From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Giving Something Back

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

Winston Churchill

After thirty-three years of managing the office for our auto-parts store in our small hometown of Athens, Alabama, we decided to sell our business and retire. We also raised beef cattle on the farm where we live, so I knew my husband would find plenty to do to keep busy, but what about me? I needed something to fill my days and most of all to feel needed. Our two children were married and had homes and careers of their own. Oh, I knew I’d be busy gardening, freezing vegetables and all the other things farm wives do, but I was used to being with people, and I loved the many friendships we shared with our customers and friends. How could I retire and still have a feeling of connection with our community? After all, these were the people who supported our efforts when we first opened our business, two young people scared to death we wouldn’t make it on a shoestring budget. We had been so blessed, and I wanted to give something back.

Knowing my dilemma, a friend told me about a hospice meeting and asked if I would be interested in taking the training class and becoming a hospice volunteer. I was so excited! Here was my opportunity to serve my community, give back to it, maintain friendships and begin new ones. The only thing I worried about was that all my patients would be terminally ill and in their doctor’s opinion would not live more than six months. Was I up to the task?

I could certainly sympathize with their families. I had lost both my parents when they were in their prime of life. I had been a young mother myself, and I desperately needed my mother’s love and advice when she was stricken with cancer. I longed for my children to have the opportunity to get to know her gentle ways and to remember her kisses on their skinned knees, but that was not to be. I spent many days and nights alone or sometimes out on the old porch swing with a cup of coffee, feeling as if no one knew or cared for me. How I wished for an understanding arm around my shoulder while my mother slipped quietly into eternity. Yes, I knew grief firsthand. If my experience had taught me anything, it was to share compassion to the dying and their families. So I became a hospice volunteer, and my journey began.

Equipped with information from my new training class, my desire to serve and a willingness to learn, I was assigned my first patient. With shaking knees, I knocked on the door of an elderly gentleman who was thrilled to see me. I recognized him at once as one of our former customers. Mr. Adams, a humble man, could neither read nor write, nor could his wife. She had never learned to drive a car; therefore, I drove him into the nearest town for his cancer treatments. I took him for drives through the countryside to his boyhood home and stopped occasionally for a cool drink of water from the sweet spring there. His wife found it too difficult to help him prepare for the inevitable, so it was I who helped him in the making of his last will and testament, pre-planned his funeral and helped him with his final wish—to accept the Lord as his Savior before he died. Mr. Adams taught us all the power of faith by living two years from the time I first knocked on his door instead of the usual six months.

My next knock found my knees shaking, just not as hard. Imagine my surprise when I was answered by a caregiver and led to the bedside of my favorite high-school teacher, whom I had not seen in many years. Her body was terribly frail but her memory still vivid. We had many days of joyful remembrances, and I was able to notify several of her former students of her condition, so she had many visits and calls.

My greatest challenge was my childhood friend, who had remained a dear friend and confidant, and was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. By her bedside, we shared our feelings about life and how it seems to slip away unnoticed, so many things left undone and unsaid.

Then came the elderly couple who were struggling to care for each other. At first, they were a little reluctant to let anyone into their lives, but they soon appreciated the loaves of homemade bread and fresh vegetables from my garden. Their favorite gifts were the big bouquets from my rose garden. My rose garden was my greatest asset. I found that all my patients and their families loved my roses. A fresh bouquet of vibrant red “Dolly Partons” or the creamy pink “Barbara Bushes” always seemed to brighten up a dismal sick room. My garden of eight to ten bushes, inspired by my patients’ enthusiasm, began to grow. Twenty, then forty, then sixty-five bushes, a whole corner of my yard in wonderful fragrant colorful roses just waiting to be cut while the early morning dew still lingered on their petals. They seemed to know their purpose and outdid themselves with some blooms as big as saucers. Soon, my garden became known as my Hospice Rose Garden. Word soon spread about the Dollys and Barbaras. They began to appear at weddings, teas and other social gatherings in our community. Just another way I found to give back.

My greatest reward is being requested by a patient or family to be their volunteer. When I get a call from our director with the words, “Someone has asked for you,” I am filled with great humility. Each assignment holds a new challenge. I have learned from every family. We are all God’s children, and he has a plan for each life. A smile is the same in every language, and “I love you” is really very easy to say if you mean it.

Wynell Glanton Britton

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Hospice Net, contact Suite 51, 401 Bowling Ave., Nashville, TN 37205;Web site:]

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