Hetty, Here and Gone

Old Saviour Church

* This is copied and modified from my previous blog, “Anglican, Plain.” Again, this is about a real person in a parish where I served a few years ago. When I write about these former parishioners, I don’t use their real names, although it is impossible to change the setting in which I met them. Those readers who live in the locations where these anecdotes took place may recognize the people. Your experience with these people may have been different. Please respect the privacy of their families if you think you recognize of whom I write.*

Hetty lived in the community where I was pastor. She was a recurring name on every visiting list left by my predecessors.  She was just about sixty years old. I don’t think she had ever had an income-producing job in her life. Her days had revolved around caring for her mother since she was young. She was a prolific knitter. It provided a supplement to her tiny disability pension and gave her a few treats in her quiet life.

She had never married. She had been born outside wedlock. Her mother, as far as I knew, had never married, and Hetty was an only child. The extended family had lived on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the settlement.  They had been late immigrants, and the land they had obtained was swampy and cedar-choked. It wasn’t much of a farm to support several brothers and a sister, and then a single child. Hetty had a photo of herself as a child, sitting amongst her extended family. She had a pet chicken on her lap.

She was rather like a plump little hen herself. When I met her, she was trimmed down from being a very plump hen indeed. She still had the broody figure, and she habitually slumped forward in her chair and when walking, a result, I think, of a lifetime of sitting and encroaching arthritis. She would tuck her arms back along her sides, a habit from knitting, which  enhanced the hen-like appearance. Her eyes were bright, and her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, was a dark shock that usually stood up in three directions, like a hen’s comb. She was a survivor of breast cancer. The cancer diagnosis and treatment had come to define her life.

She had a hoarse, unmodulated voice. It would soar in volume as she talked, relating one of her many anecdotes. She was animated when she recounted her many doctors’ appointments, how the doctors were so nice to her, how they truly cared, how loved and supported she felt. Except for Doctor Margaret, who could do no right, being a woman doctor. I wouldn’t say Hetty was a hypochondriac. It was just that for the first time in her life, people took care of her. She loved all her (male) doctors greatly. I don’t know if they were appreciative of her love, but in her own way, it was innocent and faithful.

I called on her at least once a month. She did not drive, so she was dependent on neighbours and friends for shopping and entertainment. She wasn’t a television watcher. I suspected that she couldn’t follow the plots of soap operas or dramas, and her sense of humour was old world.  English was not her first language. She spoke Danish all her life, with enough cousins and neighbours who also spoke it that she did not lose her language skill.

Hetty lived in a house trailer, or a mini-home as they are called there, which had been purchased with insurance money after the family homestead had burned, leaving her and her mother homeless. It was circa 1976, outfitted with a complete kit of furniture. I had lived in a similar model about 1978, so I recognized it. Almost thirty years later, she still had all the original, pathetic-quality furnishings and curtains. Then she had added knick-knack shelves, whatnot tables, slim wobbly bookcases, hassocks, baskets of yarn, folding trays and most of the contents carried by W.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime in Presque Isle. She loved a good rummage or garage sale. The little house was overheated and usually smelled of hot cooking fat. It was clean, as clean as rotating Red Cross caregivers could get it. She was a great favourite with her caregivers, as she was almost always sunny and pleasant, generous and sentimental. Only once did I ever hear her speak harshly of someone who had hurt her feelings, and it was with a great deal of sorrow as well as a bit of satisfaction in having had the last word. She cried quickly and copiously. I took care to turn the conversation away from morbid subjects, though she had a relish for the details of horrible illnesses and injuries.

Her favourite entertainment was live country music. A neighbouring church had a music night once a week in their parish hall. She was a regular. Someone would pick her up on their way by, and she sat there, week after week, tapping her feet, enjoying the hot sweet tea and cookies that were the regular fare. I believe she used to dance; it wasn’t anything I ever witnessed. I’d say her next favourite  activity was a good funeral. My Danish congregants had a healthy and earthy attitude to death. They mourned their loss, but a history of famine, forced immigration, hardship in the new world, and the loss of children to epidemics, old people to pneumonias, and young people to accidents made them aware of death in our lives, daily. Cancers are common. Fatalities in the fields or woods and on the roads and trails were a yearly occurrence. We clergy officiated a lot of funerals. Good funeral sermons and some favourite music of both the modern gospel and antique Danish hymnal were expected. The cemetery burial ended with a traditional Danish hymn sung a capella. Our local funeral director, although not Danish, would lead it if no one else had the voice for it.

The funeral lunch was not neglected. A table of traditional foods was provided by the ladies of the parish. (We had one male cook amongst us, but he was kept in reserve for smorgasbords and fund-raisers where Danish sausage and other hearty meat specialties are required.) Hetty was a society matron at funeral lunches. She found herself a good seat, walking cane beside her, and we fetched her plates of sandwiches, delicate Danish creations of good homemade bread, sweet butter, sandwich meats and thin sliced vegetables and pickles, followed by another plate or two of the delicious, cardamom-scented and otherworldly cookies that only Scandinavians can produce. (I have acquired the knack of peparkakor, a spicy molasses biscuit.)

Hetty called me occasionally. She had need of a few groceries at the end of the month; she needed a new (to her) refrigerator, so would I contact the right people for that; she hadn’t seen me in a  while and I’d left a card in the door while she was out. She had a bitter pride when she had to ask for help. People offered and she accepted. She might ask a favour but she posed it as if she would, when possible, reciprocate. She could not reciprocate with me. Not that it mattered. I am pretty nonchalant about helping people in need. But I could see the frown, the incipient tear when she realized that she was indeed bitterly poor, and she had to go to the church for help. She had to ask me. She liked me, but I was not the same as the wonderful priests in the past, Father Such, Canon Wonderful, Mr. Greatheart. I was just little Pastor Julie. She didn’t hold it against me, but my stature did not cast the same impressive shadow.

She called me from the local hospital one day. She had been admitted for surgery. She had a terrible hernia. I don’t know what caused it. I suspect a lifetime of poor health and inadequate diet was the culprit. I went in immediately to see her before the procedure. She was a fragile patient, the body weakened by cancer and its cure. It really was the worst rupture I had seen in a few years of chaplaincy and hospital ministry. Her skin had split. She was in pain, but she joked a bit about it, poking her finger delicately around the damaged navel. She had no inhibition in sharing scars and wounds with me, nor was I ever shocked by such. Ten years of shepherding had submerged forever any remaining squeamishness that had survived motherhood.

The hernia was repaired, but her condition worsened. She was taken to the big hospital in St. John, far from home. I went down to see her in the midst of her diagnostic routine.

“They got me here in Oncology,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

“What is your doctor’s plan?”

“X-rays and tests and ultrasound. But why am I in Oncology? That means Cancer.”

“Yes, it does.”

She talked a bit randomly about her cousins coming to visit, and gifts they had brought, and what the food was like. She liked her roommate. She liked the nurses.

She got quiet. I sat in the pink visitor’s chair and waited.

“Do you think I got cancer again?” she asked.

“What does your doctor say?”

“Nothing, He said it was tests.”

She got quiet again. “I got cancer again. That’s why I’m here. The medicine stuff is chemo.”

She started to cry. I held her hand.

“Can you go ask?” she said to me.

I went to the nurses’ station. I asked if someone could explain Hetty’s medical treatment to her. They arranged for a doctor to come in later.

I told her this. She shook her head.  “It’s cancer. I know it. That’s why they got me here.”

“Yes, I think so.”

She covered her face and cried. Finally, she wiped her eyes and said. “I kept you a while. It’s a long drive home. My cousin will be in soon, really. I’ll be okay.” I said a prayer and left her.

She was transferred back to the local hospital. She slowly descended into more pain. Morphine didn’t help. The cancer was in her spine. Neighbours helped in the hospital, sitting with her, getting her comfortable, bringing her little treats as long as she could tolerate food. Her property had to be sold; she talked about the nursing home. She thought she would like it.

I sat a few spells with her. She liked to have me close when she was conscious, but that was getting rare. Her eyes would glaze as she lay half-reclining in the bed, propped with pillows. She would moan softly sometimes. She started talking to someone who wasn’t in the room. “What is she saying?” asked a caregiver who didn’t speak Danish.

“She’s talking to her mother. She’s saying, mother, help me, come get me.”

We looked at each other with troubled eyes, then back at the place by the window Hetty seemed to be addressing.

She died soon after that.

She had a good Anglican funeral, in the church.

I walked up the aisle ahead of the coffin, in my black cassock and white surplice.

“I am the resurrection and the life , saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…”

Her cousin gave a eulogy. The lessons were read, I gave a sermon. We went out to the cemetery. She was laid next to her mother. “I’ve arranged for stones,” her cousin said. “For her, her mother, and her uncles. The family could never afford them. I can do that for her now. It’s the last thing we can give her.”

And so it is. The last good words to be spoken, the last gift, the hope of the resurrection.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”


La Vie en Rose

(For those reading this who were in my last parish: In order to protect the privacy of families there, I have obscured the location, names and some details. The passage is true, but don’t try too hard to ascribe all attributes to any one neighbour, as some of the details are compounded from more than one person.)

Marietta was a patient in the hospital where I was chaplain. Her Danish last name was common in my parish, but I did not recognize her. She was asleep when I went to her room, oxygen hissing into her nostrils. I didn’t wake her. She was suffering from pneumonia, not uncommon in sedentary seniors in the winter-clad mountains of eastern Canada. I said a prayer at bedside, then tracked down the chief of nursing. Marietta looked so frail. I checked the chart – she was just 70 years old, but her pale, sparse hair and delicate frame made her look both ancient and childlike.

I asked Penny, the head nurse, about the patient. “She’s listed as being in Father Nick’s parish, but I called him and he doesn’t know her.”

“Yes, he does. But he may not know her name.”

I waited. There was a story, and Penny would have to get to it in her own way.

“She’s really out of your parish, but she lives at Riverside Manor now.”

“That’s in Nick’s parish.”

“Yes, but you know her sons. Kyle and Kelvin.”

“Oh, yes. The Dall twins. I didn’t realize their mother was still living.”

“They don’t talk of her much. Marietta showed signs of dementia fairly young, I think. She’s perfectly sweet and harmless, but she got to wandering, so she needed supervised care. Did you look at her chart?”

“Just to check her address and age.”

“She is younger than she looks. She is a bit of a pet here, and at the Manor.  She is very gentle. She doesn’t remember anyone individually anymore, but she still speaks, and seems to think everyone is a friend. She has five children.”

I tried to picture that tiny body younger and stronger, pregnant with twins. “I take it there is no husband now.”

“He died a few years ago. He was a big man, died of a heart attack. He was quite a bit older, too, if I remember. He’s buried in your cemetery.”

My cemetery had many burials, dating back more than one hundred years.  I most certainly did not have the placement of every stone memorized. The Danish cemeteries in the mountains along the border were neat garden-like spots. This particular cemetery was my back lawn. I kept my sheep in the field at the back of the cemetery. They would occasionally break fence early in the morning, wandering through the misty stones like spirits.

A Danish cemetery is a happy, pleasant garden. Flowers, shrubbery, well-kept grass. Stones are leveled every spring, cleaned, and fussed about. Family meet there for picnics. I had a picnic table placed behind the church for that reason. The Shetland sheep loved to get visitors, and would gently call when people would walk down the little gravel road. They expected snacks.

I found the cemetery map back at the church, and paced down to old Viggo Dall’s grave. He had been some twenty years older than Marietta. By the dates on the stone, it looked as if they had married when she was seventeen. I stared pensively at the monument, trying to imagine what life would have been like for a Danish speaking child-bride in the mountains fifty or sixty years before. There was then no electricity in the outlying parts of the settlement, and very few telephones. Roads weren’t paved. Births were usually at home; houses were heated by wood-burning stoves that served for cooking and heating water as well. Everyone worked in the fields, planting and picking potatoes, scything and stooking barley, oats and wheat, binding hay and straw.

For most young women, especially those who spoke Danish as their first language, marriage was the only career choice, unless they were needed at home to care for younger siblings, an elderly grandparent, or to help a widowed parent. Those who had good English skills might go to work in a store, study office skills, or become a teacher. For the most part, though, the settlement was poor, agricultural, and Danish in language and culture.

I had grown up hearing Danish and Swedish spoken in the homes of friends, and my unique contribution to the Danish Anglican church was to hold bilingual services four times a year. We had a few copies of an Danish-language book of common prayer that dated to Victoria’s reign, translated from the 1662 prayer book by the SPCK, The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. I produced a parallel Danish-English service booklet. We sang Danish hymns, led by Elena, our Danish-speaking concertina player, and the lessons were read in Danish. The gospel and the sermon were in English. I would read the Danish prayers phonetically, and the parishioners told me I had a Copenhagen accent.

Once Marietta was discharged from the hospital, I visited her at the manor, a home-like place. She was sitting in a rocking chair, a pink fleece blanket over her knees, a pink headband holding back her spare white hair. She looked at me through thick, pink rimmed glasses. She was wearing a pink sweater over a pink print housecoat. She was holding a  little book with a spiral binding.

I pulled up a chair and sat beside her, “Marietta, do you remember me from the hospital?”

She smiled gently.

“I came to visit you.”

She smiled again, and reached over to hold my hand. I wondered if she didn’t remember English. I had seen it happen before in my elderly parishioners.

“Goddag,” I said. “Hvordan går det?”

She only smiled.

She held up the book. It was a notebook style calendar. “Cat,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking English or Danish; the word sounds the same. Kat, cat. The book was pictures of kittens.

“Kitten,” I said.

“Killing,” she said, the Danish word for kitten. Oh, then we were speaking Danish. And I had just about exhausted my vocabulary.

via fanpop

I turned the pages of the book, saying things like, “Oh, three cats. A yellow cat.” She would stroke the photos with a finger, as if she was petting the kittens. When we came to the end of the book, I asked if she wanted to say a prayer. I used the Lord’s Prayer in English, as I had not memorized it in Danish.

The next time I went to visit, I brought along the Lord’s Prayer in Danish, and home communion. “Does she undertsand about communion still?” I asked her caregiver.

“Yes, Father Nick gave her communion last month. She knows what to do.”

We looked at the kittens. We said the Lord’s Prayer, or rather, I read it in Danish and she whispered to herself.

Fader vor, du som er i himlene! Helliget blive dit navn, komme dit rige, ske din viljesom i himlen således også på jorden; giv os vort daglige brød,og forlad os vor skyld, som også vi forlader vore skyldnere, og led os ikke ind i fristelse,men fri os fra det onde. For dit er Riget og magten og æren i evighed. Amen.

I gave her communion, with the simplest words, “This is my body, take eat…”

As I was leaving, I asked the caregiver, “Is there anything she needs?”

“Oh. Pastor, I think she could use a new kitten book. She has worn that one to tissue paper. I’ve taped it three times.”

I found another kitten desk calendar on sale at Chapters; I coordinated communion and visits with Father Nick. Marietta’s family had fallen away in seeing her. I could sympathize. She never responded with more than a whispered “Cat.”

The frail body didn’t last much longer. She died quietly one night in December. Father Nick and I would co-preside at her funeral. Part of it would be in Danish. He and I would sing  “How Great Thou Art” as a duet.

I sat in Elena’s kitchen and discussed which Danish hymns to use. “Ja,” Elena said. ” Inga will play these two hymns, and ja, I will play the others.”

“Your children would be the same age as the Dall children,” I said. “Did you know Marietta?”

Elena gave that peculiar Dansk shrug. “Ja, but she was young more than me. I knew her, she was just a child. Oh, and with the babies, all the time.”

“It must have been a lot of work for such a young woman.”

Elena put her head to one side and crossed her arms. I got quiet and waited a minute or so, knowing that a confidence was about to be given.

“She was never more than a child. Ja, the old pastor did not want her married. But what was to become of her when her parents were gone? She always had the dolls, even when her children were born. And pink. She liked the pink, pink everything.”

Elena shrugged again and frowned. “It were not right, but it would have been more wrong if someone had gotten to her…”  I know that old expression. It meant that she might have suffered abuse or rape.

I sat at home with a glass of sherry that evening, writing the funeral sermon after the wake. The metal casket was pink. Marietta was laid out in a pink dress, with a pink bow in her hair. She held a pink toy cat. Pink roses stood at her head and foot. She was waked in the church, which saved her family the expense of the funeral parlor wake. I had closed the church doors after the funeral director had closed the casket. I was the last friend to see her peaceful face.

I struggled with the details of her quiet life. What had married life been like? Why had her husband waited until almost forty to marry a woman who could not be his equal? Had she been frightened by sex and childbirth? How had she managed to run a large household when her intellectual age had been no more than age eight?

Yet the community had not seen her as disabled, as anything but a different shade of normal. A family was raised, meals cooked, clothes sewn, floors washed. They got by.  Marietta had lived out her life in an almost medieval Danish culture. She had never known anything different.

“Don’t judge,” the inner voice cautions, instilled in the mind by years of pastoral training. “Take it as it is. Help where you can, when it is needed, and as it is wanted.”

So I preached on angels and gentle souls, on simple pleasures and quiet days. I let the questions go.