“Marie,” my supervisor had told me a few nights before, “is fifty-seven years old and dying.” I was seventeen and a Hospice volunteer for the Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice of Northern Berkshire. Every one of my patients was dying, and Marie was no different. She was fifty-seven with multiple sclerosis, a disease I knew very little about, but it wasn’t my job to understand her illness. My job was to relieve the caretakers, to sit with my patients while their loved ones ran errands or went for a run or found reprieve at the corner of a bar, drinking long-necked bottles of beer and contemplating the love they were losing, the grief they were enduring, and the guilt they were feeling when they found themselves looking forward to the time when it would all be over.
I found Marie’s house sitting on the side of the mountain like a shelf. It was small, a single-story ranch with no other houses around it. I couldn’t see what was around the house, but I imagined there were woods: tall spruces, bare maples, and heavy-limbed firs bearing the small house between their roots.
Marie was my third Hospice patient in as many weeks. I had visited a woman with Alzheimer’s at the nursing home next to my high school, and a woman with cancer in her house across the street from the grocery store my mother shopped at every Sunday. Marie, however, lived in the middle of nowhere I had ever been, and I thought for a moment, as I knocked on the door and waited for it to open, how far I would have travel to find a neighbor, how long it would take for help to arrive.
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