Illness Draws Friends Together

Familiar Language Comforted Cancer Victim At Life's End

April 28, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In a corner of Sakae Vollmer's kitchen, on a short wooden cabinet, is a small scoop of rice in a tiny metal bowl alongside a plastic cup of tea. It is an offering of food for the spirit of Debra Akiko Lauer, who died a year ago this month.

Vollmer, Lauer and Teruko Dub -- all natives of Japan and wives of U.S. servicemen -- had been close friends who drifted apart. They were reunited when county police and Hospice of the Chesapeake officials needed a translator because they feared that Lauer, who had cancer, was being swindled.

Now, Dub has an award for helping police with the translation, and Vollmer has the shrine with carnations and chrysanthemums flanking a picture of the short, stout woman holding two small dogs.

"I did it because I feel so sorry for her," said Vollmer, 66. "She had no family."

Dub remembers she was washing clothes in her Odenton home one frigid Friday in February 1996 when she got a call from her daughter, county police Officer Mary Kohlhepp.

Administrators at the hospice needed someone to translate Japanese for a dying woman because they feared a volunteer was getting involved in the woman's finances. The ill woman's husband and relatives had died years before, leaving her alone in a one-story red rancher in Crofton.

Dub never considered that the woman would be Lauer, who had headed a Japanese wives' club at Fort Meade 24 years ago and was a friend she hadn't seen in months.

Dub's daughter picked her up in a patrol car that afternoon and drove her through the tree-lined streets of a Crofton neighborhood she hadn't visited in decades.

"I said, `The way you go, it's like you're going to the Lauer house,' " Dub recalled. "Mary said it was the corner house and told me the address. I said, `It's her.' "

As Dub entered the rancher, she saw her once-stout friend ill and weak on the couch.

"I said, `Akiko!' and her hands came up like this," Dub recalled, stretching her arms to the sky.

"She said, `Teruko!' After that I didn't say anything. She just laid there like she couldn't do anything."

A hospice nurse had become worried that a volunteer was involved in Lauer's finances, a hospice official said, and neighbors had complained that the volunteer wouldn't let them visit Lauer. The nurse alerted hospice officials and police of the concerns, which resulted in the reunion between Dub and Lauer.

The pair chatted in their native tongue, but Lauer offered no information implicating the volunteer. The volunteer, who did not speak Japanese, left the house that afternoon and did not return. The suspicions were not investigated further.

When Dub returned home that day, she telephoned the women who knew Lauer best: Vollmer, who frequently played cards with Lauer, and Kyoko Lermen, a former member of the wives' club.

Dub and the others gathered at Lauer's house the same afternoon with Japanese dishes -- rice soup and pudding -- and tender, loving care for their suffering friend.

"I would just hold her hand and talk to her," Vollmer recalled. "A couple of nights, I spent the night. There was nothing I could do. The doctor had all but sentenced her to death."

Lauer died April 21, 1996.

Shrines like Vollmer's are not uncommon in Buddhist homes, although they usually are to honor only family members.

But Vollmer, a Methodist, said she's adhering to a Japanese tradition of remembering her friend.

"You don't have to be Buddhist," Lauer said. "When you die, someone do this for you."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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