Every Sunday for more than a year and a half, Pattison has been “barging in” at Lakewood Continuing Care Center where Brownie lives. Pattison arrived as a hospice volunteer assigned to the then-99-year-old former hunting guide and retired paper mill worker. “He turned out to be a pretty good guy, too,” Brownie said between long chews of sausage. “I wouldn’t tell him that. He’d get a swelled head.”
This scene is played out every Sunday. Sometimes Pattison’s there for hours, lifting Brownie into his wheelchair for the ride to the activity room, saying, “Ready to rock and roll?” When the activity (Bingo or a visiting singer) is over, Pattison brings his friend back to his room, lifts him by the shoulders, and gently lowers him. “That’s how you do it when you’re a hundred and one,” Brownie said, easing back into his chair.
It’s an unlikely friendship, one that has joined a Colby student with a man more than 80 years his senior. Mostly they talk, Pattison telling about his day, listening as Brownie recounts running the boiler at the paper mill in Winslow, building a camp in Freedom, buying his first car (a 1923 Willys Overland Red Bird). Sometimes, Brownie is a little under the weather and can’t get out of bed. “Usually I sort of hold his hand,” Pattison said.
“He turned out to be a pretty good guy, too,” Brownie said between long chews of sausage. “I wouldn’t tell him that. He’d get a swelled head.”
The path that led Pattison from upstate New York to Brownie’s curtained room began first semester at Colby. Pattison said he was having trouble making the transition to college. His developmental psychology professor, Tarja Raag, suggested volunteering with hospice. Raag, who teaches lifespan development, thinks it’s important for people to be comfortable with death and the dying process.
“We really should be around it more,” Raag said. “And we’re not. It’s not because of Colby; it’s because of the culture. We isolate people who are dying in nursing homes and hospitals. … I think, honestly, the greatest thing you can give to another person is to be okay with them dying, and not make it about yourself. It’s just a great thing for a young person to cultivate.”
For Pattison and other students who take her advice (Raag estimates she has three or four students work with hospice each semester), death becomes very real.
Pattison and Brownie chat during a recent visit.
Pattison has been assigned an older woman dying of lung disease, a man in the last stages of dementia, another man who passed away before they could meet. For the next six months Pattison took it upon himself to assist the man’s widow, mowing her lawn, helping her pack up her house so she could move to Texas where her daughter lived. They became friends and then she moved.
“You develop a relationship with your hospice clients, and then they die,” he said. “She left and it was like, I guess that’s the end here now, too.”
Pattison takes these events to heart but also in stride, a valuable ability for hospice volunteers. “In our world we use this term existential maturity,” said Lucie Boucher, volunteer coordinator at Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area. “What it means is someone who is really comfortable with life and the span of life, why you are here and your greater purpose. They lack fear of dying. And Nick just impresses me as someone who has a whole lot of that kind of maturity.”
Boucher takes care to match volunteers with appropriate clients, but with Pattison she quickly concluded it didn’t matter. “He can make the adjustment no matter who he’s spending time with,” she said.
She recalled introducing Pattison to a client, a woman who couldn’t speak. He sat down by her bed and immediately took her hand and smiled. “He’s like this little bright angel,” Boucher said. “I know it sounds corny and goofy and all, but he walks in the door and he’s this ray of sunlight. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
“He’s like this little bright angel. I know it sounds corny and goofy and all, but he walks in the door and he’s this ray of sunlight. Everything’s gonna be okay.” —Lucie Boucher, volunteer coordinator at Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area
She thought Pattison and Brownie would hit it off, and they did, despite the fact that, in addition to their respective ages, they have little in common on paper. Pattison is a theater and dance major, Jewish studies and environmental studies minor. Brownie operated the boiler at the Hollingsworth & Whitney paper mill, retiring almost 40 years ago. Pattison’s mother is a physician; his father a business manager with a law degree. Brownie’s father immigrated to Maine from Greece and went to work in the mills. Pattison spent the last two summers working at the Colby student garden. Brownie loved to fish and hunt, worked as a Maine guide, tramping the woods all the way to Jackman.
“I shot three bear, three moose, I don’t know how many turkeys and deer,” he said.
Has he told Pattison those stories? “Yeah,” he said, with a wry smile, “but he’s forgetful.”
That day Brownie, in plaid trousers and boat shoes, sat in his easy chair. Pattison sat across from him and occasionally patted the older man’s knee. On the wall over Brownie’s head were two framed needlepoints of his family’s crests: Brown and O’Donnell, for his wife, the late Constance Marie O’Donnell. They were married 62 years, and had three children, 10 grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, too. On a bulletin board over the bed were cards from some of those progeny marking Brownie’s 100th birthday.
Pattison and Brownie pass the time.
He said he sometimes looks out of the window of his room and sees the stars. “You understand how vast the universe is,” he said. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife, he said, looking to Pattison. “I tell Nick, when one of us goes, we better take a good look because that’s the last time we’re gonna be seeing each other.”
Pattison said mortality comes up when Brownie’s not feeling well and sometimes it’s hard to listen to. At the same time, the conversations force Pattison to consider those questions, which don’t come up regularly in a college student’s day.
He said his Colby friends are aware he goes to the nursing home but don’t know how often. “It’s my thing,” he said, and a welcome break from the high-speed life on campus.
But the experience has informed his academic work, Pattison said. Volunteering with hospice prompted him to take Colby’s Pre-Med Academy Jan Plan this year, where he was paired with a geriatrician. Also, theater is active storytelling, and hospice work has helped him to understand other people’s stories, to listen more closely, to be sympathetic and empathetic, Pattison said.
He hears lots of stories at the nursing home, in addition to Brownie’s. When he walks down the corridor other residents seek him out, waving and calling to him. “Hey, Nick. … There he is!”
“He’s a hundred and one years old, he somehow knows me and I somehow know him. That’s all we really need to do.” —Nick Pattison ’18
Michelle Rossignol, director of life enrichment and volunteer services at the nursing home, said Pattison has befriended many of the residents, checking in with a hug and a kind word. “For some of them, Nick has become their family,” Rossignol said. “They just need to feel that they’re loved and he definitely shows that to them.”
It works both ways, Pattison says, and Brownie and the others aren’t the only ones who benefit. “I think both of us act as a sense of purpose for each other,” he said.
But mostly, their friendship is just about passing the time, and that’s not a small thing. “He’s a hundred and one years old, “ Pattison said. “He somehow knows me and I somehow know him. That’s all we really need to do.”
Editor’s note: William “Brownie” Brown died Sept. 18. Among the survivors listed in his obituary was “his dear friend, Nick.”