As I sat next to her bedside ready to begin our one gazillionth puppet show, Gina softly whispered, “Essie come closer – I have a secret to tell you.” I leaned in with both curiosity and trepidation. She continued. “Don’t tell anybody but I’m dying. I don’t want mama to know because it would make her sad.” Before I could respond, she followed up this sobering statement with, “Now let’s start the show!” Her mother was in the doorway and heard every word.
Gina entered my life through hospice, where I served as the “Volunteer Puppeteer.” My first visit was on her seventh birthday. Doctors told the family she would not make it through the month, but Gina had other ideas. She defied the odds, and that month stretched into one year. From the beginning, it was clear to me who was in charge, and it wasn’t me! I had been chosen to be her student and Gina, the divine messenger, was sent to be my teacher. It was a privilege to “sit at the feet” of this wise young sage and listen as she spoke to and through the puppets. During that last year of her life, I was bestowed the honor of receiving a master class in how to live a purposeful life through the eyes of a little girl who was not afraid to die. How did this happen? Against all odds, that’s how.
My puppets and I collectively jumped into hospice without a net, (or so I thought). Here I was, a forty-year veteran preschool teacher who spent most of her days singing, dancing, puppeteering, and twirling her way through ABC’s and 123’s in a career of service and joy surrounded by three, four, and five-year-olds!
I incorporated puppets into my classrooms as a way for children to freely express themselves, and as a gentle way for them to understand the importance of caring for one another and being a good friend.
No matter who they were or where they came from, whenever I introduced my furry friends their reaction to them was the same. As if by magic, they were suddenly transported to another dimension, a peaceful place where they felt safe and loved. I became known as Essie, the Puppet Lady.
During this time I began volunteering in children’s hospitals and my puppets tagged along. Once again, the puppets seemed to change the atmosphere in the hospital room. The hospital bed became the child’s stage – and the puppet show became the child’s story. If a child was confined to a wheelchair, then one of the puppets was in one, too. If a child needed to take yucky medicine then one of the puppets took yucky medicine, too. They adapted and so did I.
Then the unexpected occurred: “Hospice found me.” More to the point, “Gina found me.” As it turned out, all those years in the classroom were in preparation for this sacred world of caring for, and yes, celebrating a child at the end of life. Gina would have it no other way. She was the first little girl I was assigned to in hospice. Gina set the bar high for me. As a result of her extraordinary strength and courage, she gifted me the strength and courage to continue serving any child who was directly in hospice care, as well as any child whose family member was at the end of life. I soon realized this gift was not to be squandered.
I could not begin to know what had transpired before I was called into the home of a child navigating the extraordinary journey of life and loss. What I do know is, as I entered and introduced myself, the power of puppetry, and most importantly, the power of the child began. Once more, as if by magic, we were all transported to a sacred place where there was no sickness, no suffering, no pain. Most often there was laughter, singing, and joy, sometimes in minutes, often in hours. The child had a “job” to do, a “show” to put on! And a celebration of their life began! Their stories were improvised, and their imaginations soared. The child shared their journey, often whispering their innermost thoughts. This created a safe haven for these courageous boys and girls, allowing them to speak to the puppets freely and comfortably about their illness, bare their soul, and have a sense of control at a time when their life had spiraled out of control. Through the puppets, the child was allowed the freedom to write the last chapter of their life.
To be handed a furry little bear, a shy turtle, or a courageous pup, when the child gave their little friend a voice, they heard their own voice echo back. This is where I learned that until we take our last breath, we grow and blossom when we are heard. When we are listened to with an open heart, we open the door to where love lives. This was, is, and will always be the most profound education and greatest privilege of my life.
Gina saw the world through the eyes of love. Alive with enthusiasm and wonder up until her last breath, she seemed to imagine her life not as it was, but as it could be. All from a place of love. We had a special code that was announced when I was coming down the hallway. I would sing, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay,” and at the top of her lungs, Gina would follow with; “My oh my, what a wonderful day!” Every day for this little heart was full of wonder.
Gina found her purpose here on earth and shared her heart with everyone she met. Family, friends, and classmates would visit with the intention of consoling her. Well, it was Gina who ended up consoling them! Gina’s essence had a way of making you feel good about yourself. She left a lasting impression on every life she touched, most especially mine. When difficult decisions need to be made, I often ask myself, ”What would Gina do?” She always answers.
It seems to me that little hearts possess an innate wisdom that knows so much more than we are aware of.
On one of my last afternoon visits with Gina, I was briefed that her morning had been particularly difficult. About to enter her cozy room, I heard her mom, Edith, softly crying. I stopped in the hallway and heard Gina ask, “Mama, why do you cry?” Edith answered with, “I cry because I know you are in pain, and I wish I could take that pain from you.” Without missing a beat Gina responded, “It’s ok mama, I take the pain because I can.” She profoundly followed with, “Mama, I was made for this!” Though Gina “knew” her time was limited, her messages of love, empathy, and caring for “the other” made her journey’s purpose limitless. We are “the other.” I know if this spiritual teacher were here today, she would be asking us all, “My friends, what were you made for?” She’d follow with, “The answer lies in your heart.”
As Gina’s journey on earth neared its end, we visited almost every day. I vividly recall one warm afternoon walking into her home and hearing the sweetest sounds of giggling and cooing drifting down the hallway. As I tiptoed to her room, Edith was sitting next to her little girl and motioned me in. Gina’s eyes remained closed, and she continued her “symphony” with a huge smile on her face. After a time, Edith softly said, “Gina, you look so happy.” Her eyes still closed, Gina answered, “Oh mama, I am happy! The angels are helping me – they’re teaching me to fly!” Edith asked, “Oh Gina, where are they?” Gina pointed towards a corner of the room and announced, “There they are!” Edith responded, “Oh yes, I see them!” At that moment Gina opened her big brown eyes and said, “Oh mama, don’t be silly – you know you can’t see them. Only I can!”
That evening Edith walked me to my car. As we hugged goodbye she said, “Essie, I have something to talk to you about. I spoke with Gina’s doctor today and, knowing he had experienced how you and your puppets interact with our little girl, I asked him what he thought about having you tell Gina, (through the puppets), that it was ok for her to let go. And he agreed.” She followed with, “Essie, the next time you come back, will you consider telling Gina it is now her time to go to heaven?” There were no words. I nodded yes.
The next morning, I returned. I wasn’t sure how this intimate conversation would transpire. I put my trust in the hands of the puppets and in Gina. Her mom, dad, and brother were also in the room watching Gina orchestrate what was to be our last puppet show. I thought a bunny she was particularly fond of was best suited for this profound moment. As I reached for the bunny, Gina shook her head “no” and pointed to the little butterfly. It was as if she knew. Gina’s mom asked her little one why she chose the butterfly. She turned to her mom and said: “Little butterfly spends her days in the heavens and I want to do that too!” Little butterfly gently spoke with Gina, softly asking if she was ready to go to heaven. Gina replied, “Yes.” We went through memories of the past year – of painting, drawing, reading, singing, dancing, and how much she had taught us all. At one point, Gina asked the butterfly, “How will I get paints and colors in heaven?” Gina answered her own question with, “Oh, I know – I’ll get the colors from the rainbow!”
The next day Gina peacefully left this earth. This little girl packed a lot of living into those eight years. We all need heroes that show us the end of their life as being the best part of their life. This Light Being was mine. Gina is my reminder that, “Everyone deserves to write the last chapter of their life.”