Maggie: Neighborhood Angel

Leo M. Cooney, Jr., M.D.

I got to know Maggie through the stories about her. My favorite was the insulin with breakfast.

   For years, Maggie would start breakfast in her family home by preparing and dishing out oatmeal to her three children, then go next door to administer Mrs. O’Brien’s insulin shot. She would rush home to give her children their juice and toast before injecting Mrs. Walsh, who lived around the corner. Finally, in the midst of getting the children ready for school, she would stop downstairs to give Mrs. McIntyre her insulin. Maggie had no nursing training or medical background, but these neighbors needed her help. Their own families couldn’t deal with the injections, so Maggie stepped in. She was always there for those in need.

   Later stories told of her great impact on her community, helping to found a homeless shelter for women and serving on the town’s board of alderman. As her physical abilities declined with age, she continued an active role as a mentor and supporter of community agencies.

   Maggie’s knee arthritis eventually robbed her of her independence. She fell frequently and needed a good deal of help with her mobility. She joked about the sight of a car driving across her lawn to park at the front door so that she could swing from her wheelchair into the front seat. She needed a stair glide to get up her stairs, but she made this an amusement ride for the neighborhood children.

   Her husband’s dementia was a challenge. Maggie had to give him step-by-step directions on dressing, getting ready for bed, and tooth-brushing. She occasionally rolled her eyes at him but never wavered from 60 years of love and devotion.

   Maggie worked hard to maintain the rhythm of her life to the end and to preserve her special legacy. Husband John’s disabilities and her immobility led many to suggest a higher “level of care.” Would their needs not be better met in an assisted-living facility, where mobility aids, daily assistance, meals, and bathing help could be provided?

   “Not on your life!” Maggie roared. She knew that so much of who she was resided in her home. She arranged it so that her friends could look through the front door window into the kitchen and see Maggie and John at the table. A cup of tea and a sweet treat awaited, as well as some wonderful stories of the old days.

   Most importantly, Maggie knew that she couldn’t dispense insulin from a distant facility. Her kitchen table was a source of inspiration and strength to so many who entered daily. To leave that home would have disrupted her rhythm and lessened her neighborhood legacy.

   In her last year, when new challenges affected this special couple, their family, and their entire neighborhood, Maggie went back to dispensing insulin. She treated family and neighbors from her chair in her kitchen, sustaining them at a difficult time with her strength, her wisdom, and her example. She gave them a daily dose of life-sustaining medicine by infusing their spirits with the will to carry on.

   When her work was done, Maggie suddenly developed fatigue and jaundice, and a widespread cancer was found. She was blessed with a special last period to bid us farewell. Propped up in a bed in her parlor, she presided at a specially organized ceremony, a kind of wake, where she dispensed her wisdom and wished us well. During these extraordinary last few days, Maggie raised our spirits by grasping our hands with strength and intensity, giving us her final lesson: “This is how to live your life and how to depart from it.”