The following story was written shortly before COVID-19 turned the world upside-down. Please read it to the end: a postscript brings us up-to-date.
Good Friends: A Morning at Hospice
“Come in,” Brenda says, and the door opens. It’s Ruth, a Talbot Hospice aide, bringing Brenda her morning meds. Big hellos are shared, then Ruth walks over to Brenda’s fridge and gets out a container of chocolate milk and pours a tall glass, with ice, for Brenda, who is sitting up on her bed.
Brenda says thanks and starts up a conversation. ”Did you know the Bible says that your name means “beauty” and “friendship”? They chat for a bit and, then Ruth reaches out for a hug, Brenda hugs back and calls her “sweetheart.” After they say their good-byes, Brenda starts to tell her story. Hers has not been an easy life.
“When I first came here, I didn’t think I would make any friends,” Brenda shares. “Who would want to get close to someone who isn’t going to be around for very long?”
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the six weeks she has been in Hospice House, Brenda, 52, has forged warm relationships with the aides, nurses, social workers, chaplain. “I’ve tried to learn everyone’s name. It is respectful to call people by their names” (It also helps friendships grow fast.)
“The people here—the angels—love me and comfort me. They spoil me. They give me hope to continue. Their smiles lift me. They are my friends.”
Brenda came to Hospice after a two-week stay at the hospital, where she was diagnosed with advance-stage ovarian cancer that had spread to her stomach. She refused chemotherapy. “I wanted quality of life, not necessarily quantity.”
Brenda’s room is a cheery place. You can’t miss the collage of photographs, more than two dozen, on the wall. “They are mostly family—my three children, seven grandchildren, parents [her mother is an ordained minister], grandparents, great grandparents. There is even a shot of my ex-husband,” she says, smiling. “My journey here has brought trickles of forgiveness and so much love. It is hard to explain sometimes the way the Lord works in bringing gratitude and healing.”
“Come in,” Brenda says. This time it is Susan, a Talbot Hospice social worker who has come to see how she’s doing. In no time flat they are chatting like old friends, talking about Susan’s necklace and hairstyles and how they both have curly hair. On a past visit, Susan brought her a hair product for her to try. A success! That morning Brenda’s hair is up in a ponytail. She looks like a young woman.
“How did you sleep last night?” Susan asks.
“Good!” Indeed, instead of getting up every hour or two, often the case, she slept for seven hours straight. “I feel really well-rested,” Brenda tells her.
A prolific writer, Brenda has a notebook on her lap, a gift from Lindy, also a Hospice social worker. “I write letters to the nurses, to the aides, to Jesus.” And to her four-year-old grandson. “Lindy asked me to write down what I would tell him on his 13th birthday. Eugenie, the chaplain, suggested I write down what I would say to my oldest son, who is 35, when he turns 50. What wisdom would I share with him?”
Brenda was born in Fairfax, Virginia, “on the first day of spring, in 1967. There was a snowstorm that day.” As a child she twirled a baton, a skill that earned her the title of “Miss Dynamic” in 1976. She dropped out of high school in her senior year because she’d gotten pregnant. Straightaway she began working as a secretary for her father’s company, Anderson and Knight. She worked there for seven years.
“I loved that job—and every other job I have ever had.” She has worked as a caterer, bartender, fine-dining server, and travel agency staffer. Her last job was running a bar and diner, putting in 14-hour shifts. It was during this stint that her COPD and rheumatoid disease, among other illnesses, caught up with her.
In 2014 she was declared officially disabled. She would receive a monthly check ($832.50) and could rent an apartment ($725 a month). To eat, she relied on St. Vincent de Paul and the food pantry. When the building she lived in was sold, she was without a home.
At one point she lived in her car, then in a church, and finally in a friend’s tiny trailer. “I was grateful to have a roof over my head. Through it all she took showers at the YMCA. She had become a member when she was living in her car.
“Come in, Brenda says. Aide Cheryl, who calls Brenda “darling,” places a breakfast tray on the table next to the bed. “Scrambled eggs and toast. I love it!” Brenda says. Brenda uses the word “love” a lot. It tells of her exuberance—and her deep spirituality. “I believe it was the Lord that got me to Hospice,” she says. “By the grace of God I am in a place that is all about love.”
Brenda wants everyone to know just how extraordinary Hospice is. She hopes to help further the mission by sharing her story and encouraging generosity. “I want to give back,” she says. When people ask if they can send her flowers, she asks them to instead send a donation to Hospice. Several checks in her name already have come in. “No flowers; just donations!” she says. “This is a place of angels, and I get to ride on their wings. This is my Hospice Highway to Heaven. I am blessed, so blessed.”
Late-April postscript: Due to CDC guidelines and Governor Hogan’s declaration, Brenda had to celebrate her birthday with her children, grandchildren, and mother via telephone. Typical for her, Brenda was more concerned with how this at-a-distance gathering affected her family rather than how it affected her. To help them to feel better, she let them know that what truly matters is that “we love each other. I told them they will always have my love,” she says. Brenda continues to get together regularly with Susan (her social worker) and Eugenie (the Hospice chaplain) by phone. “I love talking to them. They are my friends.”
By Sheila F. Buckmaster, Talbot Hospice Volunteer