Halina at Christmas 2009

It seems fitting on Memorial Day that I write a memorial of my own.

My 84-year-old neighbor and friend Halina Kiesig died this past week in her assisted living home. Among a host of other problems, she suffered from congestive heart failure, making it increasingly harder to breathe as her lungs filled with fluid. The last time I saw her alive, she was struggling for air, in spite of oxygen tubes tied to her nose. She was a woman slowly drowning.

My husband Ted and I befriended Halina about two years ago. She lived in our apartment complex and, except for her slow daily walks around town–her hands holding tight to a Trader Joe’s shopping cart for support–she was essentially a recluse. She couldn’t drive. She couldn’t see. She could barely hear.

We knew only a little about Halina. She was originally from Poland, and had no living family, no known friends. When she was a little girl, the Nazis arrested her father and he died in a concentration camp. Her mother was a pediatrician. In her teen years, Halina was a knock-out. Her friends called her a Polish version of Elizabeth Taylor–and she was: I saw a black-and-white portrait on her bureau that proved it. She had true love once, but it wasn’t returned, and instead she married a ship captain named John. She told John straight up she didn’t love him, but he promised to love her enough for the both of them. They moved to the States to start a life together, and John shipped out to sea for months at a time. Halina lived a reasonably affluent but lonely life until they divorced. They had one child together – a daughter – but she died early on of cancer. Halina never talked about it much.

Ted and I aimed to be good neighbors to Halina – changing her light bulb when she needed it, fixing her TV, picking up a few groceries for her at stores out of walking distance. We invited her over for a Christmas brunch, and checked up on her every few days to make sure she was okay. It was clear her health was fast declining. Soon she needed our help going to the doctors and managing the confusion it is to navigate the health system. The more time went on, the more she needed from us.

I felt compelled to help Halina, but at the same time, I didn’t want to get too involved. Truth be told, I didn’t always like her very much. She was feisty and held a grudge. She gossiped about all the neighbors, and at times, was as toxic as the black grime built up on her rugs. One minute she was sweet and loving – so grateful for all I was doing for her. But then she would turn on me, spewing daggers into all my soft parts. Her confusion and anger wore on me, and many times, I left her presence feeling just plain bad.

Still, she was someone who needed help, and she had no one – I mean no one. So out of service and necessity, I showed up.

Less than a week before our wedding last October, she called and said she was dying. She could hardly walk – dizzy spells – and had been sick for days. I took her to Stanford Hospital emergency room, and this was the beginning of the end for Halina. The next few months she was in and out of the ICU and skilled nursing centers. She had no supplemental insurance to her Medicare, so there was a small financial crisis as well. I was on the phone with her insurance, her pension fund, her pharmacy. She couldn’t go home to her second-story apartment – and I was the one to tell her. It wasn’t easy – I can’t imagine it ever is in this situation – but after a battle, she finally she agreed to move into assisted living.

I thought this would have a happy ending here. I pictured Halina playing bingo and eating turkey and mashed potatoes with the other residents. Not so. Things got worse. She hated her new home and refused to leave her room. She hated the caretakers, she hated her apartment, and she said the food was crap. Most of the time, she hated me too.

This was incredibly difficult to deal with. I knew it had nothing to do with me, but I had a terrible time not taking it personally. For my sanity, and with a lot of guilt, I distanced myself and let the system take over.

About a month and a half ago, Halina went into hospice. Ironically, the sicker she got, the nicer she became. Or maybe she just didn’t have the energy for anger anymore. I started visiting her again, and our friendship recovered. One endearing memory I have is of her all perked up in her hospice bed when I brought her favorite meal. She had told me she was starving and begged me to get her a 20-pack of Safeway Teriyaki Chicken Wings. I never saw someone so delighted to dig into chicken wings.

With time, she could no longer sit up in bed, and would just lie there, in and out of restlessness. Then she stopped talking, and would just make these gurgling groaning sounds. Often I would just go and touch my hand to her forehead, or hold her tiny swollen hand. It was powerful there, in the presence of such suffering.

When I showed up to visit her this past week, she had been dead for two hours. The coroner was there – he had a clipboard and was wearing suspenders. They had already packed up Halina in a zipped bag and put her body in the back of a van. I touched her head, through the body bag, one more time.

Why am I sharing all this? Well…partly because Halina died and no one knows it. Other than me and Ted, a couple of care workers and a few friends. There’s no service, no memorial. Halina’s ashes will be tossed to sea by some hired company who takes care of that sort of thing. This is my way of remembering Halina, and letting people know that she lived, and that, in spite of my mixed feelings about her, I did love her.

The other reason is this: There’s a shadow side of service, and this took me by surprise. I had always placed the idea of serving others on a pedestal. I mean, an opportunity presents itself to serve…you have a neighbor in need…and you better darn side do your duty, right? In a culture where we hardly know our neighbors much less love them, this still seems pretty basic. But I found the intention behind service is what matters. I can see now, in the beginning I helped Halina because I (or should I say my ego) wanted to be good. And by all eyes including my own, I was good. But I didn’t feel good. Frankly, a lot of the time I felt pissed and resentful. It wasn’t until I let go of being good that this resentment faded, and I could get real with myself and Halina.

I also learned that if you’re doing something for someone because you feel sorry for them, it just plain doesn’t work. It was only until I got to the point that I didn’t feel bad for Halina – that I actually just accepted where she was at without any judgment, good or bad – that we could really relate to each other as people, as friends. Halina wouldn’t have it any other way. I now think she suspected I was there because I felt sorry for her being sick and all alone, and she pushed me away because of it. In this way, Halina was a great teacher to me. And someone I won’t soon forget.

So next time you’re called to serve something…or someone…ask yourself these questions:

1) What am I getting out of this – really? What need(s) is it meeting in my life?

2) What (if anything) am I sacrificing on the altar of service?

3) Beyond my role, how does it feel when I’m doing this service?

4) What boundaries can I set around this service?

5) What is my exit plan? At what point would I be willing to walk away?

What are your thoughts on this? Any stories you have of a time you acted out of service…only to learn some important lessons along the way? Please share your comments – I’d love to hear from you.

Showing 16 comments
  • Karen

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Elaine! How wonderful. I respect all the work you and Ted did for Helina, and for remembering her now when there is no one else to speak prayers for her. I understand and agree with you about being careful to monitor our motivations when we put ourselves into service to others, but at the same time, it seems impossible to me that any act, no matter how loving or self-sacrificing, is in the long run selfless. I guess I just chalk it up to living and being in community: maybe Helina helped you in a past existence, and you’re paying back that debt now, or maybe she’ll be in a position to help you somewhere along the way. Or maybe not at all. Maybe you’re just a rock star for giving a shit about a lonely, alone old woman who had no one else and who was obviously strong and powerful enough to make it as far as she did alone, but didn’t on some level want to face the end without support. You and Ted were there. Blessings on you both for that, and I hope all your memories of Helina from here on out are of the good things, the happy, engaged, friendshippy things. xoxo đŸ™‚

    • Elaine

      Thank you Karen!! Yes I am focusing now on Halina’s heart, and picturing her heart whole and happy, wherever she is. I truly appreciate all your support. xoo

  • Anita

    Sharing about your caregiving is special and interesting…as we teach children: sharing is caring. You and Ted were her caregivers. I know b/c some of what you’ve written is where I am w/caring for my elderly parents. Sometimes there’s gratitude and sometimes there’s not. Realizing that one can no longer do simple things for self is very harsh. It’s frustrating for the one needing care and the one giving care. The love you shared was special to her b/c no one wants to be alone in life. She was not alone b/c she had you and Ted.

    The lesson for your readers is that caring about someone who is alone and maybe even elderly is important…we’ll all get old one day. Share b/c you care. Care while you share yourself (selflessly). Be a blessing to someone. And, remember the universal law: it is in giving that you receive.

    • Elaine

      Thank you Anita. “Be a blessing to someone.” I love that. Great to hear from you, and thanks for sharing!

  • Jessica Macbeth

    This is beautifully and wisely said, Elaine. Having been in the positions of both giving and needing care, I’ve gradually learned something important to me. First, there is no such thing as giving without receiving, or receiving without giving. The giver always receives something, whether it is the feeling of being good or something as subtle as the opportunity to learn about oneself and about service. Or the gift the care-giver receives might be simple friendship; it might be an opening of the heart; it might be giving up our defenses against loving the unlovable. In giving, we continue learning what “unconditional” really means. Everything is a test–even the easy things.

    As a former care-giver, I’m now learning the lessons of care-receiving. As the receiver, I now have to learn the lessons of “unconditional receiving” and these are perhaps even more difficult than the lessons of giving. It comes as a shock after years of service to find oneself on the other side. The first and hardest adjustment was to have to *ask* for help. As difficult as that was do when people were willing, it was even more painful to ask when you knew the giver resented it. So many challenges — to deal with illness, pain, frustration — and to try to do it gratefully and graciously. To appreciate what is given and to try to find the good in it, whether it is what one wants or not. To let to of the pride that one had in being able to take care of oneself and others, and to find the self-respect in doing what you can and accepting the rest. To do all this without focusing on all the “if only I coulds” and “I used to be able tos” in our present lives.

    No one *expects* to find themselves in this position. I didn’t. I was certain that I’d work until the end–and assumed that included being well able to care for myself without needing help. The things we have to learn! đŸ˜‰

    • Elaine

      Wow. Thank you Jessica for your heartfelt comment. As you say here, asking for help is the most humbling act of all. And you are right – giving and receiving are incredibly intertwined. I can only imagine how surprising it must feel to find yourself in your current position – of needing to be on the receiving end of all the care you gave to others all those years. We never know what we’re in training for I guess. Thank you again for sharing and many blessings to you!!

  • Jolita Schure

    Hi Elaine,
    I read your post about your old neighbor and friend, Halina. It really touched me especially since my family is from Lithuanian, neighbor of Poland. My mother is 82 years old and reminds me much of your old neighbor, Halina. My mother left her country when she was a teenager because of WWII. Her father left with my mother, and they fleed for their life. Truly a tragic time in history.

    Your good deeds were wonderful. To help a poor soul in need is priceless in the eyes of God. I wish there were more of you out there. Our society doesn’t respect the elderly and most live selfish lives. But you, gave and helped a person who truly needed it. Just knowing that you helped someone who is not related to you and felt the love is so special and rewarding in it’s own ways. God puts people in our lives for a reason. Even though it sounds like it was difficult at times, you were able to overcome it and continue the friendship. I am sure you will never forget her.

    Best to you and keep up the good works and service to those in need.
    Best wishes, Jolita Schure

    • Elaine

      Thank you Jolita…I appreciate you sharing here, and your kind words. It’s interesting that your family shares a similar history as Halina. As you say, a tragic time indeed. I agree with you that people come into our lives for a reason. Sometimes they are unlikely teachers. Thanks for that reminder.

  • Katrina

    I’m so sorry to hear about Halina. I know that being there for her, especially when you had huge wedding stress to deal with, wasn’t always easy. I commend you for taking the time to honor her life and memory with this posting. What a great gift.

    Your story is so similar to what Karl & I have gone through, and are going through still, with our neighbor Ethel. She never had any children, and although I know that’s not a guarantee that someone will care about you in your last years, it certainly increases that possibility. Perhaps my impulse help her is simply my selfish hope that someone will be there for me when I’m in her situation.

    • Elaine

      Thanks for your share here K. Yes I thought about you and Karl often during my challenges with Halina. You two are an inspiration to others – including me! I know you’ve done a tremendous amount for your neighbors and continue to do so with your support of Ethel. About your “selfish hope that someone will be there for me”… I think we all have that hope…to be cared for in our time of need, to be known, to be remembered. Two take-aways I learned from the Halina situation to increase the likelihood of this happening: it’s important (if at all possible) to 1) have some sum of money saved up for end-of-life care, and to 2) cultivate community while you can.

      Ethel is lucky to have you and Karl.

  • Alison Miller

    Wow, Elaine! What a wonderful article to read. Your story is raw, vulnerable, and so real. Thanks for revealing your shadow side of giving. A powerful lesson indeed.

  • Irena

    Dear Elaine,
    you have written an absolutely beautiful tribute to Halina. I could never write this eloquently (that is why I am an engineer and not a writer đŸ™‚ ). Thank you.
    And you posted a beautiful picture of her. This is how I remember her when I first walked into her assisted living apartment just after Christmas with plates of Polish Christmas food and pastries. From then on, I started visiting her 2-3 times a week and sometimes even more when she was in the hospital for the last time in March bringing her food I made at home or I bought at the Polish restaurant in Menlo Park. She especially liked the soups. It was a long trip for me – over an hour each way, but I also felt that she needed company at this stage of her life. I did not know Halina before December, but I got to know her pretty well over the next six months. Often, she waited for me to come on Sunday so I could take her for a long walk (in her wheel chair) on Santa Cruz Ave to go shopping or to the Polish restaurant. Yes, she was very difficult at times. However, I believe we developed a friendship based on the fact that we were both from Poland – she came to the US in 1958 to her family in Brooklyn, NY and I came with my family in 1961 also to Brooklyn – I think our paths must have crossed! She had close relatives in NY (aunts, uncles,cousins), but I never asked why she did not keep in touch. She also had a younger sister in Poland who died of cancer and two nephews.
    In her earlier life she was a practicing Roman Catholic and she returned to the prayers the last few months. I think it was comforting her. For the short time that I knew her I became very attached to her, giving her many, many hugs which she never objected to – I know she needed it. I saw her for the last time Thursday evening where I spent about 3 hrs with her – touching her, kissing her cheeks, holding her hands, changing her with the aide and speaking to her even though she did not speak. However, at the end, when she was given her sleeping medication, I told her that I would be leaving because she’ll go to sleep. This is when she started speaking to me clearly in Polish! We exchanged few substances, said our goodbyes and I told her I’ll be back in 2 days. I wish I had stayed longer, but maybe she would not have talked much more. I did not know I was saying my good byes. I am taking her death very hard and some of my friends and family are telling me now that I should not get so involved – which I alleyways do, helping the homeless, children in Foster care, etc…
    I do not regret the time I spent with Halina and I do hope I made her suffering easier – she always thanked me for each visit.
    I took care of my mother who lived with me for 3 years in California. She came here after her stay in the Hospice in NJ, but she came “alive” here. She had the same disease as Halina and she died of it 2 years ago… And I feel grateful that I made my mother’s life much better in the last 3 years. She died at 94 (even though she survived WWI, WWII and Russian invasion of Poland) and was very happy when she emigrated to the US. I am taking too much of your time, Elaine. Thank you so much for all you did for Halina – she was indeed lucky to have you and Tom as neighbors and yes, she was very difficult at times.
    Best wishes to you, (and somehow, I do not feel that I was part of “a few distant friends who came out of the woodwork, that is”. Irena

    • Elaine

      Thanks Irena for sharing here. You did a lot for Halina in her last months alive – I didn’t know to what extent because Halina would change her story a lot based on who she liked, who she didn’t, etc. As you may know some days she didn’t talk so kindly. I choose to believe this must have been part of her age or partly dementia rather than who she was in her heart. It was hard to tell. I know she appreciated you for your shared Polish heritage…and she sure enjoyed her trips with you to the Polish restaurant. Knowing you must have allowed her feel closer to home. Thank you for that.

  • Robert Ballou

    It’s hard work being nice! Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Candace

    I’m sorry for your loss. Halina’s is a very sad story but much less sad since you were there for her, even when it was difficult. I’m not sure I could have persevered so long but it’s good that you did…for both of you…so you could mourn the true Halina.

  • Dorota Trupp

    Please give me your contact details, I’d love to know more about my grandma. +61405022625