Diane, Mark and Sophie the cat have hosted families in their home.
Six-year-old Rachel giggles as our kitty, Sophie, leaps after the toy being tickled across her tail. Eleven- year-old Ibrahim sports a strawberry milk mustache as he poses his Spiderman figure on our kitchen table. Four-year-old Adam spies his favorite food—the unlikely tomato!—ripening by a sunny window; on orders to not eat before surgery, we promise to save it for him for when he returns to our home post-surgery.
After years of empty-nesting, our Mission Hill home has been blessed again with kindergarten concertos at the piano, stick-figure drawings on our hallway message board and the patter of little feet up and down our musical, albeit squeaky, stairs. As hosts with Hospitality Homes, an organization of volunteers providing housing to patients and their families coming to Boston for medical treatment, my husband, Mark Bourbeau, and I have welcomed families from across the United States and from as far away as South Africa, Pakistan and Italy. Hosts are asked to provide a clean and comfortable place for families to sleep, access to a bathroom and, occasionally, light kitchen use. When we settle our guests into their third-floor room, they receive a key so they can come and go on their own. We also invite them to join us in the kitchen for a light breakfast or help themselves to the fruit, cereals and muffins we keep on hand.
Our guests have ranged from age 4 to 82, and we've been privileged to witness the grace, stamina and often remarkable cheer with which each is managing sometimes chronic, sometimes life-threatening conditions. All of them have given us a sense of deepened appreciation for life, yet it is our connection with families treated at Children's Hospital Boston that has been especially life-affirming.
I am often touched by the easy familiarity and openness of families' disclosure, often within hours, sometimes within minutes, of arrival. In our home, away from their own, I'm mindful of our guests' right to privacy, yet concerned and interested if they want to talk. All seem blessed by supportive family, yet eager, in some tender way, to tell their stories once more: diagnosis, treatment, prognosis. It may, perhaps, seem strange to share such intimacies, of shunts and surgeries, medications and mortality, yet in the golden light of our kitchen, around the glossy oak of my grandma's old table, it seems both extraordinary and ordinary, unusual but not uneasy.
My at-home schedule offers a lot of flexibility and when I am able, I'm happy to drive our guests to an appointment or to South Boston for Castle Island's lovely harbor view—a treat for families who've never seen the ocean—or past the Public Garden's graceful swan boats. I love showing guests our beautiful city and have learned much about the various places they call home. And while we are more than bountifully enriched by our experience as hosts, we have learned to accept gracefully the earnest kindnesses our guests extend. Jonathan helped his dad fix us biscuits and gravy when they learned we Bostonians had never eaten them. A hand-embroidered table runner the color of rubies graces our guest room, courtesy of our Pakistani guests. One dad, a plumber, cheerfully lent a hand when our toilet became cranky the night he arrived.
We hope the children who stay with us, playing Candy Land with our granddaughter or nestling on our TV room couch watching The Cat in the Hat, will feel, as much as possible, like kids and not patients. We hope, too, that their parents feel some comfort of our home while they're far from theirs. In these quiet hours, they've become our teachers; their lessons of steadiness and faith amid illness and uncertainty are ones we carry with gratitude.
Hugs are warm and goodbyes are bittersweet as our guests depart for the airport, our promises to stay in touch fulfilled in large and happy measure over the years. Adam returned with his mom and grandma, and surprised us with palm tree'd message-in-a-bottle greetings from their Florida vacation. Jonathan sent news of graduation from high school, where he was drummer in the rock band. Ibrahim, now 16, recently posed on our porch for a handsome photo with his family when they visited for his five-year follow-up.
Some friends have been surprised by our trust in having strangers carry our key, cook in our kitchen and be home alone—and I understand. It does take faith and I'm glad that comes easily to us. But I'm equally mindful of the trust it takes to make the call, walk up to our porch, ring the bell and put themselves under a stranger's roof at a time of complex and sometimes life-threatening vulnerability. Against the modest gifts of shelter, a bed and a cup of tea, our rewards have been rich; our community an ever-growing tapestry of families with whom we share but a brief past yet a blessedly hopeful future.
Hospitality Homes' home-away-from-home lodging provides a caring response as well as relief from emotional and financial challenges for families. If you're interested in becoming a host, call Christine Godbout at 617-482-4338.
More In their own words:
November 2007: Second-year resident Meghan Weir
October 2007: The Office of Child Advocacy
August 2007: Patient Relations' Kitty Scott, RN
July 2007: Peer leaders from Children's Center for Young Women's Health
June 2007: Amy Litterini thanks Charles Berde, MD, PhD for his help in an in-flight emergency
May 2007: Martha Eliot Health Center's Robin Crowley, RN
April 2007: President and CEO James Mandell, MD
March 2007: Parent Anne Renk
February 2007: Ophthalmology patient Regina O'Neill, PhD
January 2007: Urology's Michelle Simon is inspired to give back to Children's