If my mother had been there, she would have insisted that I attend the funeral. But I didn't go, and I have regretted that decision my whole life.
My first duty station was on the pediatrics ward at Chelsea Naval Hospital. There was much to learn about applying my school knowledge to the real world, about running a ward smoothly, and about supervising corpsmen effectively. It was overwhelming, but exciting too. Every day I looked forward to work because of the children. I wanted to simulate their openness to the good in the world and their acceptance of hard things. They pushed me to excel as a response to the trust they gave me.
One patient was especially dear, Robin Monahan. She was a 12-year-old freckled imp with a wry sense of humor, the oldest of six children. She had leukemia, and chemotherapy wasn't working. Her family was stationed hours away but her mother came daily. Mrs. Monahan was a Tugboat Annie-type dynamo, larger than life, fiercely protective of Robin and a mother figure to me.
Robin spent months on my ward. When I was pulled to a different ward to work, I would come to her bedside at lunchtime and listen to her dreams and admire her paintings. She wanted to protect her mother so confided her worst fears to me instead. "Miss Hopkins, my hair is falling out!" She pulled out a fistful of brown curls. I gasped. We sat wordless, looking at each other, grieving.
As you probably guessed, Robin died on my shift. Her mother was not there. Her room filled with doctors and nurses struggling to save her. As she gasped for breath, she looked only at me with those brown pleading eyes. It was a massive moment of helplessness and I wanted to run. But I met her eyes, again grieving what we could not change. When she died, and the room cleared, I kissed her forehead and slowly bathed her pale body. I kept whispering how grateful I was to have her in my life. I felt like a priestess honoring a sacred moment.
Mrs. Monahan chose to have Robin's funeral in Chelsea so the hospital workers (me!) could attend. I didn't want to leave my house, much less attend a funeral, so I didn't go. I let down Robin, Mrs. Monahan and my mom. I never saw Mrs. Monahan again. I tried to find her through the years. But the moment for connection was lost.
When I was 13 years old, my family moved from St. Louis to Mom's hometown of 300 people. We lived next door to the "funeral home." It was really our neighbor's living room and she scooted her furniture aside to make room for a casket when needed. Mom knew her town did not take easily to a stranger like me. So she pushed me into accompanying her to every wake despite the fact that I knew no one. I thought my mother unreasonably strange, but the town did take me in. I should have learned then that grief is a time when we reach each other in a special way, more clearly, another sacred time. The late Grace Lee Boggs, a Detroit philosopher and author, had a saying posted on her wall: "Community is to the collective what spiritual practice is to the individual." I finally understood my mother when I read that. I was adding my little amount of caring to the community when they needed me and the collective responded. Grace would say such connection deepens the humanity in the world.
I still wish I could talk with Mrs. Monahan and tell her about Robin's last moments and what both Robin and her meant to me. The importance of being there for a grieving soul is a lesson I have never forgotten.
Cherie Dupuis is a member of the Jottings Group at The Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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