Happiness in Hospice

Pushing a heavy, elderly person along in a wheelchair isn’t easy. Bumping my Aunt Marty’s toes right into a door was not a good way to begin. “Ouch,” she said politely. We were headed out of her hospice unit into the Illinois sunshine, so she still smiled.

My outspoken aunt is the “last leaf on the tree,” in her words. Having outlived her parents, siblings and most of her friends, she’s ready to depart. Asked about hospice, she declared, “It’s great. They bring me pain medications, but now I can say, ‘Take them away; I just want aspirin.’”  Along with meds, her diet is relaxed. Dessert after lunch and cookies before bedtime are A-OK.

She is Martha Istvan, born in 1931 to parents who emigrated from Czechoslovakia. The youngest in a large family living on a farm in Ohio, they survived on what they could grow throughout the Depression and during WWII. It was a way of life that is now gone in much of modern America. When I tell her that she was lucky to be raised on organic vegetables and grass-fed meat, she harrumphs and says, “Well, of course. That’s all we had back then!”

She did well in her one room schoolhouse and later in high school. Wanting to see the world meant seeking a higher education—against her father’s objections—and becoming fluent in French at Baldwin Wallace College. While studying abroad as a poor student in France, she hitchhiked with friends to see as much of the country as she could. We stopped to talk about her travels near a garden where the warm, late summer breezes blew gently on our faces.

My aunt described hitchhiking as the way to practice the language as well as explore areas outside of Paris. She traveled with a girlfriend who was struggling a bit with French. When a man in a nice suit offered them a ride, they hopped into his car, and he chatted freely. Suddenly, he turned off the main road and began driving down side streets.

Aunt Marty and her friend were sitting in the back seat together, and my aunt saw something silver flash on her companion’s lap. It was a sharp knife. “What are you doing with that?” she asked. Her friend whispered back, “This is a bad guy. He’s kidnapping us!” My aunt replied, “Try to listen more carefully. He’s a candy salesman! He’s making stops at sweet shops to deliver his candies.”

Finally, Aunt Marty grew quiet. All that talking had tired her out. When that happens, her memory starts to fade. I got up from the bench and began pushing her wheelchair back to her room where she could nap. On the way, she shared another gem: “As a young woman in a foreign country, I had to be cautious. But I also learned to listen and observe with an open mind. Travel helped me develop those skills. By paying attention, I discovered how the whole world is a teacher.”