."

"He had been in love with someone many years ago and never moved on until he met Rebecca," G. says. "His ability to love so much and so many through his life prevented him from focusing on one person. At that point in his life, in the nursing home, he was able to focus on one person, and that was Rebecca."

When Rebecca, whose husband died in 1955, grew increasingly ill and seemed to be giving up on life, Bennes remained steadfastly at her side. Says G., who still keeps in touch with Rebecca's daughter via Facebook, "He helped Rebecca realize that you should never give up on living and that you can find love at any age."

You Reap What You Sow

As G. sat at Bennes's bedside in those final months, the young man was struck -- but not surprised -- by how many people came to visit. A young actress on her way to Egypt, an actor up from North Carolina, colleagues from both coasts, former students at all ages and stages.

A longtime teacher and mentor, Bennes constantly "paid it forward," says G. Having been estranged from his own family for many years, Bennes created a family out of friends, colleagues, and students past and present. "He died the way he thought he would," notes G., "surrounded by the family he created."

"It was a privilege to see how many people his grandfather touched through his life and went on to touch in his final days," said Michael Etheridge, a social worker with the VNSNY CHOICE MLTC, a health plan for seniors from the not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Michael helped G. and Bennes navigate the social, emotional, legal and practical arrangements needed at this stage of life.

All the bedside drama, laughter, conviviality and overflow of warm wishes caught the attention of Bennes's hospital roommate, whom G. noted was deaf. G, who had just directed a deaf musical, spent some time communicating in sign language with the patient. "He told me that he just wanted to be where all this love is," G. said of the roommate.

When Bennes grew exasperated that this stranger was usurping precious minutes of G's time, grandson told grandfather, "This is what your life has been, creating a circle of love around you, so I'm afraid you'll just have to deal with it."

Keeping Promises: The Measure of a Life

"My grandfather always told me that what makes you important are not your accomplishments or financial successes, but the promises that you keep," G. said, with a hitch in his voice. "I kept my promise to him to take care of him, and that makes me a very important man."

To this day, G. is keeping promises to his grandfather. He is currently in production on a documentary, My Trail of Tears, centered on his walking -- in reverse -- the Trail of Tears, traveled by the Cherokee people in 1838-1839 as they were forcibly removed from their homes. "My grandfather said to me, 'You must do this walk.'"

Perhaps the most profound promise of all came right at the end. G. told his grandfather, "It's time for the final curtain call." Then the younger man made one final promise: "I'm going to hold your hand," he said, "to help you get to the other side."

Please share your story about life lessons learned from a loved one in his or her final days.

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