This may come as a surprise (or maybe not) to my husband Burt, but every time we enjoy Chinese food, my thoughts – usually while he is trying to explain some complicated financial issue to my non-existent left brain – are drifting back in time to an amazing woman named Margaret.
I met her when I was a volunteer on a 10-bed hospice ward in a large Los Angeles hospital. She was in her early 60s and lived alone until her illness progressed to the point where she needed hospice care. Because her younger sister, Emma, arrived from Texas, I didn’t get to meet Margaret until a week after she had been admitted. Emma was an overwhelming presence on the ward. She came every day and rarely left the room. She fussed over Margaret, talked incessantly, read out loud (very loud) from the Bible and shooed away the volunteers. She drove the doctors and nurses crazy.
Nobody realized Emma was also driving Margaret crazy until the day Emma was sick and stayed away. When I walked into the room, there was Margaret, a tiny figure curled up under the blankets. Although the nurses had briefed me that Margaret was not interested either in eating or talking, I was determined to give it a try.
Leaning over the bed, I touched her lightly and said, “Hello Margaret, I’m Bobbie, one of the volunteers." She shifted slightly, turning her small face towards mine. “Do you need anything? I asked. “Do you feel like talking?”
She said, “No. I’m just lying here praying to graduate.” It was not the first time I had heard the term “graduate” rather than “die.” Hospice training emphasizes one be a good listener, non-judgmental regardless of personal beliefs and, above all, never to tell someone not to feel what he or she is feeling, which is a pretty good rule to follow in any relationship.
When I smiled at her, she asked, “Did I shock you?”
“Not particularly,” I answered. Then she went on to explain the word “graduate” felt more reassuring to her than saying she just wanted to die. “But I can’t say graduate OR die to my sister,” Margaret added. “She keeps telling me how good I look and that I’m going to get well. Do your think I’m going to get well?” Hmm, this is where hospice training really comes in handy.
I pulled a chair up close to the bed and said, “I don’t know. What do YOU think?” “Heavens no,” she said, “I’ve accepted this, but my sister refuses to.” Then Margaret asked if I would help her sit up against the pillows. She suddenly wanted to talk about her husband, Harry, who had died of cancer 10 years before. “He promised to be waiting when I cross over.” She watched for my reaction then added, “My sister thinks this is all nonsense, you know.” Then she got a defiant look on her face. “Listen,” she said, “Harry never let me down in all the years we had together. Why would he let me down now?” She clearly wanted to talk. She looked around to make sure we were alone in the room. “You know what?” she asked, in a conspiratorial whisper. “I really feel Harry’s presence sometimes – like he is just waiting for me to join him. Last night I think I saw him up in that corner,” she said, pointing toward the ceiling.
When I didn’t react, she surprised me by asking for some sherbet from the nurse’s station, and as I fed her little bites, I kept thinking how rewarding this felt and how I did not want to leave that room. Some kind of a special bond had taken place. I left the hospice ward that day on winged feet and started visiting Margaret in the evenings to avoid her sister Emma.
One night Margaret told me that she had two last definite wishes: one was to taste Chinese food again, and the other was to escape the hospice ward and get back to Texas so she could see her favorite nieces before she died. I was far from confident about the second wish, but I will never forget the night we shared a Chinese feast in her room, just the two of us. (There were few restrictions on that hospice ward, and nobody questioned my bag of Chinese goodies). With soy sauce on both our faces, we giggled like school girls.
I’ll never know how she pulled it off, but three weeks after our first meeting, Margaret checked out of the hospital, traveled by ambulance to the airport, and flew back to Texas with Emma.
We continued our “love affair” by telephone for six more days. I was not surprised when Emma called to say her sister had died peacefully with a smile on her face and her nieces at the bedside.
To this day, whenever we have Chinese food, I think of my remarkable Margaret and feel blessed that she crossed my path if only for a short while. What a woman!
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her husband, Burt, their dog, Charley, and a shelter cat named Lap Sitter. Bobbie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.orgFor the complete article see the 02-01-2013 issue.
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