I Want To Go Home

Her name was Mary and she was dying. I was the social work intern, fumbling my way through situations I had mistakenly assumed I could handle.

“I want to go home,” Mary told me during our first visit.

She resembled an Auschwitz victim. The cancer had ravaged her body, leaving her nothing more than soft skin hanging from delicate bones. She looked small and vulnerable in the hospital bed. Her frame barely made a dent in the mattress.

I knew Mary could never go home. She wasn’t strong enough to stand unassisted, let alone walk. Plus, there was no one to care for her even if she could return home. The only family she had was a son who lived in the mid-west. She would have to remain in the hospital until the end.

“Tell me about your home,” I said.

Briefly, Mary’s eyes brightened. She spoke of the small brick cape she had worked so hard to save for and buy. In that house she raised her son, alone. Her husband left her early in their marriage for someone else.

“I was a single mom,” she said, the expression on her face pained from the memory of her husband’s betrayal and not the cancer, “It was so hard.”

Her lips twitched into a smile, “But Robert went to medical school. He’s a surgeon now.” Her smile reflected a mother’s pride.

Later that afternoon I attempted to reach Mary’s son. I left messages with the receptionist at his office, and then tried his nurse. When he never returned my calls, I phoned his house. Robert’s wife answered.

“We’re so sad about Mary,” she said.

“Robert needs to see her … soon. She is failing.” I explained.

“But he can’t,” she said, “He is too busy.” She paused briefly before continuing, “And he doesn’t want to see her like that.”

I knew this was a social worker’s golden opportunity. This was my chance to use the questions and tactics I had learned to explore Robert’s fear of seeing his dying mother. I had read countless of pages on avoidant behavior. I should have known exactly how to respond.

But words escaped me. Instead, I grieved for Mary – lying alone in her hospital bed with only the hospital staff and Hospice workers to bring her comfort.

“He may never see her again alive,” I said bluntly.

Robert’s wife promised to relay my message.

The following day a friend of mine and I were walking to class. I spotted an array of colorful autumn leaves covering the ground. I remembered Mary saying she loved the fall and missed the foliage it brought. Her window in the hospital looked out at the concrete of a neighboring building.

Frantically, I started gathering leaves. My friend paused.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“My patient,” I said, “She misses the color of fall.”

“That’s the saddest thing I have ever heard.” My friend began to pick up leaves. “Here. Here is a yellow one. And red. She has to have a red leaf.”

The next morning I brought my armful of leaves to Mary. Her lids were closed and when I whispered her name, she struggled to lift them.

“Mary, look,” I whispered, holding the leaves up, “I brought Autumn to you.”

Slowly, Mary smiled and I took her hand in mine. Together we sat in silence, and looked at the colors of fall.


28 thoughts on “I Want To Go Home

  1. That Robert, a doctor, was reluctant or even resistant to the idea of making a final visit to see his dying mother is not surprising. Doctors spend their entire careers helping people to dodge death’s bullet. In medical school they are working on ‘cadavers’ not corpses. The mindset and attitude is geared for saving or strengthening lives. Death comes like a blow to some doctors. I have witnessed bizarre behavior in many, many doctors I have had to interact with. Signing death certificates, for example, is a most distasteful duty to some. In fact, I have seen a doctor treat my arrival to his office as being a visit from the grim reaper himself. He sneered and hard-looked me…he made an unfortunate error, which I was forced to bring to his attention for correction; he reacted violently, cursing me and throwing the documents directly into my face. Hard to believe the stories from families served by this Jeckyll-Hyde…gushing with great admiration about his impeccable bedside manner. I believe some doctors react this way because Old Death got one past them and they just couldn’t take the ‘failure’ of their mission to save a patient. It is not supposed to be taken personally, but it often is. Then too, doctors, regular folks…not everybody wants to see their precious parent in apparent suffering and sickly appearance…it IS quite hard to watch a parent go out as Mary was going out. To Robert she was always his champion, his disciple and believer in him. To go from strong and determined to clear any obstacle to skeletal and feeble is a leap Superman would have a hard time comprehending.
    Beautifully written post. So poignant, yet sad.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I never met Robert, nor spoke to him, so I don’t know for certain what he was feeling. His wife seemed conflicted between supporting and defending her husband and knowing they should be with Mary. It was a very moving experience. (And I also have witnessed physicians who treat death like it is a personal enemy. One oncologist I knew of would continue aggressive chemotherapy on elderly patients. It was very disturbing.)

  2. Great story. I was a hospice volunteer for a few years and this story brings it all back. The simplest of things (bringing leaves to a patient) can make all the difference. How kind you were to do this. And your words to the doctor’s wife-they were all you needed to say.

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