I belong to The Study Club, a group founded in 1882 to educate women. The Study Club was an outgrowth of the Chautauqua Assemblies and its motto was “We Study for Light to Bless With Light.” Similar clubs were founded at the time and they have all faded away. Though my club still exists, it is dwindling.
Alice, a nurse and researcher, had belonged to club for many years. Members always looked forward to her papers. This year’s paper was supposed to be on a world leader, but the schedule changed after Alice had a physical exam and learned she had incurable cancer. She sent a touching resignation letter to the club and said she was in palliative care. How could we honor Alice’s life and cope with her impending death?
The president suggested honoring Alice’s life with poems and readings that represented her life. “It’s not a memorial service,” she explained. “This is a meeting to honor Alice.”
On the day Alice was supposed to give her paper club members read a variety of readings. One read from a biography about the world leader. Another read a poem about walking in honor of Alice’s daily walks. Alice loves movies and theater so another member updated us on forthcoming shows. Yet another member read a quote from a Scotch beer label, written by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read Robert Frost’s poem, “Take Something Like a Star” and excerpts from “The French Chef” by Julia Child in honor of Alice’s gourmet cooking.
Poem by poem, reading by reading, Alice’s life began to take shape. We could not portray her entire life in an afternoon, but we created a word picture of Alice. The most moving part of the meeting was the poem Alice asked to be read in her absence, “Wild Geese” by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver. The poem tells about the world offering itself to our imagination, calling to us like wild geese, “over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Each member received a copy of the poem Alice had chosen. At the end of the meeting members reminisced about Alice. My sister-in-law, an expert knitter, told a story about the sweater Alice had started knitting for her son some 30 years ago. Alice found the sweater, finished it with my sister-in-law’s help, and gave it to her grandson! Everyone laughed at the story and the meeting closed with happy thoughts of Alice.
After the meeting I realized club members had experienced anticipatory grief together and coped with it together. We continue to cope. Alice loved the idea of a meeting in her honor and she received copies of our readings. The Study Club is small, yet larger groups could have a similar meeting to honor an ill member. Readings could be published or emailed to members. “Wild Geese” hangs on the wall above my computer, a reminder of friendship, family, and Alice’s life.
Copyright 2006 by Harriet Hodgson
Harriet Hodgson has been a freelance nonfiction writer for 28 years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief,” written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from http://www.amazon.com. A five-star review of the book is posted on Amazon. Another review is posted on the American Hospice Foundation Website under the “School Corner” heading.
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