The minute she peeks around her apartment door you just know Nona Clark is going to be a handful. She looks like an upbeat Grandma Moses. A big smile flashes underneath a pair of 1950s oyster-shell, cat-eye frames and there's barely a blade of hair out of place. Long fingers tipped with deep red nails wrap around your hand like velvet cords as she leads you into her apartment.
Nona is 91, legally blind and has liver cancer.
- Hospice Care of Douglas County, 200 Maine, 843-3738.
- Trinity Repite Care Inc. 2201 W. 25th, 842-3159.Web sites
- National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, (703) 837-1500, website: Offers a hospice database and provides statistical and educational material about hospice care. Or call the toll-free HelpLine at (800) 658-8898 to find a hospice near you.
- National Hospice Foundation, 1-800-338-8619, website: Consumer-oriented site, with tips for communicating end-of-life wishes and guidelines for choosing a hospice program.
- HospiceWeb, website: Offers a message board, a list of frequently asked questions about hospice and links to numerous hospice-related sites throughout the world.
- American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, (847) 375-4712, website: Includes a selection of links to general hospice informational sites.
- The Hospice and Palliative Nurses Assn., website: Check on background and credentials for hospice nurses.
- Hospice Foundation of America, (800) 854-3402, website: The site does not have a searchable database but does provide guidelines for choosing hospice, tips for dealing with grief and other consumer resources, such as a collection of hospice readings and Web links. Call the foundation to find a hospice near you.
- American Hospice Foundation, (202) 223-0204, website: Includes a collection of articles with practical information for the dying or the grieving. Offers "Grief at School Training Guide & Video" to help teachers respond to grieving children and choose on-site training workshops.Books
- "The Hospice Handbook: A Complete Guide," by Larry Beresford (Little and Brown, 1993; $14.95)
- "Hospice: Practice, Pitfalls, and Promise," by Stephen Connor (Taylor & Francis, 1998; $28.95)
- "All Kinds of Love: Experiencing Hospice," by Carolyn Jaffe and Carol Ehrlich (Baywood, 1997; $29.95)
- "The Hospice Choice: In Pursuit of a Peaceful Death," by Marcia Lattanzi-Licht, John J. Mahoney and Galen Miller (Simon & Schuster, 1998; $12)
"I have the TV on to keep me company, but if I wanted to see something move I'd have to put my nose on the screen," she says chuckling, feeling her way into her rocker.
She was first diagnosed with glaucoma in 1979. A major cause of blindness, it's triggered when fluids inside the eye drain improperly.
"I'd never even heard of glaucoma," Nona said. "Just cataracts."
In 1998 Nona lost about a foot of her colon to cancer. Last February when doctors were removing gall stones, they found liver cancer. She was living in Perry at the time, in an apartment complex filled mostly with older women. Her daughter, Virginia Hamm, who lived several blocks away, cooked and delivered three meals a day for her mother for four years.
"When mother's eyesight kept getting worse, we were afraid for her to even reheat food that I'd stock in her refrigerator," Virginia said.
Nona has a history of hot encounters involving her long sleeves and stove burners.
Virginia and her husband, Keith, decided the assisted living program offered by Alterra Sterling House of Lawrence might be a better fit for Nona. And, it was only a 15-minute drive from their home in Perry. She moved into a one-room apartment there a year ago last October.
"I didn't like leaving my friends, and I'm not too happy to have liver cancer, and I don't like it that I can't see," Nona said with a sigh. "But until the Lord has a better plan, I'll live with this one day at a time."
Hooking up with hospice
By last May Nona's pain had become stronger than her medications. Pain never left her side.
"Oh lands, I really hurt," she recalled, slowly shaking her head.
Lawrence physician Jean Schrader suggested Nona be placed in the care of Hospice of Douglas County.
"Only because we didn't know anything about hospice, none of us were too crazy about it," Virginia remembered.
Today she and her husband admit it was the best thing they ever did for Nona as well as for themselves.
"We sat down with Nadereh (Nasseri, hospice director,) and Laura (Kaiser, social worker,) for our hospice interview and we asked a zillion questions. We found their care involves visiting nurses, social workers and an amazing assortment of volunteers," Virginia said. "It was very impressive."
Equally gratifying for Virginia was learning hospice would monitor and medicate the pain that was making life miserable for her mother.
In addition to cancers and pain, depression had recently joined the list of Nona's demons.
"I thought the interview was over and was so pleased," she said. "I nearly fell off my chair when Nadereh asked what they could do for mother that would 'give some time to you and Keith.'"
A few days later, the Hamms were on the road to Branson, Mo., their first road trip in years.
Potatoes and pump organs
Nona's new medications allow her to get a good night's sleep but also make her drowsy.
"Pain pills make me sleep, sleep, sleep," she said. "Can't see to read, can't do anything I used to do, so I just curl up on the lounge."
Quite a change for someone who was walking a mile a day and working on her suntan when she was 90.
When she's vertical, Nona loves to take visitors on talking tours of days past. She leans back in her rocker, tilts her head like there's something interesting happening on the far wall and the words start tumbling with the rhythm of a preacher.
She speaks of growing up on a farm north of Perry, playing piano at dances and church and getting the name Nona when her sister said "No, no, no, no" when her mother asked if she wanted the family to keep her new baby sister. That was on April 18, 1910.
"My daddy grew good cobblers not the early potatoes we raised Ohios. He'd go to Minnesota every year to pick out his seed potatoes."
Nona was picking potatoes at age 8 following a side plow pulled by a pair of her dad's horses, Dick and Prince.
"I still love potatoes," she said.
Her mother, Anna Mae, taught her to play music by ear on an old pump organ.
"It was pretty simple, really," she said. "Anything above middle C, did that with my right hand, but I know it was a gift from God."
Anna Mae would pump the organ with one foot, and dish out musical gems to her student.
To learn the flat notes she offered, "Fat boys eat apple dumplings greedily." Sharps: "Good deeds are ever-blooming flowers."
She talks about the time Art McCoy built his new auto repair shop in Perry and on opening night they held a dance. Nona begged her mother to let her go watch the dancers and hear the band.
"I was watching Mr. and Mrs. Mathais waltz as pretty as anyone I ever saw," she said, still looking straight ahead. "He asked me to dance and I said, 'Oh mama, she'll whip me for sure if I dance.'"
She couldn't remember if she ever told her mother about her magic ride around the dance floor.
A strong role model
Nona stopped in mid-sentence, leaned forward and put her hand on her waist. Her strong voice jumped to a falsetto.
"I get this doggoned pain in my side. I just have to tough it out tough it out 'til it leaves."
Then she laughed and said, "but when you're 91 you're pretty much shot."
A half-minute later she was a seventh grader sitting in Perry's Methodist Church.
"Leonard Knapp stood up and said our piano player, Mrs. Corey Strange, was sick and asked if there were any piano players in church. Nobody raised their hand and that makes me so mad when people who can help just sit there like a bunch of dummies."
When Nona volunteered, Leonard Knapp questioned her abilities on the keyboard.
"I said, 'Look here, Leonard Knapp, you see that song book on the piano, well I can play every song in it.'"
Her voice was stronger now as she relived one of life's past triumphs.
She talked about her jobs in Topeka, working at Kresge's for a dollar an hour and later at Morrell's Meat Company, slicing and boxing slab bacon. She commuted from Perry driving an old Ford.
"My daddy was a Ford man and I wanted to please him," she said in a quiet voice.
She talked about how her daddy would grab his rifle early in the morning and come back with rabbits or squirrels for their breakfast and her momma would fry them and make gravy.
In her quiet falsetto, she spoke about how her daddy got to drinking too much and lost their farm. She said the whiskey just took him and he never stopped.
"Momma and us girls moved to a three-room shack in Perry and we washed everybody's clothes and cleaned their houses," she said. "Two dollars would last us for a week."
She talked about a marriage that took her to Florida and circled back to the time she sang alto in a quartet.
"We sang for every funeral in Perry, and I stopped when my momma died in 1957."
She looked down into her lap and said, "If there was ever a woman who earned a gold crown in heaven, it's my mother."
A helping hand
A knock on Nona's door brought a smile to her face.
"Oh, is that you Marilyn?" she said rising from her chair and heading slowly for the door. "Oh, I'll bet it is you, and I'll bet it's time for lunch."
Marilyn Thaler walks with the aid of a cane and lives two doors down the hall from Nona. She's recovering from a stroke that has left her partially paralyzed. It has slowed her walk and speech but has had no obvious effect on her smile or attitude.
Three times a day, Marilyn stops by to fetch her pal Nona. Watching the two make their way down the hall to the dining area defines sweetness.
Nona, with hands clamped firmly on Marilyn's shoulders, never stops talking as the two weave their way toward lunch.
"I'd be plumb blowed-up if it wasn't for Marilyn," she says. "I know God got us together so she could be my eyes."
As they round their first corner Nona says she hasn't told the residents at Sterling House that she has liver cancer.
"I don't want them to think I'm on my way out."
Marilyn smiles and glances over her shoulder at her passenger.
"I hope they have some potatoes today," Nona says. "I just love potatoes."