Hospice Austin assigned a patient to me in early 1990. Mary Jones was an African American in her late sixties who had breast cancer and metastatic disease. She lived in poverty in East Austin. My hospice director said, "Mary needs a dream weaver. Her dreams are many before she dies. Interested?" "You bet," I replied.
My first phone call to Mary revealed what my director meant. Me: "Hi Mary. I'm Allison and I have been given the pleasure of being your hospice counselor. I would like to come see you tomorrow." Mary: "Are you a white person?" Me: "Well, it just so happens I am." Mary: "Good! All white people know how to needlepoint and I want to learn that before I die." I knew immediately I was in for a wonderful ride with Mary Jones!
As predicted, our first meeting was all about needlepointing. I brought all the materials needed for her to learn and she was very much a quick study. She was needlepointing pillows in no time. Also, we discovered that we shared a love of movies. Mary was still able to get out, so we attended many matinees.
The inevitable questions start to arise with patients who have not realized all their dreams. "What can I do for you, Mary, to weave these dreams you have?"
First, there were the estranged children from several marriages. Helping to mend strained family relationships is never an easy task for a hospice worker, but a much needed one. Slowly, the grown children came one by one and all were reconciled, save the one son incarcerated in Texas. More on that later.
One day, wistfully, Mary said, "I wish I had gotten my high school diploma. I am such a bad example to my grandchildren." I asked, "What's stopping you, Mary? Would you like to study for the exam and take it? I can arrange that." (I knew it would take a lot of strings to be pulled, but it would be worth the effort.) Mary was delighted to make the attempt--never mind that she was on morphine and concentration was in short supply for her. When I left that day, I contacted the State of Texas GED Board. When I told them Mary's story, they were very discouraging and asked some hard questions. How, when and where this could happen? How would someone, 50 years past high school, do this with painkillers on board? I replied, "Just set up a meeting for me and let's see what we can do for her. It's a good public relations opportunity for the GED and I will make sure we have media coverage." These must have been magic words as everything started rolling. Private tutors were arranged to come to Mary's home. A pretest was scheduled. Then more tutoring as her pretest scores were not going to get her a diploma.
To the credit of the State of Texas, I had been told up front that a GED is not something passed out in sympathy for the dying. Mary would have to pass the test. With many prayers, the day came for the exam. The examiners arrived at Mary's home. I paced the floors like a parent! After two hours, the testing team left and said we would hear from them in a few weeks. "What? A few weeks? We don't have that much time!" I protested. They looked at each other, apparently wondering, "What ELSE is Allison Wiggins expecting us to do? Now we have to rush the test results?" With a pleading look from me, they said, "Okay. Okay. We will hand grade it." In three days, we received the joyous news that Mary had a passing score and she was set to receive her diploma.
Mary wanted to be able to speak publicly after receiving her diploma, so I arranged, through the generosity of a local hotel in Austin, to have a media gathering for a wine and cheese party to witness the award of her GED. The event was telecast on the evening news. It was quite a party with some board members of Hospice Austin in attendance. A few people from the Austin Board of Education attended and spoke about the importance of the GED no matter a person's age. Mary, by this time in a wheelchair, was still able to speak clearly and passionately about staying in school and the value of a high school diploma. TV reporters gathered around her for questions, making her feel so special. What a glorious night!
There was still one more dream to be woven--the illusive dream of Mary's reconciliation with her son in prison. She could not travel to see him, so I needed to get him out of prison before her death, which was no longer in the distant future. I decided to call in a very big favor from an Austin District Judge I'd worked for in the past. I told him I needed Mary's son to come to her home before she died. After a long silence, he asked, "Do you have any idea what you are asking?" I told him I did and that I would be "much beholden" if he would arrange it. State troopers would have to escort Mary's son (and be paid for that). He could not be unshackled during the visit and it would not be longer than two hours. Then the judge said, and I will never forget this, "Allison, I am praying to God right now that this prisoner is not incarcerated for a parole violation. Please tell me he isn't." I said, "I am so sorry, Judge, but he is. Is it still ok?" He replied, "Just don't ever ask me for anything again." "Well," I stated, "I would really like it if her son also could come to her funeral." All I heard was, "Allison!" But, in the end, he allowed the son to leave prison for the funeral. Thank you, Judge!
In the last days, Mary felt at peace with the dreams she had woven and let me be a part of. All was well. With her children (minus her son in prison) and grandchildren around her, she died peacefully. She was a very good friend. My life was made better for my time with this woman who embodied so many virtues.
As all hospice workers know, we are often called upon to arrange and help plan funerals, which I did in this case. The local TV station was there to cover Mary's funeral in the continuing story of her GED. I spoke with the reporters for the recorded news segment that evening and then took my seat with the family in a packed church. Her son was there, through the kindness of the judge. He was allowed to wear a suit, his handcuffs covered and his feet unshackled. It was a joy to all the family.
But Mary would not be buried without one more surprise for me. The minister spoke, as did some of the grandchildren. Imagine my shock when the minister said, "And now, Allison Wiggins will give the eulogy." In a week of planning and talking to the funeral home, no one EVER mentioned that I would speak. I had not yet even looked at the program, but there it was! My name. Every face in the church seemed to turn to look at me. I thought to myself, "Ok Mary, let's do this." We had such a wonderful few months together that the words came easily and tears flowed in the church.
Mary did not waste a day of her last months. She was always a good example to others. Perseverance, bravery, tenacity, hope, faith and love. I can truly say, "In Mary Jones, all these virtues did truly reside."
Allison Wiggins was raised in Norman, Oklahoma. In 1993, she moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a degree in psychology. She is a speaker and lecturer on family counseling issues, volunteerism, and many other topics. From 1986 to 1989, Allison was a volunteer counselor and fundraiser for Hospice Austin. From 1990 to 1994, she had a private practice in Marriage and Family counseling in Austin. She retired in 1994 and moved to Corpus Christi where she worked as a full time volunteer for Catholic Charities. In 1999, Allison moved to San Antonio to be a full time grandmother and parish volunteer. She attends Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church.
Allison is married to Robert Wiggins, M.D. They have one daughter, Elizabeth, and a granddaughter, Lily.