Last January I contacted a hospice agency about volunteering with my dog, Liberty. There are other hospice agencies that serve my area and I don’t remember why I chose the one I did. I was surprised when I received a response to my online application from a woman I had known professionally for many years but, hadn’t seen for a very long time. It turned out that she was working as the volunteer coordinator for the hospice agency’s local office.
Our professional relationship had been limited to a once a year meeting to review the grant that the agency for which Jean was then employed received through my office. We also had an occasional phone call. It’s a small community so sometimes we would see each other at meetings related to health and human services issues. I liked her and I appreciated her work ethic and professional attitude but, I didn’t know anything about her on a personal level.
Fast forward about 11 or 12 years. Through my volunteer work with the hospice agency I had frequent contact with Jean and I grew to appreciate her in a whole new light. She still demonstrated the same professional attitude and work ethic I had admired in the past but I had the opportunity to get to know her as a person. I began to appreciate her sense of humor, intelligence and sensitivity. We discovered that we shared some unique similarities – one being that we both immigrated with our parents to the United States from Yorkshire, England, when we were children. She on the Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and me on the Queen Mary in 1955.
A few months after I started volunteering, Jean was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had surgery and chemotherapy and ended up being out of work for nearly 5 months. Just a few short weeks after returning to work, Jean was told that the cancer had been discovered in another location and she would have to undergo 6 weeks of treatment. One day a week of chemotherapy and 5 days of radiation at the Mayo hospital over an hour away. I asked what I could do to help and she said that the trip each day was going to be a major challenge because her significant other couldn’t lose that much time from work. I offered to drive 2 days a week and, along with two other friends and her significant other, we covered the daily trips.
Those long drives, under difficult circumstances, gave Jean and me the time to get to know each other. We learned that we have a lot in common; some in shared experiences and some in our personalities. She gets my dry, sarcastic, sometimes self-deprecating English sense of humor – and so few do! We’re both strong, independent women who find it difficult to ask for help so I know how hard it has been to let go of control and let the people who care about her offer their support. She talked about the side effects from the treatments and from the medications she had to take. She was never whiny or felt sorry for herself – she just wanted to be able to talk about what she was going through. We’re in the habit now of sending each other brief emails almost every day (like me, she’s not a big “phone person”) and I appreciate the glimpses into whatever she’s thinking about in that moment. As I saw her confront each new challenge the disease brought, my admiration and respect for her grew. I hope I never have cancer but, if I do, I hope I can find somewhere inside me the strong, positive attitude and faith in God that Jean has. I know she has her crying times and her angry times but they don’t last long and they certainly don’t define her. What defines her is faith, humor, optimism, generosity, gratitude, capacity to find joy in everyday things, perseverance, love of nature, and a kind heart.
I have decided that being a hospice volunteer isn’t right for me. I really wanted it to be right because I felt like something had called me to do it but, sometimes when you step back, you can see a bigger picture. I believe that God brings people and experiences into our lives for specific reasons so maybe my reason for being called to that particular agency at that particular time was to reconnect with Jean. We were each in need of a good friend in whom we could confide and trust and, amazingly, that’s what we got. Live long and prosper, my friend.
Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit. ~Aristotle
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