By: Sue Stinson, Visiting Volunteer
Originally published in the August 2016 Ontario Caregiver Coalition (OCC) Newsletter. Sue and Kay’s sister Tracey have given permission for the story to be published by Hospice Peterborough.
It was a week or so before Christmas and I packed up my bag of goodies and set off to meet my new client. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I brought my adult colouring books, markers, coloured pencils, finger labyrinth, hand held labyrinth, worry egg and a smile. When I got to the garden home at the seniors residence, I knocked and a thin voice welcomed me in.
I’ll never forget that small body, blanketed in her lounge chair, her voice was weak and she was tired and unwell. During this first visit, she was not able to get up and move around comfortably or speak much louder than a whisper, but she took command of the room and I soon found myself flustered and reciting my resume trying desperately to come up with a credible response to her question, “What can you do for me?”
“Well, I have been volunteering with Hospice for about 5 years and have worked in counselling for over 30… I worked at Hospice for a while assisting their ED and for a few months filling in for her…”
Nothing seemed to be impressing her.
“I brought some things that might interest you?,” I entreated lamely as I pulled out various colouring books.
“Oh yes, I have one of those, someone brought me, but I don’t really use it. It’s supposed to be relaxing, isn’t it?”
I took the hint and packed them up.
“How about labyrinths, have you heard of them?” I asked hopefully.
“Oh yes, I have walked many.” She responded as she accepted the small brass 12-circuit model. After a few minutes, she let me know this wasn’t working for her so we moved on to the hand-painted finger labyrinth. Again, this didn’t do the trick and when the worry egg also failed, I told her we were just down to me and my sparkling conversation. Somehow we found our way into a conversation that would last about nine months and cover dreams, memories, family and the ever looming question of “had I found a house yet?”
It was a struggle at first for her to fit me in between chemo appointments and after-chemo sick days. Finally I asked her how she was getting to chemo. When she said that she took a $7 cab ride there and back (about two kms away once a week), I found my in! And thus began the adventures of Thelma and Louise. Okay, no Grand Canyon jumps or robberies, but sometimes when we “did errands” after chemo, we were late for dinner! Every Wednesday, we managed to add some little adventure to her appointment; shopping for some new spring/summer clothes, dropping off income tax information, stopping for a cup of tea by Little Lake or just driving around. At the end of each trip, she would hug me and say with such earnestness, “this was a good day.”
Over the months, she constantly pushed herself to walk farther, or faster or without the use of her walker. She had very strong opinions on what clothes were appropriate and what colours suited her. One day while walking down by the water where she would often recount past Hikes for Hospice and pause to remember former members of “the group”, I wrapped my purple scarf around her neck. She was delighted having found a new colour that suited her.
When fractures in her femur resulted in what would be her final trip to hospital, we continued our visits there, sometimes taking a break from the rehab unit telling the nurse that we “might” be back, looking down on the courtyard labyrinth, rolling through the rooftop garden outside palliative care or having a cool drink in the cafeteria. Kay always was on top of her game, remembering each medication and when it would need to be taken again, feeling frustrated that the doctor’s weren’t responding to her quickly enough, mostly frustrated with herself not being able to get up and walk like she used to.
To combat her frustration one day, I asked her what she felt was really important to her? “To get back to Royal Gardens,” was her response. So we decided she would need to be able to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom using her walker, once there she would then need to be able to stand long enough to wash her face and brush her teeth. We set a plan for Thelma’s next adventure and she worked really hard to try to accomplish this goal. But it was not to be.
As long as I had known her she talked about wanting a party. She would be 80 this September but didn’t imagine that she would live till her birthday. So this became our next goal. I told her about the theme parties I had been throwing for my mother including funny headwear, food and goody bags, and she quickly enlisted me as an aid to her sister to get this party organized. One day, she was particularly down about how little progress she was making physically, so I left her with an assignment – she had to pick theme colours for the party. When I came back a couple of days later, she smiled and said, “yellow and blue.” A few calls with her sister and niece and a low key party complete with balloons, colourful plates and napkins, her favourite carrot cake and wine took place in her room in the palliative care unit. As Kay would have said – it was a good day! Bright and very aware of all the festivities, Kay received her guests, cut her cake and beamed with delight! As I hugged her goodbye that day, I said, “Thelma, you put on quite a party.” She just held me extra-long and whispered, “thanks Louise.”
The next few visits were quiet, with mostly me talking or making offers of sips of water or pushes to the rooftop garden or the window overlooking the labyrinth, which were all refused. Our last adventures were quietly holding hands listening to the strength of her breathing. When her family called to tell me she died, there were tears, but so much gratitude at having had the chance to meet her and be a small part of her life.