After I lost my sight, and before I started writing, I volunteered for hospice.
Strike that. I should say, I trained to volunteer for hospice. After I completed the training, the agency was reluctant to assign me a patient. My Seeing Eye dog might scare a patient, they said. I might inadvertently knock over bedside medications. “We have a patient now who we thought about assigning to you, Beth, but he sleeps on an air mattress,” they said. How would you be able to tell when the mattress needed more air?” I calmly reminded them I still had my sense of touch. “I don’t know, Beth,” the hospice administrator continued. “We’re just afraid the families might see you as needier than they are.”
Later, I trained as a bereavement counselor and was assigned a woman in a nursing home. The other hospice volunteers had signed up for hospice because they wanted to visit patients in their homes. None of them wanted to work with Gladys.
My first Seeing Eye dog Dora learned quickly which room Gladys was in, and Gladys quickly became the most popular patient on her wing: she was the only one who had a dog visiting her once a week. Gladys loved a good joke, and she enjoyed talking about the past, particularly her childhood. Her husband had just died, and when I asked her questions about him she’d answer politely, change the subject, talk about her three children (and her beloved grandson Ben) instead. Gladys loved a good audience, and she had one in me.
On my visits to Gladys I’d often run into her youngest daughter Nancy, who was a nurse at a local hospital. Nancy took to walking Dora and me out of the nursing home, sometimes lingering with me on a corner just to talk. We became friends, and when Gladys died Nancy asked me to speak at the funeral.
Nancy and her partner Steven are coming to visit us in Chicago this weekend. They visit often, and we always, always have a terrific time together. When Hanni and I take the train down to Urbana, we stay at Steven and Nancy’s. To be specific, we stay in Gladys’ room. It’s a totally handicapped accessible room with it’s own bathroom — Steven and Nancy provided it for Gladys so she could move out of the Urbana nursing home before she died.
When I tell people how I met my friend Nancy, some react with an old cliché. Everything happens for a reason, they say. Really? The hospice agency was ignorant about my abilities, and then Nancy’s father died, and Gladys’ MS got bad enough to land her in a nursing home just so I’d meet Nancy? I don’t buy it. An omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force would find some other way. I find it more comforting to think there is not some God-like force making bad things happen to us.
My friendship with Nancy is precious, but it cannot possibly make sense of the suffering her mom went through. Or the suffering her family went through as Gladys’ MS progressed. The reasons Nancy and I are friends? Because Nancy was good to her mom, because I didn’t let ignorance keep me from volunteering, because Gladys loved her family and because we all were open to letting strangers into our lives.
This weekend, when Nancy and I lift a glass (or too) at the local tavern, we’ll toast to Gladys. We miss her, and we celebrate that her spirit lives on through our friendship. Gladys: Here’s to you.