About seven years ago, Marie Holley and her friend, Margaret Adamson, moved into our ward. Both had doctoral degrees in nursing, and they had been hired to start a graduate degree program in the College of Nursing at the University of North Dakota. It was a challenging task, and they attacked it with vigor. Our ward members felt fortunate to have two such talented people move into our midst.
But in six short months, the excitement of their new positions was overcome by tragedy. Marie found that she had a rare form of cancer, and the doctors felt that she had only a few months to live. But they had not reckoned with Marie’s incredibly strong will to survive. For almost three years, Marie fought the cancer with all her will and every form of chemotherapy and surgery the doctors could prescribe. But she gradually grew sicker and had to retire from work.
When she became too weak to take care of herself at home alone, she hired someone to come in at noon to make lunch, give her baths, and do other housekeeping chores. For almost a year, Marie managed this way. I was one of her visiting teachers, and my companion and I helped out in every way we could. Her friend, Margaret, also hurried home every evening to spend every possible moment she could with Marie and be her night nurse.
Even when Marie had less contact with people, her interest in them never waned. And it was this interest and willingness to get involved in other people’s lives that made Marie such a joy to care for.
In the spring of 1983, the long hours of work and caring for Marie finally caught up with Margaret, and she became ill. At this point, the Relief Society became involved. Compassionate service, which we had up to then thought of as something we did in an occasional time of need, became an important part of all of our lives.
We set up a calendar and made arrangements for the help that Marie needed. The calendar became my project. At home, it lay next to the telephone and the ward list, and it traveled to Relief Society and Primary meetings, where Relief Society sisters faithfully signed up to come and stay with Marie during the day—every day.
As the summer went on, Marie’s health grew worse. The doctors had already tried every treatment that was available. They had nothing more to offer Marie except pain medication. She was then eligible for the Hospice program, which is an organization of volunteers who devote time every week to sit with and provide basic nursing care for a terminally ill person who wishes to die at home. Paula Rasanen, the director of the East Grand Forks Hospice program, took over the nursing, and we Relief Society sisters organized ourselves to be Marie’s home companions.
At first, the Hospice volunteers felt uneasy about the Relief Society sisters helping Marie. Used to working with family members, the Hospice volunteers had often found that well-meaning friends soon “faded away into the woodwork” as the caring for a patient became more difficult. Our Relief Society sisters also had reservations about working so closely with the Hospice volunteers. We live in an area where many people think of the Church as a cult, and we wondered what the volunteers would think of us and our beliefs.
We also had other concerns. Our Relief Society organization had never been called upon to care for a dying sister. Many of the sisters who had never cared for a terminally ill person worried about what they should say and do. So we prayed. We then called those we felt inspired to call. And they responded wholeheartedly. We held meetings and taught the sisters how to care for Marie, what to do in an emergency, and how to administer pain shots. We then met with the Hospice director and organized the calendar for twenty-four-hour care—seven days a week. Slowly and surely, the organization, the sisters, and the principle of compassion began to work together to help Marie and to teach all of us what service really means.
As we all began to live by the calendar, we became used to all kinds of people coming and going at Marie’s home. Often we didn’t know the person we would be relieving or the one who came to take our place. But the unknown faces soon became acquaintances and friends as we stopped to chat. We marveled over Lillian, whom we called “the queen of the coupon savers,” and Ingeborg, who was always stopping by with a flower. Many of the Hospice volunteers wondered about how busy the women from Marie’s church seemed to be—many were young with small children, yet we all still came to spend time with her. Rather than thinking that our beliefs were strange, the volunteers came to admire us. Our fears gave way to the satisfaction we felt in being able to work so well together.
However, it took us all some time to realize why and how it all worked so well. We all came to help Marie, but we were slow to realize how much she was helping us. She made sure each person knew something about the person she had just met. She was always interested in each person’s life, and she helped each to feel comfortable in caring for her nursing needs. Marie was appreciative of the care we gave her. She even praised our fumbling attempts at administering pain shots. Marie gave us the only thing she could—her love.
Weeks and months went by. Then, suddenly, Marie got worse. She slipped into a coma. We all felt that the time had come for her to leave us. Our bishop, who was also a physician, notified her family. Women—both Relief Society sisters and Hospice volunteers—flocked to Marie’s bedside to say goodbye and to tell her how much they had grown to love her. It was an emotional time as we prepared ourselves to let her go.
But Marie didn’t die. Two days later, she came out of the coma. She had heard everything we had said, and she was angry because we had been so ready to give up. Our bishop told her, “You know, you could have let go then, while you were in the coma, and it would have been all over. You would have been finished with all this pain.”
“Yes,” she replied, “But I wasn’t ready yet.”
A meeting was called, and both the Relief Society sisters and the Hospice volunteers attended. Many of the Hospice workers shared feelings of anger and frustration. “Why didn’t she die?” they asked. “Why does God allow her to suffer on and on and on?” “When will it all end?” Eventually, the volunteers directed their questions to the Relief Society sisters: “Why are you so calm throughout all this?” “How can you be so serene when you see a great mind and life so wasted?”
It was an emotionally charged situation. But it was also an opportunity for us to explain the plan of salvation. Anxious and concerned, the women sat in silence as we told about why we are here, the purpose of our lives, and the promise of what lies before us in eternity. We told them that death is just another beginning, not an end. The meeting ended on a quiet, thoughtful, and spiritual tone.
Several months went by. Both Relief Society sisters and Hospice volunteers continued to plan their lives around Marie’s needs and Margaret’s work schedule. There were no problems in getting people to help. The only problem I encountered was when I decided to relieve two sisters who had been staying with Marie for three nights every week for an entire year. I tried to send them home for some much-needed rest, and they both were incensed at me for “firing” them. They insisted on continuing their overnight schedule, and they did so until the day Marie died.
After fourteen months of our constant care, Marie was almost ready to leave this mortal existence. As I sat with her one morning shortly before her death, I watched several women—sisters and volunteers—drop in to say hello to Marie and to see how she was doing. I thought how all these strangers had become friends and about how much we had all learned from Marie—about love, caring, and learning to give of ourselves. We had learned to recognize the good in each person and to realize the blessings that come from service. One of the women said, “I feel so blessed that I had the opportunity to share this time with Marie. It was a rich experience, one I shall never forget, for I have grown so much from this time we spent together.”
Marie had carefully planned her funeral, and fourteen months after we had begun to help care for her, she died. The funeral was not a sad affair. Marie had not wanted it to be. Instead, it was a calm, peaceful, “goodbye for now,” with the assurance that we would all see her again.
Most of the people who attended the funeral were not Latter-day Saints. Many were Hospice volunteers; others came from the College of Nursing and the university. The audience listened attentively as the principles of the gospel were explained. For most of them, it was the first time they had actually realized how many people had been involved in caring for Marie. Seventy-five different people had helped—forty-five Relief Society sisters, twenty-two Hospice volunteers, and eight part-time employees. The hours spent weren’t counted, although they must have been several thousand.
After the funeral, a luncheon was served. The comments I overheard there were most revealing. People said such things as:
“Why, it was the most beautiful funeral! It was so well organized, I had to keep reminding myself that all you people were volunteers. It is so amazing that no one gets paid for all this.”
“I remembered all the things Marie had told me before, and it all fell into place. Your philosophy and beliefs are so logical.”
“I wish I could really believe as you do. No wonder you feel so comforted.”
“I’ve lived in this town for many years, yet I’ve never had the nerve to come into your church. I am so glad I came today.”
“I’ve been reading the books Marie gave me and I was so interested to hear where we came from and why we are here.”
We soon discovered that Marie had not left us without work to do. She had given each nonmember who had helped care for her a copy of the Book of Mormon and a copy of A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, with the challenge to read them both. “After I’m gone, someone will come and explain them to you and answer your questions,” she had told her friends.
So typical of Marie’s personality and vision was her ability to leave with us, her loved ones, a charge and a challenge. She had suffered greatly as she sought to prolong her life in order to complete what she wanted to do. Perhaps, had she died when the doctors had predicted, none of this service, sacrifice, missionary work, and teaching of the gospel would have taken place. She had planted the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of many people. Now it is up to us—her friends—to nourish that crop so that the Lord might reap the harvest. We can only hope and pray that when we meet Marie again, we will be able to report that we have completed the task she left for us.