Loyola Magazine

The five-point heart - Loyola University Maryland

Tom Butler, ’95, shares his experience as a hospice volunteer in Eastern Kentucky

When the volunteer coordinator from the local hospice called me, she said that she’d had a hard time finding someone to visit Lester because he was a heavy smoker.

Lester’s wife had asked the coordinator if someone could spend a few hours with Lester so she could drive to Eastern Kentucky to pay her respects at a family member’s grave.

Once I agreed to take this assignment, I called Phyllis, Lester’s wife, and set up a time for my visit to their home. She thanked me for offering to help her and then admitted that she’d planned not to pay respects at a grave but, instead, to visit a shooting range.

Explaining this confusion, she said, “Lester wants me to be safe once he passes.” I said I’d be there at 10:45 on Monday morning.

Phyllis led me into the living room, which was dark and cluttered with sheets of piano music and old books primarily about World War II, gardening, and cooking. I sat on the sofa and immediately felt the years of cigarette smoke seep into my clothes.

After a few moments, Phyllis pulled Lester in his wheelchair backward into the living room. “It’s easier to get him around everything this way,” she said with a smile. As she maneuvered the chair toward me, I stood up, and Lester’s entrance felt oddly ceremonial, since he neither spoke nor turned toward me until Phyllis had finished her maneuvering.

I held out my hand, and Lester’s scabby, trembling hand slowly took hold of it as I introduced myself. He looked up from his hunched posture and nodded.

A hole in the heart

Phyllis left us with two pots of coffee, some of which she kept in a couple of fastened Mason jars on the kitchen counter. I poured cups for Lester and me once I found cups hidden amid an array of bills, advertisements, and medicine bottles on the kitchen table.

“Care for anything in your coffee, Lester?” I shouted into the living room. “Just my sweetener; that’s here,” he responded.

I placed Lester’s cup next to his cigarettes and a heap of blue packets of artificial sweetener. I admired Lester’s illogical insistence in choosing—despite his terminal condition and steady intake of nicotine—a (supposedly) healthy alternative to sugar.

Through a steady dosage of cigarettes (at one point, he had two lit at once), Lester told me about his life.

He grew up in poverty-ravaged Eastern Kentucky, went into the Marine Corps, got married, divorced, married again, and held many jobs in several states.

He was proudest of the vegetable gardens he created in his small backyard. He expressed disappointment when I told him that I planted my tomato plants about two feet apart in my own haphazard backyard garden. He shook his head: “That’s nowhere near enough.”

He looked up and admitted he has double-vision. He chuckled, “It’s the darnedest thing: There’s two of you there.” I told him that a lamp was next to me, not another me. A flash of mischief appeared in his eye: “And if I may say so, the lamp is better looking than you.”

Lester said that his problem was simple: a hole in the heart. He had luck with treatments and managed to land a spot on a list for an experimental procedure. According to Lester’s explanation, doctors fastened a tiny clamp around the hole. Unfortunately, the clamp did not fit properly, and the doctors had no other recourse. For now, the clamp was precariously holding Lester’s heart together, and it would snap someday. “Then I became a short-timer,” Lester quipped.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked clumsily.

“Well, I’m not sorry for anything.”

Silences regularly punctuated his speech, and a long one came between us now. Then he let his ash fall onto his lap and continued, “I had some luck with the stock market, and Phyllis should be OK.”

The backdoor opened, and Phyllis returned earlier than we had expected. She came into the living room holding a rolled-up poster as if it were a precious scroll. She stood before us and unfurled it, revealing its depiction of a human upper body. The sketch divided the body into several sections with a number between 0 and 5 in the center of each. Each arm had a 1 on it, each of the torso’s shirtsleeves was marked with a 0, and the head and heart each had a 5, making them the real prize.

Phyllis stretched out the paper and proudly pointed out the holes, reflecting the success of her first time ever shooting a gun.

She craned her neck toward the far side of the paper. “Those shots there were my first, but I got the hang of it pretty quick.”

Sure enough, the entire torso was peppered with holes. Lester, the Marine vet, beamed and took hold of the side of the target, making the entire paper tremble.

She then nodded toward the 5-point circle at the center of the torso. It was dotted by several holes, some overlapping with others.

“See that, I’m real proud of that there. You won’t have to worry about me, baby.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Tom Butler graduated from Loyola in 1995 with degrees in English and philosophy. Tom studied in Leuven, Belgium, during his junior year, and following his graduation from Loyola, he returned to Leuven for an M.A. in philosophy (and, it’s true, plentiful good beer). He went on to earn a Ph.D. in English from the University of Notre Dame. Today Tom teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University and, for the past two years, he has served as a hospice volunteer in Lexington, Kentucky. In his free time, Tom likes to run marathons.