A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Organization: Hospice
City: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Haines, Homer, Juneau, Soldotna
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Health \ Hospice
Grants Received:
2015: $24,955  1998: $2,765
2013: $19,324  1997: $3,265
2006: $9,671  1996: $2,900
2004: $8,689  1993: $1,900
2002: $3,713  1991: $2,805
2000: $2,228
1999: $2,900

Comfort, dignity and choice

Mission Statement

To provide direct care, support and education to local residents and their families, to ensure comfort, dignity, and a choice during life-threatening illness or a transition from life to death.
Every year, when the dear lady at Hospice of the Tanana Valley asks me to volunteer for a shift at the "Light Up A Life" table in the Bentley Mall, I vow to say no. I am, after all, too busy. It's Christmas. My kids are coming home.

But the dear lady is so nice and she does so much at Hospice. Not only does she run the office and coordinate all the volunteers, she also takes care of her own husband who is slowly, cruelly dying of Alzheimer's. I'm ashamed of even thinking about
saying no to her.

A photo of a group of volunteers at the Hospice of Tanana Valley.Spacer Image It's twenty below and pitch dark at 4:00 o'clock
in the afternoon on the shortest day of the year,
but inside the Bentley Mall everything is jolly.
I find the Hospice table sandwiched between a pushcart selling hair extensions and a display
case of body art.

When prospective customers ask what I'm selling, I tell them that for a ten-dollar donation a person can write the name of someone close to them who has died on a paper star and then hang the star on the artificial Christmas tree perched on a stand next to my table.

Most walk away. I don't blame them. Hair extensions and body jewelry offer more immediate gratification.

An exterior photo of the Hospice of Tanana Valley.Spacer Image Since business is never very brisk, I use the time to purchase stars for my own family members who have died. I make a star for my mother, my father, my brother, for Aunt Anna who used to hug me and let me sip her beer. I add one for Mrs. Wahl, the teacher who told me I ought to write.

Suddenly, in the middle of the Bentley Mall, I feel
as if I lost those people today, not years ago.
I feel sad and alone. I want all those people who loved me unconditionally back. In the middle of all that commercial Christmas cheer, tears roll down
my cheeks.

The little girl is so short I don't even notice her until she speaks. "I want to buy a star," she says and she plunks down a pile of bills and change. Her writing is so big she can only fit four letters, "TRIX," on the front of the star. She turns it over, adds an "E" on the back then hangs it on a low branch. "My dog," she says softly. I understand her tears; she understands mine.

A woman comes up to the table and, without a word, unfolds a ten-dollar bill. Doesn't want a receipt. Doesn't want to make eye contact. Scribbles a name, hangs her star and is gone. I recognize the name on the star. It's a soldier from the Stryker Brigade based at Fort Wainwright. I read in the paper that he was killed last week in Iraq. Was the woman his wife? The wife of some other Stryker soldier? Just a wife?

Some of the other names on the stars are neighbors, friends. Some are strangers. Some I only know because the manner of their deaths attracted attention in the newspaper over the last year: the young woman who was strangled by her estranged boyfriend, the man who fell out of the boat (Was his body ever found?), the young man who died from a wasp sting, the boy who was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bike on the side of the road.

Suddenly I see this plastic Hospice Christmas tree in a new light. I see it as the repository for a year's worth of public - and private - grief.

I once asked the Hospice lady what they did with the stars after they were done with the tree. Did they throw them in the trash? They are after all only pieces of paper. She told me, to my great relief, that she burned them one by one in her woodstove.

Anne Hanley writes plays, poetry and a newspaper column. She recently co-edited an anthology of Alaskan writing, Voices from the North. The Fairbanks Drama Association produced her play, The Sunset Clause, last winter. A former Alaska State Writer Laureate, she lives in Fairbanks with her husband, Owen.