Hospice patient shows selflessness in the midst of her suffering

Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The first time I met Rebecca she asked me, "Do you play Scrabble? Because if you do, you have to come play with my mom and auntie." I told her I loved to play, and we made a date to meet at her mother's house later in the week.

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I was the first to arrive that day. I rang the bell nervously, hoping I had written down the address correctly. The woman who answered the door stood less than five feet tall and seemed delighted to see me.

"I'm Lola. My sister Lois is in the other room. Come say hello. We have the Scrabble board all set up," she said in her sweet, soft voice. She held my hand as we walked into a sunny room that was brightened even further by several pots of blooming African violets.

I'd noticed the sound of the oxygen concentrator when I'd walked in, so I wasn't surprised to see Lois tethered to the whirring machine by a long line of clear tubing. I was surprised to see that Lois was Lola's identical twin. Between gasps, Lois told me that she suffered from pulmonary fibrosis; then she told me that she planned to kick my butt at Scrabble. It would be the first of many afternoons spent pitting my spelling prowess against that of the feisty Lois and gentle Lola.

Lois's condition began to deteriorate not long after we met, and within a couple of months she became a hospice patient. I was the volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau at the time, so I was grateful to be able to support Lois and her family as both a friend and a hospice employee.

Visiting Lois - and Lola - was always a joy. I was hugged the minute I walked through the door and many more times before I said good-bye. As sick as she was, Lois never complained. Her severe shortness of breath could be overwhelming and frightening at times, but she always managed to find her way to a place of gratitude and grace. It would have been easy for her to become preoccupied by her illness, but she continued to care deeply about the welfare of others. Lois always made sure I knew how much she appreciated my friendship and would thank me for my visits. She often asked if there was anything she and Lola could do for me.

"Lois, you're doing something for me just by being you. You are an inspiration to me."

Lois flapped her hand at me, dismissing my sentiments, her mouth covered by the mask of the nebulizer.

"Don't you flap your hand at me! I mean it, Lois, you're my hero."

She pulled the mask away long enough to say, "I just don't want to be a burden on anyone."

I held her in a sideways hug and said, "You are not a burden; you are a blessing."

Shortly before her death, Lois spent a couple of nights in the hospital. I visited one evening and was happy to see her alert and relaxed. Her breathing seemed easier and she had a little color in her face.

"Did you have a good day?" she asked. "How's that husband of yours? What's he up to?"

I smiled at her ever-present thoughtfulness. "We're both fine, Lois. How are you?"

"I miss Lola, but besides that I'm okay. Looking forward to going home."

That evening I curled up on the bed with Lois, our kneecaps kissing, and we talked for a couple of hours. It was a relief to see her less in distress. She told me stories about her life - touching on the bad times, but, as always, focusing on the good.

I visited Lois the day she died. Her breathing was the worst I'd seen it and she seemed to be moving towards death. I volunteered to do a couple of essential errands for the family, so they could stay by her side. I kissed Lois good-bye and told her that I loved her. I turned to leave, but stopped when I realized that she was trying to tell me something.

"Is there anything we can do for George?"

George was a fellow Scrabble player who was being discharged from the hospital that day; I was on my way to pick him up and drive him home.

Lois's concern, in the midst of her personal suffering, astonished me. Yet, at the same time, the moment so clearly revealed the dazzling beauty of her essential self.

• Mary Cook lives in Gustavus and is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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