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Hospice worker excelled at caregiving after being inspired by his grandmother

JO CORONA, BYLINE: This week from StoryCorps, we're going to hear from someone who brings comfort to people in their final moments. Hajime Koyama, who goes by Issan, is a retired hospice worker. He came to StoryCorps to remember his grandmother, who shaped his understanding of grief.

HAJIME KOYAMA: When I was 5 years old, I was playing in her room, as I always did. By that time, she was bedridden. She says, Hajime, keep it down. And I say, yes. And then suddenly door swings open, and one of the people who used to work for us comes in. And I was basically pulled out from the room. And I was told my grandmother died while I was with her all alone, playing on the floor at the foot of her bed. But the memory stuck with me because it was a beautiful afternoon. The sun comes in through the window, and I felt so warm and protected.

And then when I was a teenager, my father was sick with a cancer. My mother came to me and says, we need a little break. Can you sit with your father? So I said, of course. And in Japan, parents don't really touch kids - particularly father-son, don't really touch or hug. But before he died, he started to move his hand toward me. So I held his hand. Eventually, I held him in my arms. He looked at me and took three separate exhale with a long pause in between - his final breath. It's a strange thing to say, but it was so beautiful. It feels really deep and almost dangerous, like the depth of this unknown at the bottom of the ocean.

And so by diving right into it, I really understood that incredible sense of intimacy. We are all together in this painful world. But because of that, this really organic, deep-seated sense of compassion arises that puts us together. And in the midst of the chaos and pain and the suffering, that is exactly where the very, very pure white flower of compassion arises and blossoms - nowhere else but in the muddy water.

CORONA: That's retired hospice worker Hajime "Issan" Koyama. He spoke with his husband, Paul Boos. To hear more from their conversation, you can find the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.