Everything was yellow: the exterior vinyl siding, the front door, the walls in every room, the furniture and even the shag rug on the living room floor. For a moment I suspected a humongous bottle of French’s Yellow Mustard had exploded, drenching the 1950s Cape with its contents. But no – it was simply the house of my most recent Hospice patient.
Her name was Connie and she was in her seventies. I knew her terminal disease was a slow going one, unlike some of the illnesses that stole the lives of our patients before we even had an opportunity to form a relationship with them. I also knew I could not – under any circumstance – visit Connie between the hours of eight and ten in the morning, and two and four in the afternoon. Those four hours were strictly off limits to any Hospice workers.
“What’s going on between eight and ten, and two and four?” I asked Connie’s Hospice nurse before my first visit.
She laughed and shook her head, “That’s when Steve is on.”
“Some TV evangelist.”
“No way! Really?”
“Really. She’s like, crazy about him. Everything stops when he comes on. Once she made me go home and I wasn’t even finished with my evaluation.”
As I followed Connie’s voice through the house, I found her sitting in a recliner chair that was positioned in front of a huge television. Her hair was a mess of white curls and she was wearing make-up. For a Hospice patient, she looked pretty spry. Her eyes narrowed when I entered the room.
“Which one are you?” she barked.
I sighed. Typically, social workers were the duds of the Hospice team. Unlike the nurses who brought comforting medicines, the volunteers who provided respite for the caregivers, or the aides who cleaned and cooked, the social workers were the “talkers” and, generally, our services were deemed unimportant and intrusive to most patients.
“I’m the social work intern.”
Now it was my turn to narrow my eyes. I had noticed the excessive number of picture frames scattered around the room, and they all seemed to contain pictures of the same man. Connie followed my gaze.
“Go ahead,” she said, her voice instantly warming.
I reached and took one of the frames, and then another. They were all Polaroid photographs, and it appeared the pictures were of … Connie’s television screen. Or a man on Connie’s television screen. I blinked. She had taken a Polaroid picture of a man on her TV screen and framed it. And not just one, but dozens.
“That’s Steve,” Connie explained.
“Yes! You know of him?” Connie sat up straighter in her chair.
I put the picture frames back in their place and pulled a chair next to Connie. Her eyes were closed, reminding me of a teenage girl swooning over the music of a rock band.
“Tell me about Steve.” I prompted.
Connie’s eyes fluttered open. “He’s so strong and handsome! And you should hear his voice. When he sings I get chills. That’s why I send him money every time he asks … and he writes back!”
Before I could respond, Connie reached into a basket that was half hidden under a folded blanket next to her recliner. She handed me a pile of papers.
“Read them,” she urged.
Carefully, I unfolded the first letter. It was a standard “thank-you-for-your-contribution” letter with Steve Brock’s signature stamped at the bottom. When I raised my eyes to Connie’s she was looking at me expectantly. To her, these were personal communications. She thought this TV evangelist had thanked her personally – many times – for her money.
“These are … lovely,” I stammered.
My freshly minted social work brain knew I was supposed to be doing something social worky. I should ask her about her husband! That’s it! Maybe there was some link between her deceased husband and this intense infatuation with a man on television. Or perhaps her father! What about him? What would make this dying woman latch onto – and give her money away to – some lounge singer sounding, dyed brown haired TV evangelist?
“I have a pet woodchuck,” Connie said, suddenly.
Quickly, I shifted gears from the TV evangelist/dead spouse/father link to a pet woodchuck. I looked around the yellow room, expecting to see the rodent lumber in and sit by my feet.
“I have a pet woodchuck,” Connie repeated, somewhat exasperated, as though she were growing annoyed. “His name is Chucky.”
“I … I’ve never heard of having a woodchuck as a pet,” I stammered.
Connie raised an eyebrow. Clearly, she deemed me a moron.
“He doesn’t live in the house. He lives outside.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I know Chucky is male?” Connie asked.
This visit was not going as planned. I hadn’t even approached the topic of her illness. I could envision my supervisor, shaking her head in disappointment. When would I learn?
“Um … how do you know Chucky is male?”
“I checked and saw Chucky didn’t have nipples.”
Whoa! What have we here? Connie was checking woodchucks for nipples, after giving her money away to a TV evangelist whom she believed was writing her personal thank you notes in return. Either her disease was affecting her brain or she had a history of mental illness – but her medical history didn’t state either. She was simply quirky.
I sat back in my chair and smiled.
“Tell me about Chucky.”
And she did.
Eventually Connie was discharged from Hospice because her illness stopped progressing. She seemed indifferent to the news she wasn’t going to die within six months, and relieved Hospice would no longer be traipsing through her home several times a week. We left her exactly as we found her: swooning over her TV evangelist, with a pet woodchuck named Chucky.
For all I know, she is still sending Steve Brock her money, cherishing his letters, and checking woodchucks for their gender.