It was a warm beautiful summer day in New England. The kind of day you’d love to play hooky, and could find a thousand good reasons to actually do it. It also happened to be the day that I was assigned to visit a young woman in her new home, an assisted living center designed for those in Hospice. As I drove, my mind wandered: “What will this young mom look like? Will she like me? Will conversation come easily? What if she’s asleep?” I knew very little about her: she was 32. And she was terminally ill. That was more than enough to know to make me walk down the hallway and enter her room.
Here in this sunny room we were two strangers getting to know each other at a very rapid pace. We had formal conversations, yet they were somehow relaxed; I told her I loved summer; she told me she loved fall. Both of us were very present. Both of us were navigating uncharted territory. I asked her about her life and she in turn inquired about mine. I told her I had a husband and two sons and her brown eyes widened: she had a husband and two sons as well! (“Great,” I thought, “we have something in common.”) She pointed to a framed photo on her table and there were two mischievous-looking boys’ faces smiling back at us, as if at any given moment they would burst right out of the frame. I didn’t expect that as I stood up and went for a closer look of that photo that I would recognize those two little boys. Amazingly, just four years earlier, they had both been in my preschool classroom! Now I looked back at this young woman and called her by the nickname I remembered. Her face was no longer the face I knew, due to the ravages of cancer, but as I looked more closely, those beautiful brown eyes were still the same. She asked my name again and then shouted “Oh Essie! Now I remember you too!” We hugged; we laughed, and in that moment, we became fast friends.
Our friendship was solidified by one beautiful common thread: the love of our families. It was a turning point for us: I recalled funny little memories about her two little guys (or “imps” as she lovingly called them) and she laughed.
I shared how they were always the last to come in from recess, often hiding behind a bush or a tree–or each other. Or that when they “helped” me set-up the snacks, they would sneak a couple of extra cookies as if I wouldn’t notice.
That they loved singing and dancing and telling jokes that never made sense to anyone but each other. But mostly, I told her how engaged they would be when I took out my puppets at the end of each day; how they participated in –and often even ran–our puppet shows. “By the way,” I told her, “they always made sure to play the roles of Brother Bears.”
Watch the Video about “Caring for Mama Bear”
One or two days a week I continued to visit her, and in between visits, I would go to her home and visit her two little boys with my basket of puppets. The boys were now seven and nine but they still “ran the show,” making sure they were the stars by reaching for the same Brother Bear puppets from four years ago in preschool. We’d laugh, sing, dance and make up stories. We shared moments where the only things that mattered were joy and love–and being happy. They were just two little boys having fun, much to their mom’s delight.
As time moved on, her health declined. The last week of her life, I visited her every day. Her boys and her husband were there for her every day as well. The seasons had turned from summer to fall almost overnight. This made her very happy, as, she reminded me, fall was her favorite time of the year. When her husband announced each evening that it was time for the boys to get ready for bed, they would run to her, jump in her bed and cuddle with her. I’d step out into the hallway, and although I couldn’t see what was happening in that room, I could “feel” it. I swear, you could actually see, feel and taste the love in the air. As the boys left the room with their dad one evening, they found me. I hugged them good-bye, and told them I’d visit them the next day for our puppet show. Now it was my turn to leave her. I went back into her room. She told me that she was very tired today. She told me that she had no fear of dying. Her concern was for her boys, and her hope was that they would never forget her. I tried my best to reassure her that she would not be forgotten. Over the course of that conversation, an unspoken pact was made. We hugged, and as I leaned in to kiss her forehead, I told her “I love being your friend.” She leaned in and whispered in my ear “Essie, have your puppets tell my boys it’s time for me to go to Heaven.” I looked into her eyes and whispered, “Yes my friend, yes.” And as I started to leave, I turned to her and said quietly and emphatically, “I am going to do something in your honor.” She waved good-bye and said “I know you will.” And that was our last conversation.
Time has passed. It is in her honor, as well as to honor every other mom, (including my own), for whom I have been privileged to care for that “Caring for Mama Bear” was written. For my friend, for all of them, this is truly their “Story of Love.”