During the years of my medical practice, I made only one house call. At the time, I felt as if I was breaking protocol—Ida hadn’t called and asked me to come. Yet I felt compelled to go.
Hank and Ida first came to my office in early November. They were in their sixties. Both were heavily built, Ida particularly with a round, protruding abdomen. They held hands as they entered, and Hank wiped tears from his eyes. “She let herself go. She took care of me when I had my heart business and let herself go.”
“He needed me.” The couple settled into chairs near my desk. Ida reached for his hand. “We only had enough for one of us and it needed to be him.” Her hair had natural curls and was graying without style or a recent cut. She wore a worn cotton dress and a sweater made of an inexpensive cotton-acrylic blend.
Hank’s hands were thick and calloused, the hands of a laborer. He wore heavy construction boots. Everything about them said chasing poverty was a daily effort.
Ida had post-menopausal bleeding for a year. She’d never been able to have children. Yes, she had been chubby most of her life. Sadly, her medical history strongly suggested uterine cancer. I performed a biopsy.
Two weeks later they returned for results. “It’s cancer. I’m sorry.”
“I thought as much,” Ida said. “Sometimes you just know.”
“You won’t be alone through this,” I told her. “First, I want you to go to the cancer doctor at the university. He will let me know about your treatment. And I’ll be here to help however I can.” I nodded at Hank. “It’s important we get started.”
“She’s a great woman.” He wiped tears from his eyes.
A few weeks later, the cancer doctor called. “We took her to the OR. There was nothing we could do. Cancer was everywhere. We closed her back up.”
I pictured Ida’s round stomach full of cancer. She would start some sort of chemo program, but it would have limited success. The probability of her surviving even a month was low.
Two days before Christmas, I asked Jeanie, my office manager, to visit Ida and Hank with me. I had misgivings. Would I be viewed as an intruder into their last weeks together? I hadn’t seen them since giving them the results of her biopsy. Would they wonder why I came? They were under another physician’s care.
Nonetheless, I picked one of the large poinsettias that decorated the office. “This is a nice one.” I carried it to the car.
The sky was dark as we parked in front of their small, concrete block home. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Jeanie asked.
“Yes. But I’m not sure why.”
Ida opened the door. She was exuberant. “You came!” she said, bubbling with excitement. I handed her the poinsettia. A sparsely decorated tree was in one corner of the room. The poinsettia would be the only other splash of Christmas color. She put it on the tile floor next to the tree.
Immediately, Ida took my hand and led me to the kitchen. “Hank built these cabinets. I’ve been wanting them for an age. He finished them yesterday.” Proudly, she opened the cupboard doors and ran her hand along the smooth wood finish.
Hank beamed. “They’re beautiful,” I said.
“Anything for her.”
Walls were decorated with photographs of nieces and nephews. A collection of ceramic salt and pepper shakers sat on an open shelf in the kitchen. “Some of these were my mother’s,” Ida said.
I was in their home. That same love for each other I felt in my office was here, too. They’d never been able to have children. They had weathered that disappointment. They were not blessed with abundance. Yet they had each other, and their love filled their home with everything that Christmas was about—caring for each other, sacrifice—the true spirit of the season.
“Ida, Hank—thank you for letting me come.” I reached for their hands. “I wanted you to have the poinsettia and I wanted to wish you Merry Christmas. Tears gathered in my eyes. This would be Ida’s last Christmas.
“Before you go, Dr. Allen, I want you to have something.” Ida reached into the pocket of her housedress and pulled out a small, enameled angel pin. She attached it to my coat. “You’ve been the angel on my shoulder,” she said.
Returning to the car I was filled with hope. Perhaps we could learn from people like Hank and Ida that it was possible to love someone more than self. I thought of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “What Can I Give Him?”
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him? Give my heart.
Three weeks later, Hank called to tell me Ida had quietly passed away. “She was a great woman,” he said, his voice choked.