Larissa and the Kindness of Strangers

Larissa, 64, died on Tuesday. Though this is very sad, the last months of her life were made sweeter through the efforts of an extraordinary group of people; volunteers who had never met her before she became very ill. Here is her story and their story.
Larissa applied to the Lemonade Fund after she was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer that had advanced to Stage 4. She was a former English teacher who had fallen on hard times. To make matters worse, she lived alone in an apartment with her adult son who is schizophrenic, and they were growing desperately poor. Larissa was awarded a Lemonade Fund grant to help tide her over while she was getting treatments.
The Lemonade Fund is based in Raanana, a sleepy northern suburb of Tel Aviv, and we work closely with the Meir Hospital Breast Center in neighboring Kfar Sava. On occasion, social workers from the Breast Center have alerted us to patients who are so ill that they can use assistance with meal preparation. We spread the word and in no time an amazing group of volunteers, from Raanana and Netanya sign up to deliver home-cooked meals to patients every Friday. Larissa was such a patient for several months.
Several weeks ago, Larissa’s social worker phoned to say that her health had deteriorated. She said that Larissa had little local family or social support and that it was getting increasingly difficult for her to shop and cook for herself. The social worker meekly asked if there was any way that the amazing group of volunteers could provide meals more often than once a week for her. The group was asked and within one hour (!) volunteers pledged to prepare meals every day.
It’s important to note that delivering meals to Larissa was no easy task. She lived in a third floor walk-up, in a building undergoing massive renovations. Getting to the apartment meant finding parking between cement mixers, navigating muddy paths to a hidden entrance and climbing the three dark flights to Larissa’s not very tidy sick room.
But once there, visitors were greeted to a tiny smiling sprite in bed with eyes that sparkled and genuine wit. She preferred English to Hebrew (a nice break for many of the immigrant Anglo-Saxon volunteers) and she seemed as happy with the visits as with the food delivery. (She appreciated day-old copies of the Jerusalem Post, to practice her English, until she got as fed up with current events as the rest of us.) After a time, as harsh chemotherapy treatments impacted her appetite, Larissa politely asked for increasingly simple foods, until broth was all she wanted. And blueberries. Which don’t grow in Israel. Larissa never lost hope, and she had read that blueberries could help her. Our intrepid volunteers didn’t let fruit unavailability deter them. Larissa got frozen blueberries almost daily in those last few weeks.
The amazing volunteers didn’t just deliver food. They looked around and decided that Larissa needed more help, and they cleaned, washed dishes, did laundry, changed her sheets, transported her to and from treatments, and on and on. When walking became difficult, Larissa asked if there was a way to get her a walker. Word went out to the amazing volunteers and within a day, several were offered. Someone picked one up and delivered it. Larissa smiled brightly, newly mobile.
Larissa was hospitalized on Sunday, moved to hospice on Thursday, and she died this past Tuesday. Amazing volunteers visited her in the hospital and in hospice, as if they were family. Children of a volunteer drew pictures for her. One of Larissa’s most fervent wishes was to be at home as long as possible in order to be near her son. She was at home until the last week of her illness. This clearly would have been impossible without the assistance of her ‘staff’ of amazing volunteers.
How often, in life, do we get to impact the life of another person, a stranger yet, in such a powerful way? Not a single volunteer ever asked for thanks or recognition. Nor did they ever ask about Larissa’s background, her religion, her marital status, her politics, etc. But it wouldn’t have mattered. What the amazing volunteers saw was another human in need, and the call was answered.
Words fail. Instead of seeking appreciation, the volunteers expressed gratitude for having had the opportunity to help. And they are correct that we are made better for giving, and we are richer for having known Larissa, a woman full of grace.
But just the same, thanks are in order. Thank You.