The Gift that Keeps on Giving
In the 2007 movie, The Bucket List, two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward, determined to complete their final wish list before exiting this world. While comical on one level, the underlying message is compelling: In the end, people need to establish a sense of closure-make their amends, put the final stamp of approval on their life's accomplishments, say their goodbyes, and perhaps leave something behind to linger in the minds of their loved ones.
For Hospice Care of the Lowcountry* nurse, Tamara Tesoniero, helping patients tie up life's loose ends is an important part of her job. "You want to make sure that someone has everything together so that they can leave peacefully," she said.
Susan Pettersen's dying wish was to finish an afghan she was making for her husband, Brian-a task she was too weak to complete. Understanding the importance and immediacy of her patient's final request, Tamara whisked away Susan's finished strips and bag of yarn. She first delivered the project to a local knitting group, but they were baffled by the unusual stitch. Next, Tamara took the unfinished blanket to her friend and former co-worker, Lynne Hummell, who called her friend, Gabrielle Van De Velde.
"I told her to look in the bag for a certain hook, and I knew it was what's called Tunisian crochet" said Gabrielle, who was familiar with the technique and agreed to finish it. For the next four days, she worked round-the-clock in a race against Susan's cancer. "All I could think was, 'It just has to happen,'" she said.
According to Gabrielle, the afghan was about three-quarters finished when she got it.
"You could tell that she was weakening. She had perfect stitches in the beginning. You could see how prideful her work was," she said, explaining that she reworked Susan's last rows to make them consistent.
Upon completion, Gabrielle put the afghan in a gift bag for Susan to present to her husband and accompanied Tamara to the home to meet the family and join in the celebration. "This whole thing was just amazing," said Gabrielle. "You think you are going through something sad, which it is. But the joy of being able to do something for somebody, and just seeing how in love they were- what a difference." As they turned to leave, Susan called Gabrielle over to her bed and whispered in her ear: "Don't tell anybody, but I'm starting another one."
"What a message of hope. I left kind of dancing inside," said Gabrielle. "I felt like I had been given the world's biggest gift."
According to Tamara, the joy of her job is sharing in the gift of a life well-lived and witnessing such deep, abiding love on a daily basis. "It is the most beautiful thing to be in the presence of that," she said. "For me, it is a privilege to be a part of someone else's intimacy."
But the thing that is really hard, she says, is that love hurts. "One of life's greatest challenges is losing someone you love. As a nurse, you try not to get emotionally involved, but you can't help it. My families are like my own extended family. That's something you don't just punch in and out of. It stays with you."
Tamara admits that before her experience as a hospice nurse, she did not have a clear conception of love. "It's like my own journey trying to come to know myself a little bit more and to know what love is really, truly about," she said. "I've learned it from my patients."
And so, Susan Pettersen's legacy lives on. According to Brian, when Susan was first diagnosed, she was given six months. She made it five years. "She went through the whole house and redid every room. That was her goal in the time that she had left - to make the house perfect so that I wouldn't have to do anything," he said. "She's still there. She was my angel, and she's watching over me."
As for the afghan? It was the finishing touch. "It just brought her peace, knowing that he had that forever," said Tamara. Brian agrees that it gave his lovely wife the closure she needed. Susan went to live in heaven March 10, 2008.
"There are so many stories. This is just one," said Tamara. "But I finally get it: The only thing that we have that will keep on giving - even after we leave - is love."
Hometown: New Jersey Hilton Head Island resident: four years Mother of: George, 13 and Christian, 11 When not working, find her: enjoying her kids, running, and writing a book about her hospice experiences. Describes herself as: compassionate and loving People might be surprised to know: that she is impatient, she hates housework, and she doesn't cook. Way of life: I try to bring peace and understanding to others. I don't take life for granted. I appreciate it every day.
* Hospice Care of the Lowcountry is an independent, community-based, non-profit organization, serving Beaufort and Jasper counties for 26 years. To find out more about the services they offer to terminally ill patients and their families, to volunteer or make a donation, call (843) 706-2296, or visit online at hospicecarelc.org.