Monday, May 19, 2014

Dorothy Day--Patron Saint of Hospice Workers?

Some day Dorothy Day will be canonized--let us pray this day comes soon. And when she is named a saint, for whom will she be a special patron?  Certainly she is patroness of the American poor and the homeless, the patron saint of Catholic journalists, and perhaps the patron saint of women who have had abortions.  And if people who were hounded by the FBI desire a saint, Dorothy could probably fulfill that role as well.

But perhaps she will also become the patron saint of hospice workers.

Dorothy, as she herself acknowledged, was deeply in love with Forster Batterham--an anarchist of sorts and an atheist with a name that makes him sound like a character from Downton Abbey. But Forster left Dorothy after she became pregnant and told him she planned to have her child baptized in the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day and Forster Batterham

Nevertheless, Forster and Dorothy stayed in touch for the rest of their lives--connected if not by religion, then by the child  they had conceived together.

About three years after Dorothy and Forster separated, according to Robert Ellsberg, Forster formed a new relationship with a woman named Nanette; and Forster and Nanette lived together for thirty years until she died in 1960.

In September 1959, Forster contacted Dorothy and asked her to care for Nanette, who had been diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Dorothy agreed to help, and she nursed Nanette until she died in January of 1960. Along with Forster's sister, Lily Burke, Dorothy became Nanette's informal hospice nurse.

It must have been bitterly hard for Dorothy. Nanette was terrified of death, and Forster could not bear to be alone with her. Indeed, during Nanette's decline, Dorothy saw an unappealing side of Forster. Nanette confided to Dorothy that she had had an affair with a younger man with Forster's complicity--an ugly revelation.

As Dorothy wrote in her diary, this unsavory bit of information shined a light on Forster's character. "It is all part of his absolute rebellion against responsibility, family, religion, tradition, as far as he himself is concerned."

Indeed, Dorothy concluded, Forster was "completely selfish and a coward."

Dorothy owed Forster nothing and she certainly owed Nanette nothing. But Dorothy continued to nurse Nanette. On the night of December 23, 1959, Dorothy wrote this:
Nanette very bad, suffering from nurse's ministrations, her three-way irrigations. Nanette says she is continually wet, flowing from colostomy. She cried pitifully, hating her decay, wishing she could commit suicide, go back to the hospital for a few days, etc. It was a hard day, though we started out well making mince pie, etc.--anything to distract her
By late December, Nanette was near death--her face and legs was swollen. Forster, wallowing in self pity, often wept and constantly fled from Nanette's presence.  At this point, Nanette wavered between a longing for death and the struggle to live. "I am strong-willed and stubborn," Dorothy quotes Nanette as saying. "No one can help me, doctor, psychiatrist, hypnotism, drugs. I am alone."

On January 8, 1960, Nanette died. She had been in agony for two days. "The cross was not as hard as this," Nanette said in her final hours. But in the end, she died peacefully, "with a slight smile."  Ellsberg records that Nanette was baptized as a Catholic before she passed away.

Dorothy never wrote of these events except to record them in her diary. Yet the nursing of Nannette  is perhaps Dorothy's greatest act of humility, generosity and love. In my view, Dorothy deserves to be canonized for this act of kindness alone.

On December 27, 1959, as Nanette lay a few days from death, Dorothy wrote this:
Food, warmth, shelter, clothing, beauty, yes--ourselves most of all--to be available to men. But in the CW there are so many, and each one wants it all, your time, your love, your attention. "You are never here." This is my suffering, my failure, and my cross.


Robert Ellsberg (ed.) The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 2008.

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