I’m told Gwen is a lovely woman in room 202 who loves visitors. I easily walk into her room, looking forward to meeting her and spending time with her. She is new to hospice house. I introduce myself and after a brief conversation she quickly asks me, “With brain cancer, I’m told it shouldn’t be long. Do you know if it will happen quickly?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t have any knowledge about that.” I reply. There seems to be an almost ease for her knowing we won't be talking about any medical aspects.
Gwen’s short, grey hair is falling out. It litters the pillow behind her head. Her body is frail and delicate. The hospice quilts cover her legs while her body wears her nightgown from home. It’s pink and looks comfortable. I smile and feel glad that she has what is comfortable, what she chooses, what she enjoys.
Gwen looks me in the eye. We exchange a long glance. It feels like she is making a decision about me. She has decided. She opens up and our conversation begins to flow with ease. She tells me about her daughter, her life, her marriage and how she lived on meat and potatoes. I share with her my struggles of learning how to cook for a vegetarian partner and how it’s actually gotten easy now. She doesn’t understand how and why we don’t eat meat. She is not impolite with her disapproval; she finds humor with most sentences. I can tell she finds pleasure in making people laugh. I admire that.
I hesitate on whether I should talk about myself. This time is hers, not mine. I consider that maybe she is tired and could use a break from talking. I take a risk. I tell her about school and my 4-year-old son. She lights up with delight and interest. My body lets out a sigh of relief, I’ve made the right decision to talk and open up a little. I tell her about my course and what I’m taking. She talks about going back to nursing school when she was 45. I feel inspired by her strength and story. At 40, I suddenly don’t feel like such a mature student.
I take a chance and ask Gwen if she would like some coconut gelato. She hesitates, but then looks at me with this, almost devious smile as she replies, “Well, ok, maybe just a little.”
I dispense a small amount into a bowl and mix it around to create a soft creamy consistence. I hold the bowl for her as she feeds herself; beginning with a small, slow taste. She looks at me with surprise and satisfaction. She smiles and says “Wow, that is really good, thank you.” She finishes the bowl with ease and another thank you. It feels good to bring her a small pleasure.
Gwen reminds me that life is short; it goes faster than you think. I take her words of wisdom to heart and contemplate my own life. I wonder if I will be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my life. I have an overwhelming feeling to hug my son and never let him go.
Two weeks later I’m happy to see Gwen is still here. I’m excited to see her. She is awake. I ask her if I can sit with her for a while. She agrees. Most of her hair has fallen out now. I see the changes in her face and attitude. She mentions how the medication makes her foggy, a side effect she dislikes and mentions often. We share a moment of laughter; I reach out and hold her hand, which she clutches with surprising strength. When I think it’s appropriate, I begin to loosen my grip on her hand. She disagrees and squeezes tighter, I reciprocate and remain speechless and present.
I see Gwen is getting tired. She agrees and says, “I don’t mean to be rude but I think I need to sleep.”
As I walk out the door Gwen says, “I’m sorry I won’t remember your name.” I reply, “That’s ok Gwen, I will always remember yours.” We exchange a smile. I walk out the door feeling honored for knowing such a classy, warm and funny person. I have learned so much from my friend Gwen.