Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hank and Rhoda

One of the really amazing parts of Hospice work is being invited into the stories of people's lives.

Like, Hank and Rhoda.

Well, that's not their real names, and I've concealed their real identities to protect them, but they could be one of many couples in the western part of Sussex County.

Or, any part of rural America, really.

In fact, I had never met either one of them before Hank died, but I was called in to officiate at Hank's funeral.  That happens sometimes in Hospice chaplaincy. People suffer with chronic illness, take a sudden turn for the worse and then, two, three days later, they're gone.

The family is stunned by the loss - and, stunned because they are stunned by the loss. And then, just as suddenly, there's a funeral to plan and nobody knows what to do.  Somebody asks, "Can the Hospice Chaplain help us?" and the next thing I know, I'm having phone conversations with relatives that begin with a sincere expression of condolence at the loss of this wonderful person and become filled with laughter and tears as amazing stories spill out about the deceased and their family.

The first thing one of his relatives told me was that Hank had worked for the same company for 36 years. Can you imagine that, he asked? Thirty-six years with the same company? It does seem pretty remarkable, especially these days, but I think that says something about Hank as well as that company, don't you? 

The second thing I was told was that Hank and Rhoda had been married for 57 years. Imagine that? Fifty-seven years with the same person. The person who told me this said it with a mixture of astonishment and yet like this was exactly how things were supposed to work but didn't so much anymore and he was a sad that it had all come to an end.

I was also told Hank enjoyed fishing, crabbing, riding motor cycles, shooting sporting clays and traps and had won many turkeys and hams for the freezer in trap shooting contests.

He had also worked as an assistant scout master, raising two of his sons to eagle scout. He loved tinkering in the garage with small scale airplanes and other craft projects - some, his niece explained with a laugh, he would finish and some are still in the garage. 

Sounded like your average, everyday remarkable human life to me.

Of all the stories I heard about Hank - this man I never met - these two about Hank and Rhoda became the bookends of all the stories of their 57 years of married life together.

Hank met Rhoda when he was 19 and she was 12. Rhoda was on vacation with her family in DE and when she and her two sisters walked to the dance hall they went by Hank's house where he was outside washing his car.

At the end of her vacation, Rhoda went back home to PA and Hank went into the Navy. At the end of his Navy career, he was stationed in Philadelphia and decided, just on a whim, to look up Rhoda.

He went to the addresses he had for her only to find that her family had moved. Hank started calling everyone with her last name that was listed in the phone book (remember those?), asking them if they had a daughter Rhoda. He called and called and called all day and into the evening until he found her.

He surprised her one night when she was leaving her job at the A&P store and showed up in his Navy uniform and won Rhoda's heart. At the time Rhoda was "engaged" but once she saw Hank in his Navy uniform, she broke off her engagement with the other guy and "Hank and Rhoda have been together ever since".

The second story is one that is more recent. A few years ago, Rhoda need to be admitted to a local skilled nursing facility for a few weeks of IV antibiotics. Once she had the does of medicine, she was allowed to come home for a few hours and had to be back to the facility by bedtime.

Hank was always used to Rhoda taking care of him, so when she came home he still expected her to clean the house, do the laundry and cook his meals. One day, while she was home, they had a disagreement and he was fussing and she decided that she was not coming home for the day anymore until she was discharged because she was just not able to do the regular houseowrk and he just did not understand.

That night, he called his daughter and daughter in law and wanted a family meeting. He wanted an explanation of what exactly was wrong with Rhoda and why she was mad with him and then, his family told me, he cried. His "girls" told him that maybe he needed to do something special for Rhoda to show her he loved her and they suggested flowers.

Hank became very upset. "She knows I love her and I have never bought flowers in fifty some years and I am not going to start now," he thundered.

Well, Rhoda wasn't going to give in either. She wasn't going to come home until Hank apologized.

The next morning, Hank called the florist and ordered "a dozen of their prettiest roses and he said he didn't care what the cost was". Then, he took the roses and his cane and went unsteady to the second floor of the Skilled Nursing Facility where Rhoda was staying.

The story was that no one was certain who cried more - Hank or Rhoda - but Rhoda called the girls that evening, crying happy tears and saying "in 50 plus years he's never given me flowers, much less roses."

The girls said, "This story just goes to prove that it's never too late to give flowers and tell someone that you love them."

Well, yes. That is one thing that story just goes to prove.

I think it also goes to prove that love comes in all different kinds to many different kinds of people, but the kind that holds a marriage together for 50 plus years is not necessarily the romantic love that first brought them together.

That's a much more complicated and complex mixture that grows stronger over time and having three kids together and doing projects in the garage and riding your motorcycle and cooking meals and doing laundry and going to trap shoots and winning hams and turkeys for your family freezer.

Even so, I've learned that the only three words stronger than "I love you" are the words, "I am sorry".

Add a dozen roses to the mix and you get a love story that is as timeless and eternal and extraordinary as it is everyday and commonplace.

The story of Hank and Rhoda is just one of those love stories. 

And I - lucky me - get the chance to tell a piece of it. 


Anonymous said...

We are so privileged to hear the stories in our ministry. And hospice ministry has incredible reciprocity of trust and treasure. We walk on sacred ground when we cross the thresholds into homes that have chosen to love and serve until their loved one is walked all the way Home.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Shelly, which is why I always take a moment to be very intentional in asking for God's presence before I cross that threshold. I never know what is going to greet me but I know, with God's transformational presence, it will be holy.

Sextant said...

I love stories of old married couples. So much of life is devoted to youth and hot romance. It is nice to hear that there are other people like my wife and I who have stuck around partly out of habit but also because we would be damned lost without each other. That scrappy bit of love we felt for each other when we got married is but a drop in the bucked today. Thirty six years and counting.

I used to lament the divorce rate, and yes, in an ideal world, it would be lovely if all marriages lasted the good all days. Ha! Alas it is not an ideal world now and the good old days were anything but good...women locked into loveless servitude not having a chance a financial independence and getting the shit kicked out of them to boot is not an ideal. While the world is not perfect, a 50 percent divorce rate indicates that many people have a least left an abusive and loveless marriage. I would like to see that rate improve, but through better marriages not better entrapment.

Elizabeth, you hospice work is wonderful and your posts are lovely. Keep up the great work.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Sextant. I am so blessed to be able to do this work and listen to these stories. I've had a few gay couples and presently have a lesbian couple on Hospice service. The stories there are marvelous, as well. Can't wait to write about them, too.

Sextant said...

I look forward to reading them. Love is love, and the world can use all the love that we can muster, gay or straight.

I think you are performing a wonderful service here at your blog advancing our understanding of life, love, and God.

Anonymous said...

I am developing a new appreciation for caregivers of the elderly. We just placed my mother in nursing care. She is 92. My father passed away 20 years ago, and my mother insisted on staying in her home. She had always been very outgoing and engaging, but lost that quality over those years.

Now in the community living environment, her previous outgoing nature is coming back. She is must happier and more engaged I give the excellent staff credit for helping bring this out.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - I just write when I'm inspired to write about what's happening in my life. Sometimes, if feels so narcissistic - which is why I stopped for a while. And, you should see some of the comments I don't print. Being a priest and writing about life, love and God - when others don't agree with my particular perspective - can be a target for all sort and manner of vile comments.

Hasn't stopped me before. Won't stop me in the future. And, I get extraordinary delight in deleting those comments.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. In the future, please leave at least your first name. Thanks.

Susan Pederson said...

Thank you for your perspective! I am so glad that you are writing again - I was one who missed your posts!
Hospice work is so very important. Families don't often know what to do and how to handle their sick and dying loved ones and it brings great comfort when there is someone who is there not only to assist the patient but the family as well. Thank you for all you do!
I have another friend who is a hospice nurse in PA and she has said on more than one occasion that there is no greater honor than to be with someone as they transition from this world to the next.
God bless

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Susan. I'm working on a piece about Boston now. Words fail.