When volunteer Dorrie enters a room, the walls just seem to pulsate with her energy. Her appearance is a no makeup, no hairstyle, and no-nonsense. A former kindergarten teacher, Dorrie has a way of simplifying everything, without insulting you. She loves her patients, especially the men. Dementia doesn’t bother her; Alzheimers is just an inconvenience. She carries colored socks to sort, has had wine parties with grape Koolaid, and has brought beach towels to simulate a day at the seashore. If she visits a nursing home, she has kitten parties, where she brings shelter waifs to share with touch starved elders. She is fearless in the face of age and confusion and dwindling mental capacity, which normally scares the bejeepers out of even the most stalwart volunteers.
At one point, Dorrie had 17 cats and dogs living with her. All fosters, she takes in the unadoptable, the dregs, the unlovable and strives to find them homes. She equates her misfit animals to the failing humans she visits. “I love them all. They can’t help who they are and how they got there.” There is a comfort level with Dorrie that makes me wonder if she had been a misfit as a teen, but I don’t ask.
When Dorrie called me last week I was just finishing up some emails. “What’s up kiddo,” I said.” We’ve known each other for over ten years now, and I’ve spent many an hour soaking up her stories. She’s always there to train a new volunteer and to speak to new classes. I love to turn the floor over to her and retreat to the back, silent, watching the effect of her message that dying isn’t the worst thing in the world but dying alone with no one to care is the worst thing. Each time she speaks, she has to warn the class that most of what she does could be construed as against the rules, so maybe they should cover their ears. I play along and sternly wag my head as the class looks at me so I smile and scold Dorrie. But her confidence is infectious, her matter of fact attitude is comforting and her breakthroughs inspiring.
“Hey,” she said, “I’ve got some news for you.”
“I’ve got to take a break for a while, but I’ll be back.”
“What’s going on Dorrie?” I feel close enough to her to ask.
“Oh, just some medical issues I need to take care of.”
Huh. No, this was not her normal demeanor.
“Do you feel like telling me about it? I don’t mean to pry.”
“No, that’s ok,” she returned. “I’ve got some tests coming up.’
Ok, now I’m concerned. “What tests, Dorrie?”
“There’s a spot on my lung. I’ve had lung cancer before, but been in remission for years and it’s back now. I went to Europe last year, and came back with a cough. It didn’t go away. I had a test, but they didn’t find anything and well, now they did. It’s inoperable.”
I felt like her words had fists and each one took a turn seeing how much damage they could do to my heart.
“Oh my goodness, Dorrie.” What else can I say? Dorrie is only 63.
“Yeah, it sucks,” she returns. I can hear her dogs in the background. “Shish, Bezus, we’ll go out in a minute.”
Dorrie is always busy, on the move, like a wind-up toy. I wonder now if she had a premonition all these years.
So we talk. She tells me that I can use her stories in class. She says she’s loved every minute of her volunteering. We reminisce about her patient with Alzheimer’s who loved to go topless. Dorrie would tell her that her boyfriend was on his way which always worked. We recalled the time Dorrie had to call us because she encountered a huge hairy spider on the wall of a patient’s home. Turned out it was fake and there to scare anyone who dared to enter. She told me again about Bad Brad, the patient who was so confused he would put items in the microwave and his socks in the toilet. “Bad Brad!” Dorrie would tell him in jest and he would just smile. The stories were always funnier in the retelling because of Dorrie’s take on everything. There’s a shrug in her voice that dismisses anything crazy as perfectly normal.
I fantasized that Dorrie was making it all up. I’ve been down this road before with volunteers I care deeply about and staring at the dark, treacherous way, I don’t know if I have the courage to do it again. Dorrie though, represents stability, strength. I thought she’d always be there, not just for the patients and families and future volunteers, but for me, too. My world trembled, as cracks in the ice beneath my feet.
That’s the thing about this job. Volunteers aren’t props or tools or faceless voices at the other end of the phone. They’re Dorrie, and I’m going to miss her more than I can entertain right now.
Oh, she will keep it light, keep us laughing to keep from crying.
For her, I hope I have the strength.