Bluebird man forms friendship in dying days

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. - For most of his life Dick Willis has been caring for others.

He stepped up when his country needed him during World War II and then he came home to raise five children.

When his wife Elaine was suffering from dementia, Willis became a devoted caregiver.

Then, for good measure, Willis became mother to a flock of bluebirds nesting outside the offices of the Roseville School District.

Now, at the age of 92, Willis is need of some mothering himself.

Willis is dying. He knows his battle with congestive heart failure is one he cannot win.

"Just waiting my turn now," he says, an oxygen hose running from his nose, down his lap and across the living room floor.

Willis lost his wife last December along with a little of the spring in his step, but he has gained something, too -- a friend.

"You're a very important person in my life Michele," he tells the soft-spoken woman in the chair beside him. "I really appreciate you."

Michele Hodgson is a volunteer with We Honor Veterans, a nonprofit organization providing comfort and support for vets in hospice care.

For the better part of 2013, Hodgson has spent one afternoon each week with Willis, watching old movies, working on his memoirs and talking about bluebirds.

"We are aware there are many veterans near the end of their lives who need special care," says Hodgson, who volunteered with the program while working for Allina, her previous employer.

The veterans of the greatest generation are passing away at a striking pace. Just more than one million of the 16 million who served in WWII are still living. According to the National WWII Museum, a veteran of that war dies every two minutes in the United States -- 600 each day.

"We are slowly and surely disappearing," says Willis, "one by one."

For Willis, the weekly visits from Hodgson have been a godsend.

"This has been a good association between Michele and me," he says. "We never run out of things to talk about."

Willis's daughter, Jeanne Walz, says her father has enjoyed sharing his stories with someone outside the family.

"It's just really in the last six months he's had that calmness about him. He'll give her a hug. There's people he doesn't hug in his family," she laughs.

Unlike some of our stories, this one does not end dramatically. But thanks to a caring volunteer it will end happily.


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