Patty Wudell, Director of Joseph’s House in Washington, DC, describes the place as “always gently moving.” Here, people who are formerly homeless and dying of HIV/AIDS can come to live and receive compassionate care. HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans spoke with Patty and learned about the beauty and the mystery of Joseph’s House.
“I was thinking about the house this weekend and it really did feel like standing at the edge of deep still waters with tall grasses moving, and swaying slowly back and forth. A young woman named Kenyata had begun to die. She was unresponsive as I slowly and gently bathed her, and changed her sheets and clothes. I remember noticing the arch of her neck, and her hand. She seemed to be arching herself out of this life and there was something peaceful about assisting her in this respectful way,” explains Patty Wudell.
Patty is the Director of Joseph’s House, a home in Washington D.C. that offers compassionate care to previously homeless men and women who are dying of HIV/AIDS.
Patty describes Joseph’s House as a place that is “always gently moving,” as caregivers, both staff and year-long volunteers, make a commitment to being fully present and open-hearted to help human beings transition from living to dying. “While there is so much to do, it really matters that you come to Joseph’s House not in the spirit of having so much to do, but in the spirit of being open. You have to listen and take your lead from the person who is dying.”
Patty speaks to me of this capacity for “being with” a person as they die in the context of what she calls “the mystery of Joseph’s House.” There are people who come to Joseph’s House and get well enough to live for seven to nine months. During this time of health, it is possible for inner health and well-being to return. Some people come to Joseph’s House to die and then survive the deaths of other residents.
“They might not even know about who is in the next room, but because we remember people who have died, the person who is healthy for a time will become aware and grow into an inner spaciousness. So they may go from not being aware, to being afraid, to hovering at the edge of knowledge that someone else is about to die, to stopping at the door. Over time they find themselves present and might participate in the bathing, in the taking of a body out and then when we have a memorial service, there are tears and they are wondering when the remembering will happen for them.”
Patty describes this process as one that is spiritual in nature and finds herself wondering when it will be her turn.
“There is something so caring about this. It is almost without words. It is both practical and mysterious. I am really moved by men and women who survive other people dying become open to a softer, gentler, natural elegance.”
Patty poses the question inherent in this work. “What is possible in choosing to be with each other?”
In light of this question and the work of Joseph’s House, she describes the nature of this choice to be present, quiet, listening and still as a deepening experience whether the dying process is gentle or not.
“Sometimes it is not always a gentle process and can be a real ripping out of life. It is a Joseph’s House practice to accompany residents around the clock into death and at times this choice to seek quiet can assist someone who does not have a quiet within them. We can bring quiet into the company of the person who is suffering from pain, restlessness, fearfulness, and dislocation.”
Patty also explains the need for courage in listening to the dying person. “I have to be willing to stay with someone in their evident suffering. A good death may be a fierce death. There are so many people who come here who have had close brushes with death their whole lives from exposure to violence, prisons, gangs, and bullets, but violence has helped them to survive. It is frightening to accompany a dying warrior.”
Patty explains her own desire to have less of herself in being with another person as they die. She hopes to be worthy to accompany someone into death whether they sing like the bird on the edge of the marsh, or die a fierce death.
“Professional warmth at Joseph’s House is not enough, explains Patty. What heals is love and it has worked for us that love is best—all of this happening at a house, where people can hardly move.”