Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 3:25 PM
There are people who can find no humor in hospice.
Harry Azoff, a 93-year-old hospice patient, and his hospice volunteer, Morgan Thompson, a 35-year-old Reiki student, are not among them. The two conspired under a tree in Azoff’s yard in Queen Village on a July afternoon to turn their sometimes funny, sometimes deep talks about Azoff’s life and impending death into a play. It would be a comedy. Mostly. They called it Hospice-tality.
Azoff and Thompson sat in the front row Thursday night at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse as actors from Philly Improv Theatre Group read their work to an audience of friends, hospice workers, and families of patients. The play was a mere 30 minutes long, including songs performed by Molly Hicks, a music therapist whose visits Azoff cherishes.
Azoff, a former jeweler, lives alone and has gotten hospice services at his home for nearly a year. He has outlived doctors’ estimates of how long it would take end-stage kidney disease to kill him. “I’m making another stage,” he said. On Thursday night, he drove to the performance and walked in by himself.
The audience chuckled at Azoff’s and Thompson’s clever wordplay and jokes about the Grim Reaper. “Have you ever seen cartoon drawings of the Grim Reaper?” his character asks. “How can anyone take that guy seriously?”
Azoff watched happily, his granddaughter’s hand on his forearm. His best friend and people-watching buddy, Mark Holmes, 76, was in the audience with his camera.
“I want you to know that this little skit, this is the girl that did it,” Azoff said afterward, gesturing to Thompson.
“I thought you agreed that, if they booed, you would blame me,” she replied playfully.
Thompson, who lives in Washington Square West, wrote her first play at 16 but doesn’t consider herself a playwright. She lost her brother to suicide and, two months later in 2013, her mother to cancer. She was her mother’s caregiver. Born with congenital cataracts, she is legally blind in one eye and has impaired vision in the other. Her personal experience with the health-care system, she said, helps her understand what hospice patients are going through.
“Maybe I can’t see people’s physical bodies as well, but I can see their souls better,” she said. “Harry has a beautiful, beautiful spirit inside of him.”
Azoff is not a professional writer either, but he is artistic. He made the stained-glass windows in his house — they’re in the play — and loves to make music. He plays harmonica, piano, and is learning to play a mandolin his neighbors bought for him.
Working on the play was an opportunity for personal expression. “I think everybody in their lives at one time or other feels like they want to do something expressive, and some do and some don’t,” he said.
Plus, he’s a hospice fan. “I love my hospice,” he said. “I have all these young people coming over. They liven up the place.”
He downplayed the humor. “I try to be funny. This time I don’t think I was so funny …,” he said mischievously before the reading. “Maybe if I’d put some pornography in it, it would have been better.”
Thompson was the serious one. She saw the semiautobiographical play as a way to “normalize” common issues in hospice. She noted the irony that Azoff’s refrigerator is packed with beautiful food yet he has no appetite.
She thinks that people who’ve come to terms with a difficult life experience have a duty to share what they’ve learned. “This country has a problem talking about death,” she said.
The play itself is just a collection of visits with hospice workers: a nurse, Thompson, Hicks, and a chaplain. They talk about why Azoff, played by 31-year-old Joe Wendrychowicz, doesn’t want to take pills for his sleeping problems. In one scene, he wonders why he’s still alive. “Are you having any pain issues since I saw you last?” Thompson’s character asks.
“Not unless you count existential pain,” he tells her.
“I think maybe that counts the most,” she says. “Where does it hurt?”
“Right in my life philosophy,” he replies.
She asks where that’s located. “In the small intestine,” he tells her.
In a scene that is not meant to be funny, he tells Thompson’s character about a harmonica “duel” on a camping trip with his wife in New England. Azoff began learning the harmonica at 12, and the story is true.
“I’m so glad you didn’t assume I meant to say ‘duet,’ ” Azoff’s character says.
“I thought I’d just go sit down by the dock and play my harmonica a bit, and when I was done my song, a few seconds passed, and I heard another harmonica tune coming from the opposite shore. … I sat there and listened. And then I picked another song, as a reply, and played it. We went on for hours like that, after midnight. We played jazz, blues, pop songs, classical. It was something I’ll never forget, making this beautiful music with a complete stranger.”
Thompson’s character lets that sink in a moment. “That sounds like one of those experiences that makes you feel alive just remembering it,” she says.
Without saying it explicitly, the play reveals an essential challenge of hospice work: It takes emotional courage to grow close to someone like Azoff. He has had some bad days lately, the staff said.
Azoff is Thompson’s fourth patient. “I do feel pain knowing that he’s going to die, but I also feel peace helping him tell his story,” she said.
On Thursday, though, Azoff was happily accepting the rewards of well-received art. The cast clapped for him. He took a bow and got lots of hugs. He played his harmonica. There was lipstick on his shirt. Marianne Hess-Levine, a Fort Bragg, N.C., woman whose 67-year-old sister, Rosemarie Allen, is in hospice because of ovarian cancer, grabbed Azoff’s hand. “That was awesome,” she said. “It’s funny. It had that human touch.”
“I tell you, I’m really living,” Azoff said. “I never had such a good time in my life.”
Read full story: He's 93, he's dying and he wrote a comedy about it