Seven-year old James opened the door on the bungalow-style home, a teddy bear with one eye dangling from his hand. “Granny, a lady’s here for you,” he shouted.
A tall, stately woman, shoulders heavy with the burden she carried, walked toward the open door, “Can I help you miss?”
“Hello. Mrs. Singer? My name is Honor Williams, the Hospice volunteer you asked for.”
“Come in. James, go play in your room. Granny’s got a visitor.”
Honor followed Mrs. Singer into the living room and sat on the sofa next to a mound of laundry waiting to be folded and put away.
“Why are you here?” Mrs. Singer asked impatiently. Dark circles framed her eyes. Heartbreak and sadness hung heavy in the dimly lit room.
“My Hospice supervisor, Sister Anne, asked me to visit you. She said you requested a volunteer. I thought she told you I would be here today.”
“What you can do?” Mrs. Singer sighed. “So many people been coming and going, I can’t keep straight who does what.”
“I can help in a number of ways depending on what’s need. I can visit with the patient, read to her and keep her company. I can stay with her while you go out to shop, run errands, take care of James, or whatever you want to do. I can grocery shop for you, do laundry, cook, anything to help out.”
“I didn’t ask for help. Maybe Etta did. She’s the one who’s sick.”
Steadying herself on the arm of the chair, Mrs. Singer stood up and gestured, “Follow me.” She opened a bedroom door at the back of the house and stood to the side while Honor entered, “Etta, your visitor is here.”
The temperature in the small room registered ten degrees higher than the hallway. Etta sat propped up in bed, eyes closed, waif-like body barely visible beneath the sheet.
Etta waited for the door to close and the sound of her mother’s footsteps to fade away before opening her eyes to speak. “Sit,” she said, pointing to the straight back chair across from the hospital bed.
“Hello Etta, my name is Honor, a volunteer with Hospice. What can I do for you today?”
“Can you read to me? My vision seems to be going,” Etta mumbled.
“Sure, anything in particular you want me to read?”
“You’ll find some prayer books on the dresser. Bring em to me.” Etta picked out a favorite. The book fell open to a well-worn page, stained finger prints on the ragged corners. “Start here. Read real slow, the sound of the words gives me some peace.”
As Hope read, Etta’s breathing took on an easier rhythm, her body relaxed and she closed her eyes. Hope sensed Etta was listening to the words as her head nodded and the corners of her mouth turned up. Fifteen minutes later Etta fell asleep, one hand over her heart.
Hope found Mrs. Singer in the kitchen. “Etta’s sleeping and seems to be resting peacefully. Anything I can do for you while I’m here?”
“No. When do you think you’ll be back?”
“That’s up to you and Etta. How about I visit again in a couple of days.”
“Fine. I have to take James to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday. Can you be here by nine thirty?”
“Nine thirty on Thursday it is. See you then.”
* * *
Hope visited Etta three times a week. As they got used to one another, the two talked about places they had been, movies they had seen, favorite hymns and former boyfriends. With each visit Hope watched Etta slip away, weak from lying in bed, her appetite all but disappeared, her skin ashen, and her breathing labored.
Conversation became too much for Etta. Hope went back to reading from prayer books. One Friday Etta reached out placing a hand on Hope’s arm, her eyes watering, expressing emotions too deep to put into words.
“You’re welcome,” Hope whispered and kissed Etta on the forehead.
As Etta drifted off to sleep, Hope tip-toed from the room to find Mrs. Singer. “She’s resting now, so I’m going to leave. Call me if you need anything. I’ll be back Monday.”
“I think she will pass soon,” Etta’s mother said, hands grasping the kitchen counter, her knuckles white. “Last night I dreamt Etta’s daddy came for her. She loved that man. He spoiled her something awful. They would go fishing before dawn and come back after dark. Not once did they bring any fish home. Never could figure out what they did all day. He passed five years ago. I think he misses his fishing buddy.”
Sister Anne called Hope that evening to tell her Etta died in her sleep clutching a picture of her and her father fishing off the pier on her seventh birthday.
“Mrs. Singer wanted me to tell you Etta’s ‘gone fishing’. She said you would understand.”