Maria, my old friend of many years was ill, refusing to eat. She told her caregivers that if I’d come to be with her, she’d start eating. I arrived the next day. She told me she had lived a long life and wanted to die but didn’t feel she could do so peacefully. I asked if there was anything I could do to help her feel calm in this last stage of her life.
“I’d like to see the wolves once again,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about—I even wondered if she was hallucinating. “I know a woman who knows a woman who runs a wolf sanctuary. She’s willing to bring two wolves to visit if the director will allow it. You need to talk with her. Please. You’re a professor. You have a PhD. She’ll listen to you.” I didn’t see what having a doctorate had to do with anything but I promised I’d do what I could. “Go now,” urged Maria.
I went downstairs and knocked on the administrator’s door. She was a pleasant looking woman and greeted me warmly after I introduced myself. “You’re Maria’s friend,” she said. “She talks a lot about you.”
“Maria and I have been friends for more than forty years. We met when we were living in the same community in Delaware.” I couldn’t imagine a director agreeing to have wolves in an assisted living institution, but I promised Maria I’d ask. After a brief friendly conversation, I told her why I’d come. “Maria would like permission for a woman who runs a wolf sanctuary to bring two wolves to see Maria.”
I expected the woman to object, to dismiss such a foolish idea out of hand. Instead, she said, “Maria’s friend called me. She told me the woman bringing the wolves would have them under control.” She hesitated, then said, “I know how much seeing them would mean to Maria.”
I tried to make a case for the wolves visiting. “Maybe the people living here—I almost said inmates—would like to see them as well? It would give them something exciting to talk about. I’d guess most of them have never seen a live wolf up close.”
She looked surprised. “I never thought about that. I have the woman’s contact information. I’ll call and ask. How long will you be staying?”
“I don’t know. It depends on how she’s doing.” I didn’t tell her Maria wanted to see the wolves so she could die in peace.
Maria was asleep when I went back to her room. The caregivers said all she could talk about was seeing the wolves. None of us believed it could happen. What director of an assisted living unit would allow wolves into their building?
And yet, it happened. The director gave her approval. The residents, thrilled about seeing the wolves, agreed to wear dark clothing, no jewelry or perfume, and to stand against the walls of the entrance area as quietly and still as possible. The excitement in the building was palpable.
Two days later, I was in Maria’s room, waiting with her. The woman with the wolves, two huge white arctic wolves, entered. Maria’s face lit up. She beamed happiness. The wolves went on each side of her and put their front paws on the bed. The wolf woman said something as one of them moved close to Maria’s face, as if to lick her. The wolf backed off but Maria leaned toward it, her hand resting gently on its back. The two of them looked intensely at each other. Then Maria turned toward the other wolf and looked intensely at it. She put her arms out and the wolves rested their faces on her hands. Maria’s joy was palpable.
When the wolf woman said it was time for her to take the wolves back to the van, Maria asked permission to kiss them. The woman said, “No kissing, but you can stroke their paws gently.”
We watched the woman tell the wolves to come to her. She had them sit before she took them out. They had driven hundreds of miles to see Maria and needed to rest before the long drive back to the wolf sanctuary.
When the wolves had gone, Maria hugged me, thanking me over and over for helping her see the wolves. “Nancy, you’re the best friend a person could have. Please tell the Angels (her name for the caregivers) that I’m going to stop eating and that you understand and approve.”
Approve wasn’t the word I would have chosen. I wanted Maria to live. She was a friend who’d seen me through many difficult situations. But, it was what she wanted. That was what had to matter most. If I could help her achieve a sense of comfort, it would help me let her go with ease in my heart. “It’s your decision, Maria. I want what you want. I’ll tell them.”
Maria died peacefully a few days later.
How do you define healing?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.