It is amazing how many people find themselves disavowed and forgotten. For many it is through their personal own life choices and decisions. Drugs, alcohol, recklessness, and fecklessness may force loved ones into a position where rejection is the only safe recourse. After all, one can only be battered and torn so many times before falling apart becomes the sole answer and so one must move away. I wouldn’t say that people deserve to be forsworn, but I can understand why individuals and families feel they must.
When I first volunteered for our local hospice my client and new friend Vivienne was deeply entrenched in the last days of a cancerous brain tumor. While she had found a man to care for her at the end of her life, she had spent many years alone, uncared for and unwanted. Drugs had destroyed much of her self-worth and prison terms had continued, leading her down a long path of failure. I know this only because she told me, not because I researched, asked prying questions, or coerced a response. The morning we met I went with my supervisor who had spent many years as the hospice coordinator. Her manner seemed a little forceful and gruff, but again she appeared to get results. She confronted Vivienne with the nearness of death and then talked about donating her body. Like I said, it seemed coarse, but it proved to be necessary. Because Vivienne and her boyfriend had only a few dollars between them, the donation of her body meant no funeral costs, and so Vivienne quickly signed her name.
Mary wished us well and reminded me of my duty, to get a brief history of Vivienne’s life. It had been Vivienne’s wish to get worries and concerns out in the open. I whipped out my laptop and we began. She explained about her childhood, her parents, her best friend. She shared times of trouble. She aired mistakes she had made and her deep regret. Her voice grew softer as she reached the pinnacle of her life: her children. “I really messed up with them and now they do not even know where I am and that I am dying.” Tears rolled, sighs were breathed, and sadness filled the bedroom.
When I asked her if she could tell me more, she did. She really needed to talk and she really needed someone to listen. After about an hour Vivienne bemoaned, “I have never done anything good in my life.” I encouraged her with words of comfort as I expressed my surety that there had to have been some good times. She talked more, and searched her soul, then finally smiled. “Yes. Yes, I did do something good once.” She proceeded to explain how when a friend of her children had tragically died that she had gathered every penny she could find so that she and her kids could purchase lovely flowers to place on the grave.
“My kids were hurting but I know they were proud. We had done something for someone else out of total love.” Exhaustion took over at about this time and so I packed my laptop and readied to leave.
“I’ll come back tomorrow at about 10. What can I bring you?”
“Some grape popsicles, please. I love them!”
As I headed home I passed the grocery store and hesitated just a moment as I thought Maybe I should dash in right now and then run these back to Vivienne. But other duties called and I put off until tomorrow what I could have done today.
The next morning as I prepared to leave the phone rang. “Hello,” Mary said in a quiet voice. “I just wanted to let you know that Vivienne died last night.”
Horrified my voice quivered as I stated that obviously I was not so great at this job. After all, someone is not supposed to die hours after a visit. Mary reassured me that Vivienne had found peace and that I had helped her more than I would ever know. I must admit that that was not adequate to quell my upset, but it certainly gave me something big to think about for the rest of the day, in fact for the rest of my life.
Vivienne had been disavowed and forgotten and she fully admitted it was her fault, but I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to hear about her life as she dug to uncover her moment of goodness. I cleaned up my notes and printed a copy for Mary. She sent them on to Vivienne’s children. I hoped this helped them. In the end I had but one regret: the grape popsicles. Why didn’t I buy them immediately and race them right back to the house? What made me wait? I know that next time when such a request rolls in, I will be on it instantly and with pleasure.