WALNUT CREEK -- When Hospice of the East Bay volunteer Cathy Connors arrives at the bedside of someone in Hospice care, she might arrive with daffodils. Or roses, orchids, cala lilies, carnations and birds of paradise.
Nestled amid the blossoms and greenery of the floral bouquets she delivers, generosity and courage are the most fragrant elements.
Hospice care is surprisingly correlated to smiles, Connor insists, recalling her family's experience at the receiving end of such end-of-life care. Offered to patients whose prognosis leaves them with six months or less to live, hospice or palliative care brings freedom from pain for the patient and welcome relief to families.
"When my brother was dying, hospice was like a savior. They were angels and the voice of reason," Connors says.
The hospice care givers explained dying to Connors' family. They encouraged Connors to talk to her brother, to accept his shallow breathing as natural. Finally, they told her to tell her brother to let go. Twenty years later, the urgency of that moment has not escaped her, but now, she finds respite in her simple, celebratory assignments.
In 1992, one year after her brother Dick Hines died from AIDS, Connors called the hospice chapter near her home in Concord and asked to be assigned to a patient service position. The volunteer coordinator, recognizing her raw, still-grief-stricken condition, and suggested she might fill a less intense post: flower delivery.
Averaging one delivery a week, the 60-year-old Realtor and commercial property manager responds to calls, driving all over the Bay Area to deliver the arrangements created by JR and Tacy Cude, owners of Walnut Creek's Flower Bowl. The Cudes have been donating flowers for 18 years, ever since the first shop Connors used closed.
"I had to cold-call florists" when that first shop closed, she says. "Most of them asked, 'What's in it for me?' But JR, after I told him there was no money in it, he just said, 'How often and how many?' Ever since, no matter how often I've called, he's had a beautiful arrangement for me."
Oakland resident Gene Boomer was the recipient of the Cudes' and Connors' generosity on March 31. Boomer's 89-year-old father had advanced stage Parkinson's and died two days before his April 2 birthday.
"I was there when she brought the flowers," he remembers. "It was a tough time for the family and the timing worked out perfectly because it was an acknowledgment of (my father's) birth."
The flowers represented life and because Boomer has volunteered for Hospice for the past five years, the gesture made him proud of the organization.
"I'm an experienced volunteer and she didn't stay long," he says, "but I won't ever forget it."
JR said he is motivated to provide the arrangements, in part, by how hospice workers were helpful when his mother died of cancer about 15 years ago. "They had a cool head and were emotionally supportive.
"It's something that I feel is worthwhile," JR continued. "I get self-satisfaction from helping people in the same way I was helped."
For Connors, the most touching delivery she has experienced was to a boy who had cancer. She stayed for a while and "had a lot of laughs." People always thank her, she says, but volunteering reminds her of how fragile life is and how lucky she is to be living.
Connors knows that someday, she'll once again lean on hospice's calm, dignified services. For now, she and her husband of 26 years are in good health -- and her 94-year-old father continues to play golf two times a week. But when life's inevitable cycle reaches another "let go," she will know where to turn.
"It's like 'Mission Impossible,' " she says, sharing a tender joke her family enjoys when the telephone rings with a request: "You bring a smile to someone's face ... should you choose to accept the mission."