Who touched me?

by Susan Martersteck

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.

Walking down the hall toward the bedrooms I saw wonderful family pictures that helped expand my view. I would slip down the hallway to the kitchen and back with a drink or snack for us. Passing, I would be reminded who the hunter or runner in the family was. Pictures of older family members also graced the gallery. But most touching were the family pictures from "before." Mary had been beautiful, with long, curly honey-colored hair. In one, she was wearing something special, surrounded by her husband and child. This was my favorite, but bittersweet to others who had known her "before."

Many of our conversations centered on children. Children, in general, are a mask for the very specific. Our children are the same age. We shared the antics of our three eight-year-olds. They represent a cross section of all second graders. Their laughter and their anger colored the pictures of our stories. We never said we loved them. They simply are the center of our universe. One major theme concerned what was normal behavior. Is it ok for them to be so angry? We don't remember our own childhood anger. It comes like huge cloud bursts and fades away as quickly. Sometimes children aren't even sure why they are so upset. Mothers know.

Another topic of conversation was letting go. As parents, we understand that letting go should be a gradual process. First we let them out of our sight for a few moments. Later they are allowed to walk to the neighbor's house, but only on the same side of the street. It is hard to let go, especially when your own grasp is so fragile. We felt the pain in saying all right to an overnight with friends. We have had so few nights without our children. Perhaps they need a night without us.

One day I brought Mary some Chinese food for lunch. I was trying to whet her appetite, to keep her strong. We sat and talked. At this meal we opened the door to our spiritual beliefs and supports. It can be a great comfort in difficult times and a gentle blessing on the "good" days. It was important that her family was connected to a church community. They had searched as a family to find the right fit, the place of connection for each of them.

It was the spiritual side of her that I was drawn to. As a list maker and a task-oriented person, I find it easy to relate to the practicalities of daily life. Unpacking boxes, now that is something you can really get your teeth into. Faith and hope seemed so naturally a part of her life. How do you sustain either one? Does faith go hand in hand with hope? I'm sure there were dark days when doubts cast shadows. What a wondrous thing it was to see the expression of Mary's trust and love of God reflected in her attitude and strength to get out of bed each day. Being a private person, she did not speak of this directly, but it was transmitted through accounts of experiences or relationships with other people.

So we munched our way through tiny spoonfuls of cashew chicken while we touched universal truths. It came time for our fortune cookies. I had brought them for a touch of fun, light-hearted messages about our luck or good fortune. Mary's fortune referred to her soon seeing things from the other side. It was cryptic; we both knew where she was going. It hadn't occurred to me to edit the fortune cookies.

The conversations flowed, with very few mentions of death. It was the shadow cast upon each word. It was the unknown and the definite. We continued to fold laundry and share our plans for the weekend. There was never a time without plans or things to be done. We shared birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Mother's Day, Father's Day and a vacation. Even in her final days, there were things to do. She would still have a trip home, packing, planning, arrangements to be made. There was always a tomorrow.

After each visit, I would go home and give my children an extra hug, just because. I would look around my house and be filled with a sense of urgency. There is so much to do. Mary and I are close to the same age. She had three years to do battle with her disease. Time to fight and pray and hope. There was always hope.

Life is constantly changing. Each time I said good-bye, I realized it might be for the last time. Perhaps I would be the one to die. A fatal car crash or some other disaster could take my life. My family would be unprepared. My drawers are a mess. The bills are not paid. Did I say I love you?