She was staring at the glass of chocolate Ensure. “Annie” didn’t like chocolate but was so devout in her Catholicism that she did not want to offend Jesus. She looked up at me and asked, “Does Jesus like chocolate?”
It was such a funny question and I stifled a laugh, because I knew she was completely serious in her inquiry. Fortunately, I knew the real question behind the question. Will Jesus be mad at me if I don’t like chocolate? I smiled and said, “Jesus loves chocolate, but he forgives you if you don’t like it.”
She stared at the glass, caught up in her indecision between not wanting the chocolate but not wanting to offend Jesus. It wasn’t long before the decision was made for her. Another resident sidled up to the table, grabbed the glass and swallowed it one gulp as if it were a shot of whiskey. He pounded the empty glass down and walked away. Problem solved.
Annie had dementia, and the combination of her dementia and her faith led to all-consuming thoughts of heaven and the afterlife.
“What do you think we’ll wear in heaven?” she would ask me.
“I don’t know, what do you think?” I would reply.
She didn’t know either.
“How will I get there?” she asked. I told her that maybe Jesus would come to get her. I didn’t know that for sure, but I have heard more than one story from other hospice workers who had been told by patients that Jesus had come. She liked the idea.
“What do you think heaven will look like?” she would ask. Sometimes she would look at a picture hanging in her room of blue sky and clouds and tell me that she thought that is what heaven would look like.
“I hope I go to heaven,” she would say every time I saw her.
Other times, she would talk about heaven as if she knew something I didn’t. “We’ll see each other again in heaven,” she would tell me in a reassuring way.
Annie ended up being in hospice for four years. She never remembered who I was specifically but she recognized my face when I visited. Because her memory was so bad, her family and I would write notes for her reminding her of our visits. I would also write down what we had done during the visit. Usually I would just say that we visited and prayed together. Though she couldn’t remember that we prayed, she found comfort in knowing that she had just prayed when she read the notes.
One time, in the final few months of her life, it occurred to me to write, “God loves you, Annie.” She read it aloud and then smiled. She looked up at me and said, “God loves you too, Elizabeth.” It the first time in four years that she had spontaneously uttered my name. My jaw dropped. She said, “That is your name, isn’t it?” With tears in my eyes, I nodded yes, it is.
Just a few days before she died, I visited her. When I walked in, she said hello and then said, “We’ve been friends for a long time, haven’t we?” I said that we had.
Two days later, I got a phone call that she had suddenly taken a turn for the worse and that she was non-responsive. The next day, I went in to see her and said my name. Though her eyes were closed, her eyebrows raised. She looked completely different from just a few days before. She seemed to be in pain as her brow was furrowed. The room was hot and so was she.
I put a damp cloth on her forehead and I notified the nurse of her fever. At first I wasn’t sure what to say or do because usually she leads the conversation but then it occurred to me to pray. I started praying the rosary and as I did, I saw her mouth moving along, trying to pray with me. As I prayed the rosary, I saw her face relax and I knew that was what she needed. When I left, she appeared to be resting peacefully. I learned that she died the following day.
I look forward to the day when Annie can tell me for sure whether Jesus likes chocolate.
Lizzy Miles 2011