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By: Dr. Mari Dias
“…There’s a time that I remember when I never felt so lost
When I felt that all the hatred was too powerful to stop
Now my heart feels like an ember
And it’s lighting up the dark
I’ll carry these torches for ya
That you know I’ll never drop…
Cheers to the wish you were here, but you’re not
Cause the [dreams] bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back
Memories bring back you” (Maroon 5, Memories, 2019)
A dear client of mine, Cindy, lived with her daughter, Sarah, and two grandchildren (Anthony, age 13, and Adrian, age 6) waiting to die. Cindy was diagnosed with multisystem failure and was told she had less than 6 months to live. She was 53 years old. She seized every one of those remaining days and filled them with a bucket list of to-dos: A ride to Galilee for chowder and clam cakes, a convertible drive on 95 North going nowhere, listening to 60’s and 70’s tunes as she blasted them for the edification of every passer-by. Despite the speed. As her end of life grief counselor, I was fortunate enough to be the chosen one that accompanied her as she checked off the boxes. The last box to check touched my heart the most. Her last request included a presentation to my college counseling class, whose content included a discussion of both the process of death and the process of counseling. Cindy had been an addictions counselor before she fell ill.
It was early Fall when Cindy stood at the podium in my class while her presentation was videotaped. She wanted to “live on forever in the Counseling department at JWU, and I promised her I would show her video to each of my classes for as long as I taught. And I have. My students hold on to Cindy’s mantra about therapy:
“Therapists need to have the skin of a rhinoceros and the heart of a dove.”
Indeed, we do.
Cindy passed during the holiday season in the hospice hospital. Her daughter and grandchildren could no longer take care of her as she was failing quickly. They lived on the second floor of a tenement on a busy city road: too difficult for Cindy to maneuver. She donated her body to Brown University Medical Center.
A few months after Cindy’s death, our state was blanketed with, as little Adrian would later describe it:
“A great big snowstorm! The kind that closed schools and gives you enough snow for a family of snowmen and a huge igloo for a house! It was up to my waist!!”
Unfortunately, the power went out and the family lit some scented candles to shed some light on the tiny apartment. In short, one of the candles inadvertently got knocked over in the den area. By the time Sarah noted the smell of smoke, several of the items in the den caught on fire. Within minutes the entire apartment was in flames. Sarah grabbed both Anthony and Adrian who were both barefoot, in their pajamas ready for bed, and hustled them down the stairs, to the frigid cold and snow outside.
They successfully made it out of the house in time to watch it burn to the ground. They were freezing, barefoot and sans jackets. There wasn’t time. The main thoroughfare was empty and unplowed and with parking restrictions; there were no cars in sight.
Both the Fire Department and the Red Cross responded but not before Sarah noticed an old woman walking down the main street, slowly but with purpose. As she approached the family, she said:
“Oh my, I was just in town to view an art exhibit. I’m from Boston. I know what it is like to be a victim of a fire and lose everything one has. In fact, I am always prepared for a fire since my experience.”
Sarah and the children looked at her, blinking over and over. Where did she come from? Where is her car? Who is she?”
The woman’s name was Edna. Edna indicated she would be right back as she went to retrieve her car. The family watched her walk back down the empty main street and turn a corner. Within minutes a car came crawling up the unplowed main street, skidding to a slow stop just past the house in flames.
Edna proceeded to get out of the car and opened her trunk. The trunk was stuffed full of garbage bags. And in those bags Edna began to pull out winter jackets, hats, socks, gloves, and boots. She also had an assortment of blankets. The family was both grateful and shocked. Shortly after the fire trucks arrived and put out the flames, leaving a charred outline of what once was. The Red Cross were next to arrive and provided the family with drinks and snacks, along with a voucher for a hotel room.
Edna remained to drive the family to the hotel. Of course, the family was beyond grateful, despite the loss of all their possessions and belongings, as well as the recent loss of Cindy.
A few weeks later, I called Sarah to tell her I had a check from Hospice for her family. She invited me over to her father’s house, where they had temporarily set up living quarters.
When I arrived, Sarah and the children were excited to show me a once empty bedroom. When they opened the door, I was surprised to see a room stocked, floor to ceiling with winter clothes of all sizes, books, and toys galore. Sarah told me that Edna had set up a foundation at her Boston office and all the employees sent donations.
The family could not fathom their good fortune. Who was Edna? And how did it come to pass that she was walking alone, down a deserted, unplowed street? Was there actually an art exhibit that hadn’t been cancelled? Did the fire serve as a beacon for her? And where did she go? Once she dropped the family off at the hotel, she disappeared. The only evidence of her presence were the clothes on their backs and the warmth of the blankets. And the presents. Sent from strangers in Boston.
P.S. Cindy, I know you sent Edna!
Or…perhaps it was you in Edna’s body. Maybe God let you leave heaven for a bit to visit earth and help your family. I write this article in your honor. We remember you always. Your family lost all the family pictures and any sign of your existence, including all your clothes but we all hold onto the memories of you. They cannot be destroyed. Or burned.
Oh, and by the way, I recently found your black cardigan sweater in my back seat; you know the one you brought on our convertible ride in case it got cold? I’m going to give it to Sarah.
It still holds your scent. Rest in Peace my dear friend.
Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief.
She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI. For more information, go to: http://gracepointegrief.com/