Painting by Nancy Poucher
Again her hand shakes as she tries to soothe her hair. Her eyes are shiny with unshed grief.
“You’re the one they turn to at the end,” I say. “You’re the one they know they can count on; a safe haven.”
“I guess so,” she says. “But I don’t know what to do with him. He can’t hardly breathe, and all he does is just curse every time he does get his breath. He just says the F-word over and over …” She looks at Sarah imploringly.
Sarah steps forward and puts her hand on the woman’s denim covered forearm where it rests on the windowsill of the still running truck. “Can we see him?” she asks. She’s such a kind-hearted and capable person, I just wish everyone who finds themselves facing a life-limiting illness could meet her and experience her care. I haven’t worked with a community health worker before, but Sarah is making a believer out of me.
The woman shakes her head, as though to dispel the tears standing in her light blue eyes.
“I don’t know,” she says. “He don’t want to see anyone. He don’t want no help.”
“What’s your name?” Sarah asks. “I’m Sarah and this is Carl.”
“Emily,” the woman says. “Let me get out of this traffic. I’ll go back there and see if he’ll see you.”
She pulls the truck onto the gravel shoulder and does a tight U-turn, hauling the big wheel around on this pre-power steering behemoth. Emily heads back to her house, where she turns into the driveway. Sarah and I follow on foot.
We walk halfway up the drive behind the brown truck. Emily has gone inside. Several minutes pass as we wait on the driveway, next to the chain link fence. The old house is a small two story, with shingles on the exterior walls in several shades of color from previous paint jobs.
Suddenly, a tiny dachshund comes out the front door and approaches the chain link gate where Sarah and I are waiting. It gives a few vigorous yaps and then subsides. Emily appears.
“He won’t see you,” she says. “He looked out the window and thought you was some kind of Jehovah’s Witness.”
Sarah is an athletic blonde who likes to surf and scuba dive. Her hair is bleached by the sun in golden streaks. I am darker-skinned, showing my African-American father’s genes, with a grey beard and eyeglasses. We are both on the casual side of professionally dressed, which is close to formal wear in this part of Fortuna. Together, I can see how we might look like Witnesses, but we are evangelists of a different sort, proclaiming a gospel of “quality of life” in the face of life-limiting illness.
“How is he doing?” asks Sarah, her natural community health worker tendency coming out. Community health workers are generalists, helping people to find resources, get to appointments, or manage their medications, as well as providing body care and a listening ear.
“He’s worse,” says Emily, leaning on the gate. The dog is still at her feet. “His lungs sound terrible. He can’t hardly breathe, but he won’t take help from anyone.”
“I’m sorry,” says Sarah.
“That’s hard,” I say. “Do you have some good support?”
“That’s a laugh!” Emily responds. “Support! He’s got two brothers locally who come and talk to him once in awhile, but they don’t do nothin’. My one son who was worth a stick of dynamite to blow him to hell lives in Nevada …”
“Far away,” I offer.
“Too far,” she says.
“We’d like to come back a different time,” Sarah says. “We’d like to help, if we can.”
“He’s got an appointment this afternoon with his oncologist,” Emily says. “We’ll see how that goes.”
“Here’s my card,” Sarah says, handing it over the fence. “Call me when you know more.”
“Thanks,” says Emily, brushing a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.
“Can I give you a hug?” Sarah asks, just so gently.
“Yes!” says Emily, and she puts her arms out, and Sarah hugs her over the chain link fence. For a moment the two women stand heart to heart, the little dog and I witnessing the connection of two humans who have known suffering and expect to know more.
After the hug is complete, we start down the driveway.
“Call me!” says Sarah, over her shoulder.
“I will!” says Emily.
And she does, just the very next day.
Truck paintings courtesy of Nancy Poucher