Retirement wasn’t sitting too well with me. I was bored stiff. I decided to answer a volunteer advertisement I found in a community newspaper. It didn’t specify what it was, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.
When I got there, I found out it was a Hospice organization. I decided to attend the training sessions. After completing the training, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to volunteer directly with the clients.
My role would be to visit people, and comfort them. Although I felt confident in that role, my mother had recently died, and I didn’t know if it was too soon after her death. I was afraid it would make me miss her even more than I already did.
I didn’t know if I wanted to confront dying people. Would it be too much of an intrusion on their privacy to be a witness to their last days on earth? How would I feel about a complete stranger visiting me when I was at my worst? I thought about it for a couple of weeks.
One day I called up the person in charge of volunteers, and told her I was ready to give it a try. She gave me the address of a nursing home close to my house that had Hospice patients.
In less than ten minutes, I found myself in front of the nursing home for my first assignment. I nervously opened the door, and entered the bright, clean facility. “How can I help you?” asked the young welcoming receptionist. She made me feel comfortable, and directed me to the rooms of several Hospice patients.
The first person I met was Betty. She was a heavy set African American woman who appeared to be sleeping. “Oh, she’s not really sleeping. Betty, open your eyes!” shouted the aide. I felt like running out the door. Betty opened one eye, and smiled. “Hi, I’m glad to meet you. I keep my eyes closed ‘cause I can’t see out of them anyway,” said Betty.
We started talking, and became fast friends. We were different races, religions, and ages. But somehow we clicked. I usually find Betty sitting in the TV room in the nursing home where she lives. She’s blind, and is confined to a wheelchair. She has a fondness for baseball caps, and I can usually spot her with her eyes closed, and leaning to one side of her chair. It makes me happy when she says to me, “You always make me laugh.”
She tells about her travels around the world. She’d lived an exciting life. She never expected to end her life in a nursing home. She makes the best of it, and doesn’t complain. “I was at a worse one before this. There were rats running around,” she said
She outlived three husbands. She misses her last husband most of all. “Oh, I loved that man.” she says “He used to hold me so tight.” Thats a cue for me to give her a big hug, and I do.
Last December 15th was a special day for Betty. We were watching an amateur country band perform at the nursing home. They were playing happy holiday music. Betty turned to me and said, “I want to sing the Lord’s Prayer.” I knew Betty had been the soloist at her church for many years.
I approached the leader of the group “One of the clients wants to sing “The Lord’s Prayer”. What do you think?” I asked. “Just wait a few minutes,”he said.
He finally called us over, and I wheeled her toward the band. He handed me a microphone and I placed it under her mouth. She sat up as straight as she could. and began to sing. Her voice started out soft, but soon gained strength. Suddenly, she wasn’t an ailing woman unable to sit up straight in her wheelchair. Once again, she was the soloist of a church choir talking to her God. The others sitting in the audience weren’t nursing home patients— they were the congregation.
Astounded aides were starring at her with big smiles on their faces. “That’s it, Betty,” said one. “That’s it.”
That moment will always be frozen in my memory.
“I was kinda loud wasn’t I?” she asked. She hadn’t realized I’d been holding a microphone for her.
Like a typical musician she said, “I have to practice; did I sound all right?”
Now, it seems like that moment took place in another lifetime, although it was only a year ago.
Betty isn’t getting any better, and I realize the end is coming. So, I go over there more often than I did before. I read her stories, or play her songs on a CD player.
Even if a life is diminishing, people still need to know that they matter. Some people want no part of visiting ill people, especially ones who are not going to be with us much longer. But those are the ones who need us the most. The truth is that when you give of yourself—you receive so much more
Postscript: I found out that sometimes people can qualify for Hospice for several years. They can reapply after six months. My friendship with Betty lasted for two years, long enough for me to get to really know her. She passed away several years ago, but at least I think I brightened up her life a little at the end.