Nurses are special people. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine the passion and conviction it requires to selflessly care for others in some of their deepest times of need. Jennifer (Jb) Kotlowski is no stranger to tribulation. As a care transition nurse for Heartland Hospice serving Central Wisconsin, Jb educates providers, patients and families about hospice care and how to maximize the hospice benefit.
Many times, friendships can form between the hospice care team and patients and families, or sometimes, friendships exist before the care team and patient relationship. Jb and the Neil Laube family share a most meaningful Christmas memory. “I met Neil Laube and his wife Mary Jo through church,” Jb shared. “I initially didn’t know them well, but they made it a point to talk with me every Sunday and would often dote on my children. Mary Jo and Neil Laube exude kindness and I felt like they invited my family in without using any words,” she said. “They’re very generous people.”
According to all who knew him, Neil loved nature, travel and especially his family. His children note that they counted on his unwavering support and encouragement. “Dad always showed up for us kids, our partners, his grandkids, 4-H members, neighbors and friends,” one daughter shared. Another daughter admired him for his calming and comforting presence--at the ready with words, looks and hugs.
One endearing thing everyone knew about Neil was that he didn’t just look like Santa Claus, he was thoroughly enchanted by all things Christmas. “He loved it all: Christmas Eve services, hymns, carols, classic Christmas songs, movies, food, going for drives to see the decorations, browsing in stores that had creative and artistic offerings, family,” said Mary Jo. “He never quit believing in the spirit of Santa,” she said.
Before Neil fell ill and became a patient served by Heartland Hospice, he and Mary Jo enjoyed exploring the United States together. Mary Jo said they specifically appreciated looking at flora and fauna, visiting historical places, discovering new things, trying new foods and meeting new people. “Visiting, or at least touching, all 50 states became a goal,” she said. Because he was a man who gave so much of himself, Jb felt compelled to return the kindness Neil had shown her and so many others. She subsequently devised a plan to fulfill the smiley-faced Santa’s goal.
“It was a surprise,” she said. “I didn’t tell Mary Jo what I had planned.” Jb believes Mary Jo and Neil had accepted visiting 49 of 50 U.S. states as an excellent accomplishment, and sufficient. But it wasn’t sufficient for her, so she got to work helping them visit the only state they’d missed, Rhode Island. “I reached out to the Rhode Island State Park Service who happily helped me put my plan in motion,” she said. “They sent me a pinecone, rocks, patches and even a pin from one of their parks.”
During the Christmas season, just days before Neil’s passing, Jb asked Mary Jo if she could come by for a visit. Despite having a houseful of his beloved family, Mary Jo welcomed her. “Neil was the best conversationalist!” Jb exclaimed. “He and I had widely different opinions about many things, but the conversation was always impeccable.” But this time Jb didn’t know what to say, nor how to present her gift. “I handed him a rock and stumbled through an explanation about how it was a magic rock. He agreed. He saw the magic in everything,” she said. “We were holding hands and I told him it was special, just like he is.” Eventually, Jb told Neil the rock he was holding was from Rhode Island, and now he’d officially touched a part of all 50 states. “My eyes were welling up before I finished speaking. Neil cried too,” she said. Jb witnessed as Neil very lovingly touched all the items that had come from Rhode Island with a look of awe, gratitude and maybe even relief. “It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” she said.
Mary Jo thinks of Jb as a gem. “Neil loved her and was overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness,” she said. “He held that rock for a long time and cried when he told others about this loving young woman who found a way to make visiting 50 states a special kind of reality.”