It was a fair question: Why would a single mom in her early 40s choose to be a hospice volunteer?
Janice hugs me when I enter her home.
“I don’t get out much anymore,” she says, her eyes sparkling with tears. “So, when they asked me if I wanted a hospice volunteer to come for a few hours so I could run to the grocery store… well, of course, I told them!”
She tells me about her two-year-old son who she tries to keep busy while caring for her father-in-law. He’s fading quickly, though, and caring for him has become a full-time job. Her husband works long hours so he’s unable to help much, which is putting a strain on their marriage.
Janice looks down at my volunteer name badge and frowns. “Why do you do this? I mean, you’re young. Don’t you work?”
She meets my eyes and I must look surprised by her question. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.” She blushes and looks at her shoes. “I just know I wouldn’t put myself in a situation like this if I didn’t have to.”
“I do work,” I say gently. “I’m a writer with a flexible schedule and volunteering is important to me, so I make time for it.”
She wonders outloud why I would choose to be a hospice volunteer when I could spend my time playing with children or helping animals. I give her the abbreviated version of my story, how I was my dad’s caregiver, how similar his cancer diagnosis was to her father-in-laws and how hospice volunteers helped me see the beauty in allowing my dad to die with dignity.
Before leaving, Janice introduces me to her father-in-law, Ralph, and he seems comfortable with me from the start. So comfortable, in fact, that he launches into his life story and his career as an ironworker.
“I worked for a man and whatever he wanted, I did it,” he says with a smile. “I didn’t argue. Kids these days, they don’t know the meaning of real work. What I did, that was hard work.”
I just smile and nod. Ralph is deaf now and hears only slightly in his left ear with a hearing aid. When he’s asked questions, he gets agitated because he can’t hear. So… I listen and nod while he bounces from subject to subject. He tells me that the medication he’s taking makes it hard for him to keep his thoughts organized.
Ralph tells me about his colon cancer diagnosis, the chemotherapy and how he’s lost feeling in his feet.
“I walk across the cold floor and I don’t even know it’s cold,” he says and holds out his hands. “I drop something every day.”
He’s suffering from neuropathy. I only know that because my dad went through the same thing. I feel a pang of sadness, but then a wave of comfort. I know my dad is proud of me, turning my pain and grief into something positive, a way to help others. He used to call me his angel and say I was the bright spot in his day. I volunteer so I can continue to be that bright spot for hospice patients. In doing so, my dad’s legacy lives on through me.
Ralph lets out a long sigh. “This is life… as long as you’ve got it.”
We sit in silence for a while, then he asks me how mechanically inclined I am.
“Not very,” I admit, practically yelling so he hears me.
He asks me to add water to his oxygen machine so the oxygen doesn’t burn his nose. He directs me through the steps without any trouble and we’re both happy.
“People can do anything if they set their mind to it,” he says and points to me. “You can do anything, I’m sure.”
I smile. I needed to hear that today.
Janice returns a few hours later and checks the ice machine by Ralph’s bed. “He loves chewing on ice,” she says. “That’s the most important thing to him now.”
“Once upon a time I loved fishing,” Ralph pipes up. “Now I just watch it on TV.” He tells us how he always wanted to catch a cobia fish and how he’s heard they’re good eating.
I gather my bag and follow Janice out of the room.
“I’m just going to rest my eyes for a moment,” Ralph calls from the bed. I reach for the light dimmer switch and when I look back, he’s already asleep.
Janice gives me a hug and thanks me profusely for my time. As I walk to my car I check the clock on my phone. Three hours have passed and I have several errands to run before I pick up my son from school. I reach for the car door and tip my face to the sun. I imagine my dad’s light shining down on me.
Some people may wonder why a middle-aged, single mother working a full-time job would give up precious time in an already busy schedule to sit with a stranger who can’t even hear half of what she says.
I smile as I slip into the driver’s seat and think about the ladies who gave up their time for my dad.
Paybacks are a blessing.