The Threads That Bind
My leisure retirement, often spent writing or accompanying my husband to a local casino, left a significant void in my life. I yearned for a sense of purpose. As I skimmed a list of volunteer opportunities in my local newspaper, my eyes settled on two words, Story Keeper. I paused to read more. Story Keepers capture the meaningful moments of a patient’s life. The simple description intrigued me as I’d always dreamed of writing life stories of other people.
As enticing as the opportunity sounded, the thought of volunteering with a hospice care organization weighed heavily on my mind. The pain of watching my mother die a slow, difficult death made me question my ability to keep my emotions under control. I wasn’t sure I was ready for a task involving the potential death of a loved one. I cut out the contact information and let the thought simmer.
The clipping remained visible near my laptop for the next two weeks, tugging at my heart and urging me to act. Finally, I picked up the phone and called the manager of volunteer services listed in the ad.
“I may be interested in the Story Keeper position. Can you tell me more about it?”
“We’re looking for someone to record the life story of a hospice patient for their family to keep as a legacy after the patient passes.”
“Oh,” I felt a hint of disappointment. “I’m not adept at electronic things, more pen to paper.”
“Why don’t you come in and talk further about it? It’s a new position. We can work through the details. And while it doesn’t involve writing, you never know where the journey will lead you. Maybe it was meant for you.”
The charismatic manager’s reassuring words urged me to make a leap of faith. I met with her to learn more. Within two weeks, I’d completed all the prerequisites: TB tests, study guides about working with hospice patients, and Hepatitis injections.
It wasn’t long before I was assigned my first visit. I studied the manual that came with the small, hand-held recorder. Since I was the first person to fill the position, training had been minimal. The anxiety and nervousness I anticipated never surfaced. Instead, an unexpected tranquility about the process made me excited to get started.
“The patient is hesitant to make the recording.” My manager warned me on the drive to his home. “The wife is urging him to make the recording. I thought you should know before we get there.”
The patient’s wife greeted us at the door and invited us in. The man, already seated in a recliner, extended his hand and nodded as he studied my face.
My manager made introductions and a brief explanation for our visit. The man frowned and grumbled, pursing his lips. Then it was my turn to speak. I wanted to help him relax and feel comfortable about the recording.
“We’re just going to talk today. I’d like to get to know you and your wife.”
“Ok.” The tense lines around the man’s eyes eased.
“Did you grow up in Florissant?” I smiled and tilted my head awaiting his response.
“Jennings. I went to Corpus Christi grade school.”
“I know that school. I attended St. Paul the Apostle. We were practically neighbors.”
“I went to St. Paul’s!” His wife announced with excitement. “Oh my goodness! You’re Diane Hootselle. I saw the resemblance to your mother when you first arrived, but couldn’t place who you were.”
My eyes welled with tears at the mention of my mother. I was unable to say anything for fear I’d start crying.
“I’m your grandmother’s niece. We’re cousins. I grew up two blocks from you.”
I realized that I knew her parents well, but because of our age difference, our paths had not crossed except briefly at funerals or weddings. The emotional journey over the next hour was overwhelming and rewarding. The wonderful stories about my mother, who was an only child, and her distant cousins with whom I had lost touch over the years, brought such joy to my heart, I left the visit feeling like I was given a gift, one that I would treasure for life and share with my siblings. I even learned that my grandfather saved my cousin from drowning in the Mississippi River when she was a teenager.
Over the next few visits, I recorded heartwarming and memorable stories told to me by the patient and his wife. From their heritage, to their marriage and their many life experiences, we worked together to create a treasured gift for their children, grandchildren and future generations. I completed the project and presented the audio recording to them on their 65th anniversary.
I’ve always believed that a common thread connects us all. That belief was again reinforced during my second recording, another male patient unsure about telling his story but encouraged by his daughter to do it. As he talked and became more comfortable with the idea, he shared stories of bar-hopping with a group of friends when he was much younger. The stories sounded familiar, much like some told by my first patient. It turned out that my cousin’s husband was one of this man’s best friends with whom he made the tavern rounds. They had lost touch over the years.
The validation that I was exactly where I was supposed to be filled me with joy and anticipation of where my journey would take me next. And then it happened. On my initial visit with another patient, the opportunity to achieve my dream presented itself. I remember it was a sunny Friday afternoon. A middle-aged woman invited me into the quaint, senior-living apartment. A bouquet of flowers scented the room. A young girl sat on the floor doing cross-stich.
“This is my daughter. She likes to sew. Her grandmother taught her.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“This is my mother.” The woman who let me in directed me to a robust woman who was busy rearranged a large stack of assorted papers and clippings.
I smiled and extended my hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. How are you feeling today?”
“Fine.” Her voice as firm as her handshake.
“Looks like you have some important papers there.”
“When can we get started?”
The abrupt response surprised me. “It sounds like you’re ready. I don’t usually start recording on the first visit. It helps if we prepare for it by getting to know each other a little first. That way I can be sure we meet your wishes and make the best recording we can. Would that be alright?”
“What I really want…” she hesitated before continuing with tears in her eyes. “I wanted to write my life story, but I don’t know where to start and I don’t have enough time.” Her eyes pleaded for understanding.
I felt the corners of my lips turn upward. I touched her hand in reassurance. “I love to write. I’ve always wanted to write someone’s life story or help them write it.” I drew in a breath while contemplating my offer. “Perhaps that’s why I’m here. God works in mysterious ways. Maybe I can help you.”
Her eyes beamed with excitement. “Really? Would you? I can’t do it by myself.”
“I’d be happy to. How exciting! I can’t wait to get started.”
“Will you take these with you and read them, if you have time?” She pushed the pile of papers in my direction.
“I’d be honored. How about 1:00 p.m. on Monday? Will that work for you?”
“Oh, yes. That would be fine.” She reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure. I’ll see you Monday and we’ll jump right in.”
I spent Saturday, reading the scribbled notes and brief stories, trying to place them in chronological order. The woman’s parents had owned a 350 acre farm in South Dakota and in the menagerie of papers, I found an essay written by her mother. It described the challenges of feeding twenty-five farmhands during harvesting in the 1900’s. It was a piece of history that had been entrusted to me.
On Sunday, I received a call from the volunteer manager telling me that the woman had passed away. My heart ached knowing her wish went unfulfilled. I planned to return all the paperwork to the family, but before I could, I received another phone call from the hospice manager. “The family asked if you could help write the book for the patient. They want to meet with you to discuss it if you are interested.”
A couple of meetings and two months of emails between family members allowed me to piece together the information. Additional stories were shared and incorporated by her children and surviving sister. The woman’s wish had been fulfilled. I have no doubt that a greater force brought us together for that very reason.
The simple act of giving my time returned ten-fold, not in money, but something much more gratuitous. I admire the people who share their life stories to create the audio recordings. They allow families to continue to hear their voice after they’re gone and by filling a void in their lives, they’ve filled the void in mine.
How has volunteering blessed you? I’d love to hear your stories.