“Te Iubesc”

IMG_4133Lying in her bed, Colette was teaching a few of us how to say “I love you” in her native Romanian. “Te iubesc,” we struggled to say with an accent that matched hers. Though I first met Colette six or seven years ago, when she first lived at Joseph’s House, it was the first time I’d heard her speak in her native tongue, which she had started to speak frequently as she grew very sick.

We had not heard from Colette for several years when she called about a year ago to speak with Patty about her declining health and her wish to reconnect. For a number of months, Patty drove Colette back and forth across town four or five times a week from her apartment to Joseph’s House. She spent many long days with us, arriving well before breakfast and staying until after dinner. Most days she prepared a fruit salad for breakfast, anxious if there was not enough fruit in the basket when she arrived. She went on frequent walks with one of our volunteers and spent many hours watching TV or dozing on the couch in the living room where a tapestry she made us as a thank-you gift after her last stay hangs above the piano.

As Colette’s health deteriorated, we offered her the opportunity of moving back in, but she clung to her apartment, having fought so hard to find a place to live when she moved out of Joseph’s House six years ago. She had arrived here then as a hospice patient, but her health improved unexpectedly and she confronted the reality of finding affordable housing in a very expensive city. Now, growing sicker, she was hesitant to leave that apartment, afraid she might confront the same challenge again.

But that was not to be. Unable to live in her apartment safely and care for herself, Colette eventually returned to live with us again. Often, her days were filled with anxiety and frequent pacing, as we struggled at times to be with her in ways that we hoped would ease her worry and not frustrate us. For weeks, we made sure that someone was with her whenever she was awake – and often as she slept – so that she would not fall as she got out of bed unexpectedly or when she paced the house. In the midst of her anxiety and fear, her kind spirit would appear – a gentle kiss, a warm hug, a smile of welcome or gratitude greeting you at the door. As she grew weaker, I witnessed a greater and greater web of love and protection enveloping her. At times, we had all been frustrated by her restlessness and, yet, it was the stark visibility of her vulnerability that called out to us.

Colette is staying in our double room and a few weeks ago she was joined by Salina, another former resident who returned to live with us again. Like Colette, Salina first came to us a number of years ago as a hospice patient whose health eventually improved enough for her to leave and return to independent living. Salina was known as a caregiver for other residents in the house as her own health improved and, after she left, she invited her own caregivers to an Ethiopian feast she prepared as her way of saying thank you for the life-giving care she had received. In the years after she left, she worked and stayed in intermittent contact with us, most often with other Ethiopian members of our community. Her generosity led her to support orphans at home and she even traveled back to Ethiopia bringing much-needed supplies for an orphanage and school she had “adopted.” When one of our staff members visited her apartment late last year, he saw at least six large suitcases filled with clothes and electronics for a return trip to Ethiopia that Salina will never make.

She returned to us in March after several months in a nursing home and weeks in the hospital when a court-appointed guardian decided it was best for her to enter hospice care and return to Joseph’s House. Saddened by her physical deterioration, we were grateful that Salina was able to return to us for her care. She, too, was a long-beloved member of our community and the web of love surrounding Colette expanded and grew to hold them both in tenderness.

IMG_4054There was always someone, and usually several people, in the room with them. Salina was part of a large Ethiopian community and they visited frequently, often in small groups. Coming to pray for Salina, they too opened their hearts to Colette, offering her their blessings. The beautiful sounds of their Amharic language mixed with the occasional Romanian of Colette and her visitors.

Salina died peacefully last week, her death met with a grief so deep that Patty said she had never seen anything like it. The generosity of Salina’s community and of one of our good friends ensured that she was buried according to her traditions.

Now, several days later, Colette remains in their room, dying very slowly, “like a sunset,” says Patty –  like that last hour of a long day when the soft light settles in. We imagine she is lingering just to soak in all of the love that surrounds her.

Watching her and remembering Salina, my own heart swells. It swells, for sure, at the love that fills the room. It swells even more at the grace that offered these two women so far from their native lands what I imagine we all crave at the end of our lives – a place where we can come home to die.

Comments

  1. Anne Donnelly says:

    This is a beautiful and poignant story that illustrates so well what Ram Dass teaches. “we are all here to walk one another home.” Thank you for the work you do and the love you foster.

  2. Wow. Thank you for sharing this. If ever the space is provided, tell her I say “hello” and wish I could be sitting with her at this time.

  3. Beautiful, Scott. Thank you.

  4. Helen McConnell says:

    This story of two holy women sharing life’s most sacred moments draws me in. I want to commit to be like Colette in times of anxiety and illness so that the heart of love that is within me may be evident to others who want to help me–the way you describe Colette: “In the midst of her anxiety and fear, her kind spirit would appear – a gentle kiss, a warm hug, a smile of welcome or gratitude greeting you at the door. As she grew weaker, I witnessed a greater and greater web of love and protection enveloping her.” Thank you for expressing this loving story so beautifully.

  5. Lois Wagner says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of love and care–given and received. You are blessed with being there and we are blessed with your sharing.

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