Willie R. was a 61-year-old gentleman who had suffered a major stroke and had additional health challenges. The request for a volunteer was to do respite visits on Thursday afternoons so his wife Ms. Anna could go shopping and visit her mother.
After calling the patient’s wife, I stopped by briefly the day before my first visit to introduce myself and have a chance to meet Mr. Willie. Ms. Anna explained that her husband would probably not talk much and that he might sleep the entire four hours I was to be present, but she hoped I could sit in the bedroom with him to make sure he remained safe.
I was a bit concerned as to how I would handle sitting in the darkened room for that long without dozing off since it would not be possible to read. I was, however, willing to give my best. As it turned out, the hours I spent sitting with Mr. Willie became a wonderful time of quiet reflection. He would on rare occasions open his eyes briefly. I would greet him and he would go back to sleep without any comment. It seemed that perhaps he was checking to see if I was still there. Only one time did he talk and that was to ask me where his wife was. I responded the she was out doing grocery shopping and that she would be back at 5:00 p.m. He went straight back to sleep.
After several weeks of this routine, I was taken aback one Thursday when Mr. Willie spoke to me soon after his wife left. He said, “Turn on the light.” For a moment, I was completely taken aback. I actually stumbled out of the chair and turned on the light. Next he told me to fetch a couple of photo albums from the living room. He was very clear as to exactly where I would find the albums. I did as instructed and returned to the bedroom to find Mr. Willie wide awake and, as I found out, very eager to talk. He had me open the albums and as we perused the pictures, he shared the fact that he had been a long-distance truck driver. The pictures in these albums were from a trip he made from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington. He had taken pictures all along the way and in great detail described each picture. Mr. Willie was on a roll and I asked questions only here and there.
After we finished looking at the pictures, Mr. Willie shared details of his life. His mother was a minister and he, starting as a young boy, would play the piano for worship services. I asked what hymns he played and he responded, “All of the old gospel hymns; 'Amazing Grace,' "Blessed Assurance," "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.'” He listed several more. I asked him if he remembered any of the lyrics of the hymns. “Of course I do,” he replied. We ended up singing a couple of stanzas of the hymns and we had a great time harmonizing. It was absolutely delightful. And then, Mr. Willie asked me what time it was, and when I reported that it was getting close to the time that his wife would return, he instructed me to take the photo albums back to the living room. When I returned to the bedroom, his simple instruction was: “Turn out the light.” I did and Mr. Willie turned over and went back to sleep.
When Ms. Anna returned, I shared the details of the visit and what a special visit it was. Her response was, “Really? He told you all that?”
In subsequent visits, it was back to normal; Mr. Willie asleep and me enjoying solitude and quiet reflection. That continued until he died. As I think back on my visits with Willie, I feel very blessed. Sitting with him allowed me to enjoy solitude and quiet reflection. And then there was that amazing day when he shared details of his life. As a hospice volunteer, you never know what wonderful experiences will come your way.
-by Steven B., volunteer