I’ve recently realized that all of the most significant people in my life, arrived from the stars...
This story is in memory of Blanche and Evangeline…
Blanche, now she was a fire-cracker! Fire-cracker…that word makes me smile. Within just weeks of learning about Hospice Care, I was trained as a volunteer. Before being assigned my first patient, I got a call from Linda, the friend that had introduced me to Hospice asking if I would visit a woman she was scheduled with.
I arrived at the door of the apartment with much apprehension. I had no idea who this woman was or what to expect. A man in his early 40’s opened the door. He had a dish towel flung over his shoulder, sweat on his brow and a huge smile of welcome on his face. He inhaled me into the apartment and gestured towards a sofa that enveloped a tiny waif of a woman. Her thin back was turned and she was wearing a knitted cap. “That’s mom,” he motioned. I was a little shocked as he quickly dried his hands and walked out the door. “See you in four hours,” he announced. I stood there, not quite sure what to do. The apartment was tiny, dark, and smelled of fried food. The light above the sink was on and I could see the unfinished dishes. There was laundry in a basket, a table full of mail and medication. Chaos and overwhelm. I sat in a chair and waited.
It wasn’t long and she began to stir. I didn’t want to startle this delicate woman, so said nothing. She rolled over, saw me and flung off the cover. She swung upright, revealing that one of her legs was amputated just below the knee. Then, with the glowing face of an angel, said in a raspy, clearly mischievous, voice: “And who do we have here?” The entire room lit up and I’m sure my eyes were like saucers as I introduced myself, but there was barely a moment of discomfort as we fell into conversation. Her name was Blanche. I was smitten. After only two visits, Blanche decided to go one more round with chemo, which meant she wouldn’t qualify for Hospice. I was already devoted. Our routine began. In between heartwarming conversations, I might clean up the kitchen, whip up some liver and onions, freshen the bed, or do a load of laundry, I carried in the scent of the outdoors and told her stories. I’d bring little treats, sometimes flowers from my garden. Once a crazy set of bright blue sheets with fish, outgrown by my daughter. I opened the window and washed despair down the drain. She took great pleasure catching me off guard, once with, “You know, you don’t need to match my socks.”
One day, she had no change for the washer and sent me up the hall to a friend’s apartment. “Her name is Evangeline.” She said, “Tell her I said she’d be good for quarters.” So, I knocked on the door of apartment 216 and a white-haired little lady opened the door. I shyly followed Blanche’s instructions, and she gleefully replied, “Oh, I’m good for quarters, am I? A trio was formed.
I brought them out to my home and we’d sit out on the deck overlooking our pond, admiring the horizon, with cheese, crackers, and a glass of wine. “The Life of Riley,” Evangeline would say. We watched the fireworks, visited with our animals and once, even planted a raised bed garden together. I helped Blanche get up out of her wheelchair so she could sit on the timber edge. “This is the closest I’ve been to dirt in a long time!” she said with her contagious smile. When chemo was no longer working she was moved to assisted living and after just a couple of months died October 20, 2001, on my mother’s birthday. Evangeline and I attended her funeral together.
After Blanche died, Evangeline and I amazingly, had over six more years. “I’m going to the country” she would announce to the elders sitting in the lobby. She was approaching 90 by that time…with her white hat, light blue denim capris and a sweater, “just in case”. She loved going out to the horse barn to visit Dakota and Contessa, and the cats, Don Juan and Azzip, who she insisted on calling ‘Susie’. She would tell me about the horse that they had owned when she was a girl that she tried to ride. “He would walk right next to the fence and try to wipe me off the saddle,” she would say indignantly. “A really bad horse.” She adored her father and her husband, Wally, her soul mate of over 50 years, and shared her favorite story about a road trip they took out west. She was determined to bring home some cactus, despite his disapproval. She chuckled with pleasure as she remembered, “He cursed them every time we needed something from the trunk…damned cactus,” She had one living brother, a published writer, whom she was so very proud. Every year, she’d impatiently wait for the family holiday plan. I would reassure her, “Don’t worry, if they invite you for Christmas Eve, you’ll be with us Christmas Day.” One year, we were surprised to get a call from her nephew just before Christmas dinner. “Is Evangeline with you?”, he asked. They drove all the way out to our home that winters night…
One unforgettable adventure we shared was on a scorching August day. I was pulling cattails from the pond and she was sitting in a chair with her toes in the water. Evangeline didn’t swim. She had fallen off a boat with a winter coat on as a child. “I nearly drown,” she told me, with the fear still in her eyes. I totally respected her trepidation, but could also see she was gazing wistfully at one of our floating chaise lounges. I set it on the edge of the little beach area, half in the water. She plopped down in the webbed seat and nodded yes. I gently pulled her in and with my flippers on, we toured the entire perimeter. “The life of Riley, yup, this is the Life of Riley” she said with the cutest lilt and irresistible chuckle, over and over, dipping her fingers in the water over the arm rest. She was family.
Then, the call. Evangeline had fallen during the night. A neighbor found her after hours on the floor with a broken hip. I rushed to the hospital. They were moving her from a cart to a bed, saying “yes, it’s going to hurt”, pulling the curtain closed between us. I talked to Evangeline through that curtain. “Vangie, it’s ok, you can yell if you need to.”
Her nephew and I became partners with her care. Recuperation was going amazingly well. She was walking up steps and making great progress. Then the day came that he dutifully explained to her that she should sign a do-not-resuscitate form. She didn’t understand. “Yes, I would want them to try to save me,” she said with a nod. He described the vigorous pumping they might need to do. As he spoke, her eyes filled with tears, her shoulders slumped. I couldn’t help it…I was upset. We still had plans! It was the beginning of the end.
I was the first to arrive. She had died alone. I kissed her warm, silky face, my tears on her cheeks, calling her name gently. My Evangeline, 93 years, forever young, passed away on my daughter’s birthday, April 13, 2007.
As plans were made, I was saddened to hear that her brother was planning no eulogy. For my own solace, I wrote one. As I shook her brother’s hand the morning of the funeral, I meekly asked if he would reconsider, that I was saddened at the thought of nothing being said about her. “Do you have something you could say?” he asked. I nodded.
As I looked out over the faces in the pews, I began, “I don’t know the Evangeline you knew, but let me tell you about my Vangie. She was a proud, stubborn Norwegian and her favorite color was blue.”