When I was diagnosed with terminal cancer two years ago, I didn’t know what it would mean, but one thing I did know was that I wouldn’t have to worry about how I would be cared for. My doctor is Monika Mommsen, who is a fellow member of the Bruderhof community here.
When I was first diagnosed I would make the five-minute walk to her office in the Bruderhof clinic for my appointments, but now that I don’t get around as easily she has started visiting me at home. Our visits are informal – she asks about my work (I translate documents saved from the Bruderhof’s beginnings from German to English) and we swap stories about our grandchildren.
It’s usually only incidentally that we touch on any bothersome symptoms. That doesn’t mean she forgets her job: as soon as she identifies a medical issue, she is immediately attentive to it and focused on finding a solution. She has explained the treatment options to me but respects my wish to continue to live fully – and be kept comfortable and functioning as much as possible – but to refrain from unnecessary tests or procedures.
Of course, my illness affects my day-to-day life, and in community it is possible for Monika to work with other community members who can help make changes to my living environment. For example, when I began to need a hospital bed, but our bedroom was too small for one, she simply contacted the person responsible for housing here at our Woodcrest community to set in motion a plan to relocate us – George, my husband of forty-one years, our daughter Erna, and me – to a larger apartment. Additional perks of our new quarters include a walk-in shower and spare room to store pieces of medical equipment such as a wheelchair and walker. When moving day came, two or three neighbors were on hand to help with all the heavy lifting and with setting up the bed. By the end of the day, a woman who works in our community laundry had arrived with linens to fit my new mattress. If the time comes when I need more nursing care, that will be provided as well, right here in our apartment, where my grandchildren and the neighbors’ children run in and out and their parents stop through to collect them or have a cup of tea while they play. For the moment, my wheelchair enables me to go out of our house several times a day, to spend time with other women in the community laundry folding clothes for families, to go to daily community gatherings, or just to enjoy being out-of-doors.
I also require a special diet; here again, Monika let the community kitchen team know, and it is a matter of course for them to provide me with the food I need. It is probably hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to imagine how completely someone can be cared for in a community. But it goes beyond practicalities. One of our pastors, Milton Zimmerman (who is also a retired doctor) and his wife, Sandy, often spend time with George and me to find out how we are doing. We can share any worries that have arisen – or anything that has recently inspired us – and receive their guidance. And at a communal meal, I may end up sitting right across the table from Monika, or Milton, or the diet cook, or one of the people who helped set up my bed – and converse with them simply as a fellow pilgrim on this path of committed community. This is just everyday living for me, but I hope I never forget that it is radical everyday living.
Another thing I do not have to worry about is the care of my youngest daughter, Iris, who has Down syndrome. Because Erna is caring for me and my other daughter, Ria, has young children, neither is able to look after Iris at the moment. So a young woman has moved in next to her to be a companion to her. It is a great gift to be able to face the end of my days on earth knowing that Iris is in good hands.
Before we moved apartments, we lived next door to Ria, her husband Norman, and their four little ones, and I watched as they too received the medical care they needed, from routine checkups to the ups and downs of childhood illnesses. For example, when their toddler suddenly had a fever of 105 degrees, Ria called the nurse on duty, who in turn called one of the doctors, who arrived five minutes later at their apartment. When this same child’s fever refused to budge and it was ten p.m., a nurse was assigned to care for him through the night until it was clear he was out of danger. On another occasion their adventurous six-year-old cyclist fell from his new wheels and lacerated the inside of his cheek. They called the dentist (a community member) and met her in the clinic ten minutes later for oral suturing. Money can’t buy this type of care – only community can.
Of course, community means giving oneself and surrendering everything for the sake of others, so although I am now very much on the receiving end, I have years of service behind me. In 1957, I gave up a career as the director of a kindergarten – complete with holidays in Rimini and Vienna – to embrace a life of personal poverty and obedience, and the years since have not been without their challenges. But I knew I had found the pearl of great price and gladly gave everything for it. I truly believe this form of community is an expression of the kingdom of God, of how he wants us to care for one another. It is my prayer that more will follow in the footsteps I may soon leave.
As told to Erna Albertz
To read the story of Dorly Albertz’s daughter Iris, see Erna Albertz’s “Pursuing Happiness” in Plough’s Autumn 2016 issue.
All photographs courtesy of Dorly Albertz