I went to Mary's to help. She needed some boxes unpacked,
some housework done. Often it is easy to "do." Usually it is more a matter of companionship, talking, reading, listening. Entering a home as a hospice volunteer can be a reminder that someone is near death. The flow of people through the house has changed. We should blend into the scenery like the moth that opens its wings against the bark of a tree and disappears.
When I arrived, Mary was already cleaning. Perhaps she was cleaning for me. I always have this feeling, perhaps misguided, that when someone comes to work at my house, the painter or plumber, that I should be working, too. I always feel a tad guilty about sitting down with a cup of coffee and a novel while there is work being done. Mary, on the other hand, had a list the length of her arm why she should be resting, but this was a new house for her family. You only want your own dust in a house, so Mary was sweeping. She commented on all of the hair on the floor. I teased that she had not made a contribution to this particular mess. Mary's head was smooth and bald from several courses of chemotherapy. She laughed with a hint of regret and said that there was a time when her hair would have been tangled in the bristles of the broom, too. I was a little embarrassed, being so familiar, teasing this woman I had just met. Trying to make amends for the no-hair comment, I explained my love of bald heads. My daughter had cancer. It was with great fondness that I offered the memory of that very special smooth head.
From the very beginning of our relationship, Mary and I were comfortable. It was like being with a close neighbor or a childhood friend. There was an easy flow of being together. Looking back it seems that there was little polite conversation. Our words were fewer, but all of them conveyed a sense of purpose or concern or courage. I picture a group of Amish women working on a quilt together. Often this work would be done in silence, sprinkled with thoughts from the heart. No gossip, no words spoken to fill in the silence. Imagine a comfortable flow of work, dotted with thought-filled words, concerns about a child, intercession for a needy neighbor. Our time together had this same quality. We had long, comfortable silences while laundry was folded, beds were changed and boxes unpacked. Some days Mary would start coughing and need to lay down with the gentle hum of her oxygen tank. I'm sure she pushed herself harder when I was there. It was difficult for her to slow down. There was an urgency to life. So many things needed to be taken care of. Who would gently wrap the special china dolls and store them away until her daughter was ready to love them?
Danielle Vila Verde
I remember one Friday when we were working together. Mary insisted that she was going to have a yard sale the next day. I offered several excuses for her postponing this sale. It was a very hot day, and the weekend promised to be hotter. Moving about and breathing was enough work at this point. Your mother was coming soon; wait for her to help you. There were few boxes ready, nothing marked. Maybe at this point in a life there was no more room for excuses, no more time to postpone. She wanted everything to look nice when her mother arrived. Do we ever let that go? Later I learned that she did have the garage sale, a successful one. I can picture the too-small children's clothes and the toys that were no longer played with. Items that would be loved and appreciated by a smaller child but were just taking up space in this new home. Were there clothes that no longer fit Mary? The weight had slowly slipped away, never to return. What else was it that couldn't stay in this house? What items interfered with her sense of order, the plan for the future?
There was order in a comfortable sort of way. Her home and her family reflected a conscientious tending. You would always find fresh soapy water in the sink so that dishes could be washed as they were used and spills or dirt dispatched immediately. There wouldn't be strength to handle giant messes. I knew that, after careful folding of laundry, many things would be taken out of the basket and hung on hangers. Even T-shirts were hanging. It was a full closet, not so compulsively organized that shirts are arranged by color or even that blouses and pants can't hang side by side. We only knew each other in the context of these few walls. I look back and savor the little things that remind me of Mary.