Evelyn Watson has a special gift – she is a hospice volunteer, providing companionship in the final time of life for people who have no nearby family or friends. Reflecting on her relationship with Vivian, Evelyn recalls her sense of guilt and joy over reconnecting with someone she had first visited as a friend. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns It had been seven months since I last visited Vivian. Now I’m returning as her hospice volunteer. We met early in the year of 2003 on the patio at Willow Lake. She was waiting for someone to feed her lunch, being unable to do so by herself, when I began to feed her.
Vivian was not a hospice patient then. She had multiple sclerosis, MS, and was a permanent resident of Willow Lake. In our exchange of words she invited me to visit her room to view her paintings. That was the beginning of an enjoyable friendship for both of us.
I began to visit her and Lemuel, her faithful companion, each week when I came to visit my hospice patient, and continued to visit them long after my patient expired. I stopped my visits after a period of time, visiting those who were my assigned patients at other facilities. I left Vivian behind.
Vivian, confined and helpless on her bed, now was no longer able to process memory or converse in the same way she had when we met – when we laughed and talked about life’s adventures. Returning now as Vivian’s hospice volunteer, she knew who I was but no longer remembered my name.
I asked where Lem was. She said Lem had died. I was shocked and overcome with guilt because I had not been there for her. Embarrassed by my long absence and feeling sorrow for her loss, along with guilt, I was at a loss for words, feeling that I had let her down.
I asked if I could sit with her and she replied, “There is no one else I’d rather have.” I knew she held no grievances toward me for my long absence. We exchanged few words. I experienced a silence that echoed conviction, as though a judge had pronounced sentence, producing an overwhelming weight upon me.
Vivian told me many times during our friendship that Lem was the best thing to happen to her. I knew life had ended for her with Lem’s death. Loneliness was now her companion. She was left deserted as a summer schoolyard without the laughter of children, motionless and lifeless as her impending death.
I watched her in silence, wanting to hear what she felt. Volunteering had taught me to listen, and I had listened as her friend many times, never thinking I would listen one last time as her hospice volunteer. I learned many things about Vivian through our visits both from her spoken words and her silence. A picture of her mother on her bedside table had always been a painful subject that Vivian didn’t care to discuss.
Feelings often speak loudest in silence and that is where bonds occur. Together we sat, listening to the silence and I knew our friendship had given each of us something lasting. There was no condemnation from her. The silence set me free.
When I told her it was time for me to go, she said, “That’s all I ever hear from you.” I knew what she meant from previous visits when Lem went home for the day while I lingered longer. She never really wanted me to leave even when Lem was there, maybe because I made her laugh and talked more than he did.
Being confined to bed was hard for her to accept; much different from the days when she was free to roam wherever she pleased in her electric chair. Yet she seemed always aware that life would never be better, realistically accepting her fate, acting as though it didn’t really matter, but I knew it did. She asked for no pity and expected nothing from anyone, but I recognized that there was a deep sadness within her.
Vivian displayed toughness and strength outwardly, but it was only a thin covering, and often the rawness of her heart was exposed. Many times I told her that she reminded me of a toasted marshmallow – somewhat crusty on the outside, but soft inside. She would smile as though she was pleased that I could see through her hard shell and into the tenderness inside that she tried to keep so well hidden.
It was hard for her watching Lem go home each day, even though she knew he would return the following morning. I hated leaving her in loneliness when he went home before I did. Normal life functioning had ended for Vivian long ago, slipping away a little at a time.
She and Lem had gone to Hawaii and had some good times together even with her MS, until the day came when he was no longer able to care for her at home. Although they had never married, he became her advocate to see that she was properly cared for with respect and dignity – but more than that, he loved her and she loved him.
Vivian started painting after she became handicapped with MS and where she met Lem. She was awed by her own paintings. Everyone was. They were masterfully beautiful, and when we talked about them, tears exposed the tenderness of her heart. Somehow those paintings gave Vivian the sense of worthiness she felt she needed, and she found comfort in them. She was never quite sure of God’s love for her. Yet, through her paintings, God revealed His love for her in an extraordinary way, and without realizing it, she was touched by God through them.
I wasn’t prepared for Vivian’s death, just as I wasn’t prepared for Lem’s. This unexpected visit became the last goodbye. Although I thought of Vivian many times after I quit going to see her, I failed to return until someone’s request brought me back into her life one more time.
What resulted in that last visit is a mystery. I never knew who asked that I return to be her volunteer. It wasn’t Lem, and it couldn’t have been her family who I had never met. Vivian’s family had little time for her, leaving Lem to take care of their responsibilities.
My hope is that those many months that I did visit Vivian gave her some comfort and brought some sunshine to her life. As she listened to my words of God’s love, I hope I gave her some hope of the love of God that is awaiting her. I was never sure she understood or was able to accept that love for herself. Yet, I was privileged to share that message with her each time we discussed the marvelous paintings God painted with her handicapped hands.
Published: Nov. 20, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 32