The year I have spent as a Hospice volunteer unfolded in two phases. The first was centered around Mona. Twice a week starting in October, I signed in to the weathered Hospice facility binder and knocked on her door. I quickly learned not to expect a response. Mona is a woman of few words, limited by a diagnosis and perhaps social habit. Time spent with Mona worked in a routine manner. I scanned her room for the thin paperback book filled with Biblical excerpts and musings on time, love, trial, family, choice, mercy, spring, peace, and death. The TV was muted, a lamp clicked on, and I would settle in an armchair next to her recliner. The following 20 minutes were filled with my voice, my personality. She was a silent soundboard absorbing my translation of a faith foreign to me. I felt that Mona and I established some sort of understanding through these meetings. “You will never know how much you mean to me,” she whispered to me one day, gripping my hand. These satisfying moments of understanding did not last. Mona began to turn me away. One day, I entered her room and asked if I could sit with her and read as I usually do. “No,” she looked me in the eye. “No more.” Feeling strangely rejected, I went home and emailed Cathy, our volunteer coordinator.
The second wave involves a cheery Italian woman, Liliana. I ventured to the second floor of the Rosemont Presbyterian assisted living home and found two women relaxing in a finely furnished apartment. Expansive and cared for, Liliana’s surroundings felt like a sharp contrast to the small space dominated by a television I had been used to from Mona. Sarah, Liliana’s caretaker, is a warm and welcoming woman. I was seated on a couch next to Liliana on my first visit. Nestled between embroidered and beaded pillows, my first impression of her was a comment on my lacy bra strap accompanied with a wink. With every lull in conversation, Liliana would carry forward with an open question about “what I was up to next.” This could mean anything, so purposefully open-ended. I filled in the answer with what I was planning on doing later that day, this semester, this year, what I think I will end up doing with my career. She is a conversation-generator. I could see the wise and warm professor and mother resting in her aging ability to hold court. Over the ensuing weeks, her questions became increasingly unbound.
I replaced a photo album we often looked at with a People magazine from the 90’s, a smiling Princess Di featured on the front cover. “Oh they are all family, of course,” Liliana assured me of the celebrity strangers. “And they all are college-educated.” I spent one day listening to her explain her stress about a student and a letter she needed to send. She was stuck decades ago, some argument with a student was plaguing her mind. She oscillates in her mental acuity, each day brings a different level of conversation.
I continued to check in on Mona after visiting Liliana. Not to stay, but to simply walk in and say hello, mention the weather, and continue on my day. I stand in front of her chair, touch her hand briefly, and try to come up with one-way conversation topics.
I come away from Rosemont feeling increasingly unconnected to the women I have gone to visit. One connection was severed sharply, and I go once a week to stand in front of a chair in which I once too felt useful and welcome. The other connection is trailing away slowly. The change between week to week is not measurable, and can only be seen by reflection to the first few visits. I see these women as slowly untethering their connection not only to me, but to their memories, their families, the Earth. I have witnessed the slow preparation of seasoned minds for their next journey.