I met Mr. C. because he was dying and his wife needed someone to sit with him Saturday nights while she attended Mass. I was a relatively new hospice volunteer, not long out of training, and Mr. C. was my first assignment with a patient at home, rather than in a hospital or health care facility. He had been given a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease 25 years before I first entered their small apartment in the Baruch housing projects, which stand where the Williamsburg Bridge meets Manhattan.
After Mrs. C. slipped out, Mr. C. and I tried to get acquainted. But his disease had long ago ravaged his motor skills; his jaw, loose and roving, wouldn't obey. I couldn't understand a word he was saying. Insistent, he shifted from tell to show, waving his wandering, shaking hand at an instrument case beside the dresser. Inside I found a cuatro, a small Latin American guitar with a filigree dimple on each side. Its wooden face was worn thin as an eggshell from years of use. The neck wiggled, and it had no strings, but when I handed the instrument to Mr. C., he embraced it as if it were an old friend. He was calmed by its familiar presence. "Strings," he said, slowly and clearly.
When Mrs. C. returned, I told her what her husband, now dozing in his bedroom, had asked for. "Ah," she said with a wave of her hand — expressing the same practicality with which she had covered the living room sofa in plastic, the same practicality that had enabled her to care for her increasingly disabled husband at home for so many years. "He can't play anyway," she said.
But when I arrived the next Saturday, Mr. C. looked at me expectantly. "Strings," he said. I was empty-handed. I knew from the look on his face that I had let him down.
By the time patients have accepted that their lives are ending, their bucket lists often shift to the simple things: music, Twinkies, a hand to hold.