He holds their hands, touches their faces, listens as they share their pain.
As he sits at the bedside of those close to death, Cary Heth focuses on their quality of life.
A volunteer chaplain with Hospice of Spokane, Heth accompanies them on a journey – through recollections of their past, their struggle with illness, their efforts to find peace in the future.
“I can’t fix it, I can’t make it go away,” Heth often tells them. “But I can be there for you. I can laugh with you, I can listen to you, I can be the object of your venting.”
His presence, he said, is all he can offer.
For the past six years, the Spokane Valley resident has laughed and cried, listened and prayed, mourned and celebrated with people during their final stage of life. He also has provided support for families as they watch their loved ones die.
While those whose lives have been touched by his presence remain grateful for his work, Heth believes it is he who has gained the most from these relationships. His experience with the dying has taught him many lessons – about life, death, family and giving thanks.
“Maybe this is God’s gift to me,” said Heth, reflecting on his ministry.
Shy and soft-spoken, Heth is a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman with silvery-gray hair and a kind face that conveys a hint of intensity. He is 73 years old, married with kids and grandkids, a late bloomer in more ways than he ever imagined.
Never in his younger years – as a schoolteacher and later as a college dean – did he ever envision his life taking such a turn. He was supposed to be retired now, sitting in a log cabin on the lake, relaxing, learning to fish and picking huckleberries. He tried that for a couple of years, but something shook him deep inside, compelling him to sell the cabin, go back to school and plunge into a whole new world.
First, he became an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. Then he started volunteering for Hospice of Spokane.
“I never planned on this,” he said, sitting in his small office at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where he serves as a full-time deacon. “I was supposed to be a social studies teacher. … But there is this energy inside of me that tells me this is worth doing, that it has value, that it has substance. It has strengthened my faith. …
“I offer it up to God.”
As he struggled to breathe, as he lay dying of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Billy White found solace each time Heth sat at his bedside.
“Cary made him feel so much better every time he saw him,” said Elaine White, recalling the last few weeks of her husband’s life. “He gave Billy a lot of comfort.”
She would sit and listen to them talk – about their family, about God and religion, about death. Often, they would pray together. It was Heth who helped Billy overcome his fear of dying, she said.
Billy White, who died Nov. 5 at the age of 70, became so close to Heth that he asked him to officiate at his funeral. It didn’t matter that Billy was Lutheran and Heth a deacon in the Catholic Church.
“He meant a lot to Billy,” said Elaine White, who cried as she described how Heth was always there for her husband, even on the day of his death.
Through their lives and death, Billy White and others have made Heth even more grateful for all the blessings of his own life. He’s also thankful for the lessons they have imparted.
“I’ve learned to be humble,” he said. “I’ve learned that my own problems aren’t the end of the world. I’ve learned that there is always hope, that people do care and that there is empathy.”
And in the experience of every dying woman and man, Heth witnesses a courage that he wishes he had.
Raised by his grandparents in Ione, Wash., Heth dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Air Force when he was 18. He served as a chaplain’s assistant during the Korean War, but there was no inkling back then that the chaplaincy was in his future.
He wanted to be a teacher – not the kind that made students memorize the Gettysburg Address, but one who helped them see its significance in history. He wanted to motivate kids, to get them excited about learning.
After getting the equivalent of a high school diploma in the military, he earned a bachelor’s degree and eventually a master’s degree in education from Eastern Washington State College.
Heth taught elementary and junior high students for nearly a decade, then taught at Ferris High School until 1977, where he was the chairman of the history department for many years. Then he moved on to higher education, eventually becoming a dean at the Community Colleges of Spokane. He retired from education in 1989.
Heth thought he was done, ready to relax and spend his days fishing. But a restlessness, a longing inside, wouldn’t allow him to rest. He felt a calling to ministry so he returned to Spokane and pursued a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at Gonzaga University.
“I don’t know what drove me or led me to what I’m doing now,” he said. “All I can say is that the hand of God was in it.”
Since he came to Hospice of Spokane six years ago, Heth has demonstrated a commitment to helping those in need, said Ann Hurst, director of chaplain services. Even at the last minute, she can count on him to offer support to Hospice’s clients, she said. He can’t drive after dark because of a condition that has impaired his vision, so Heth turns to his wife, Joann, to bring him to people’s homes in the evenings.
Because of his compassion and his commitment, Heth was honored earlier this month with the 2005 Volunteer Chaplain of the Year Award.
“He really sees the need and feels like he can help,” said Joann Heth. “But he gets more out of what he does than what he gives to them.”
A self-described “controller” who spent years setting goals and meeting deadlines, Heth was at first bewildered by the direction his life had taken. “I did not plan this,” he kept thinking as he thrust himself into the foreign territories of both pastoral and palliative care.
In the end, Heth surrendered – to God, to fate, to his calling. Some things, many things, are just beyond our control, he said.
Now, as he holds their hands and wipes away their tears, Heth has accepted in his own life the words that he sometimes whispers to those about to die: “It’s OK to let go.”