Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hospice Poem: Michigan Volunteer Honors Alzheimer’s Patient and African American Ancestors (Ruby Bridges)

Guarded from angry mobs by federal marshals in 1960, first-grader Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, Louisiana, my hometown. In protest during the first year, most parents withdrew their children from the school.

Because my hospice volunteering is primarily in Detroit, Michigan, many people assume that all of my patients are African American. Actually, I have had several Caucasian patients who were in my care for years. Dying is universal. My patients and I come together as strangers and often discover that we share similarities that bond us to higher levels of understanding of one another and ourselves. Shared similarities can include race, language, talents, occupations, travel, values, joys, and pains.

I was inspired to write this poem while watching my hospice patient sleep. I thought about our shared African American heritage that bridged our communication beyond her Alzheimer's disease. This poem is dedicated to her and our ancestors, especially those strong and inspirational like Ruby Bridges.

Deeper Than Words

The outside world arrives
wearing my willing face.
Toothless, your smile widens
like a baby’s hungry for attention.
Almost ninety-eight years old,
your inner candle still glows.

A hospice volunteer, I lean closer,
talk into your listening left ear,
“Today is Sunday, Miss Loretta.”
My news drifts away like smoke.
You stare at me through dying coals.
Whatever I ask, you whisper, “Yes.”

I stroke your age-softened arms
while your hazed mind masters sleep.
Watching you, I dream generations
of women black and strong, each one
a book of sustaining stories
about joy, pain, courage, survival.

Within your warm brown frame,
spirits from our common history linger.
Aides say you have dementia,
that you don’t know a word I say.
Our language goes deeper than words.
We speak to each other’s souls.

© Frances Shani Parker

You can also read my tribute to a nun who positively impacted my life as a child and later developed and died from Alzheimer’s disease here:

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback at many booksellers in America and other countries and also in e-book editions at Amazon and Barnes and Noble booksellers.


  1. "We speak to each other's soul," is a powerful line. Your words are thoughtful. Such a lovely poem.

  2. What a great poem, Shani! Thanks for sharing.

    Naomi Madgett
    Poet Laureate of Detroit, Michigan

  3. Dorothy RitterFebruary 06, 2012

    Yes, we stand on the shoulders of the generations gone before us who struggled to pave a way when there was no path to follow. We carry their spirit in our genes into the future for all generations to come.

    When will we learn to respect the dignity of every person as a son and daughter of our Divine Creator regardless of race, religion, age or sexual orientation? I pray for that day and that my hope and dream will also live on in the genes of my great, great grandchildren to come as I believe that unity of humanity is part of a Divine design!

    Thank you, Shani, your work and gift of presence in the world brings humanity closer to our true destiny!

    Dorothy Ritter RN, BSN

  4. Thank you, Frances, for caring and sharing. Thank you for representing the best in all of us.

    Your friend,