This Essay won an award for teaching people about death and dying from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Teri was 44 and I was 38 during her hospice care. I saw Terri every Thursday for about a year.
Upon arriving to her house her bed was in the living room. It was a little house, and when I arrived Terri was quiet and seemed like she just needed a girlfriend. She was checking me out, wondering who I was and what a volunteer did. I explained to her that I came over to be with her, nothing medical at all. I am here for support in whatever way she needed it. I could go to the grocery store, do the dishes for her or we could just sit and chat. I am here to listen. Our relationship was friendship, we were girlfriends, and in hospice it’s known that we are the givers, not expecting anything in return. Even though we discuss these boundaries with hospice staff, we always receive in ways we could never imagine.
Terri’s journey was very different then what I had experienced with other patients. The household had four generations living in it. The family was unstable due to a rough past, and with Terri’s imminent death approaching, the family was barely functioning. Even though Terri was surrounded by several family members, each had a difficult time dealing with Terri’s terminal illness in their own ways. Except for her son Jaden, her rock. He was 16 when I started. His mom and he were born on the same day. He was an angel, his mother’s death would change his life forever, but there was a wisdom about this boy and Terri knew that. She drew strength from it and her love for him kept her alive for that year.
Terri’s husband was not around much – he visited a couple of times. He was dealing with his own troubled past. Her daughter Susie had two babies, one born during the time I was there. She was in a tumultuous relationship and using drugs. It was very hard to watch because the babies were not being cared for properly.
Terri’s mother rarely came out of her room whenever I was there and always seemed disturbed and upset.
Terri and I never really had time alone. Terri had no private sanctuary to call her own, ever. Sometimes Suzy would storm in yelling and screaming, even at me. If the weather was nice, we would sit outside and Terri would smoke. I didn’t care, it was all she had to call her own. We had talks, long talks about what happened in her past. I allowed my friend to unload the huge baggage of regret and resentments whenever she needed to. We talked of God and her fear of death.
One day, the most amazing conversation took place. It confirmed to me, back in 1998, that Angels are a constant- always helping. Terri and I were talking about the actual moment of death and what happens. I wanted to comfort her for sure. I explained to Terri about giving birth, knowing this was something we had both experienced.
I said to her, “you know when we are pregnant the baby in our tummy is growing and changing inside of us as it is preparing for its birth. When it’s time to be born, there are signs for the mom that the baby is coming. At the time of birth many people will be there waiting for the new arrival of this child.”
I believe dying is very much like this. It will be peaceful, and before you know it, you will be looking into the faces of those you love. With open arms they will be welcoming you!
Much to my amazement, I went home and told my mom this story. Her eyes grew big, and she said she had a letter for me.
The letter was written by my Auntie Eleanor in 1967, when I was only 7 years old. She had become a nun and had been diagnosed with cancer at a very young age. My mom was so sad she was going to lose her sister. Auntie Eleanor wrote mom a letter about what was taking place and not to be sad.
It reads, “Supposing a child in his mother’s womb at the ninth month period would argue that he did not want to be born. It is so nice and warm and safe in the darkness of the mother’s womb. He gets all the nourishment he needs, and after all, what does he know about the world out there? And supposing his mother could answer all his objections: Come on out and be born! It is beautiful on this side. You’ll be safe because I love you. Come look into the face of the one who loves you!”
Auntie Eleanor was my angel, working through me to help Terri, and I knew it with all my heart.
There were times at Terri’s that were hard – with the drug issues, the babies and mother – and many times it was probably not that safe for me. Terri needed me. She did not have any girlfriends and I knew how much she appreciated me. Hospice had said to me that if I needed to stop I could, and I told them I would never do that. Almost a year was a long time and I was committed.
It’s important to know that in this particular family situation, one cannot have any judgment. This situation was what it was but I needed to be smart, and aware, and take care of myself so I could continue to see Terri. It was not my job to “x any of the other family members’ problems, but it was my job to be supportive for Terri.
Terri barely had enough money to live on let alone take care of everyone else’s needs, and she ended up having to move very close to her time of transition. Hospice and I helped her out the best we could. Again her bed was placed in the living room in a tiny two bedroom apartment, with the babies.
At Christmas time, which was close to the time Terri died, she gave me a plant. Terri was preparing in her way. Her giving me a little life to take care of was very special to me and has stayed with me ever since.
The plant lasted until 2006! It was such a tiny plant to begin with, but grew bigger and bigger. When I moved to my house in 2003, the lighting was very different. I tried to put it outside but to no avail, it made me kind of sad. Maybe it was Terri’s way of letting me know that she was good up in heaven. I looked up one day and told Terri that I think the plant has had it, and I blessed it and thanked it for years of reminding me of Terri.
Terri had a fear of never wanting to be forgotten, I smiled and told her she would not be forgotten, not by me, her mom, or her kids (she had 2 more who lived out of state). Terri made sure of that with the plant AND for Christmas she gave me a set of cups; they were decorated with white robed little girl angels, with crooked halos and bare feet. Six angels altogether on one cup and above them the words, “Peace Love and Joy to you,” I LOVE IT! It is on my desk, I drink out of it every day. I gave one to my mom, as she was such a support to me during Terri’s dying journey. Terri is never forgotten.
She taught me never to be judgmental; people die in all different ways and different places. Taking care of myself so that I was able to give to another was a valuable lesson as well. All caregivers know this is true. You can’t drive your car if there is no gas in it! Same goes for your body. Thank you, Terri!