‘That’s what keeps me going’
Morrie Boogaart is 91. He has cancer. He’s in hospice care.
His life is clearly a sunset in the making, but Morrie doesn’t spend his time thinking about dying. He wants to spread hope and light as long as he is living.
Morrie has decided before God calls him home, he wants to make a difference—to the homeless.
“There are a lot of homeless people,” Morrie said, his fingers nimbly moving burgundy and white yarn around the loops of a hoop, creating his latest hat. “Mel Trotter Missions, Salvation Army, I make these for anyone that needs hats.”
How many hats are we talking?
“I quit counting,” said Morrie, who now resides at Cambridge Manor in Grandville, Michigan. “When I quit counting, it was over 8,000.”
As the former owner of Bergsma’s Bakery, Morrie knows all about creating something from nothing for the purpose of making someone else happy. It’s kind of how he lived his life.
“When I was a kid, if my mother told me to go get a loaf of bread from the bakery before school, I’d sneak in the back and pick up and wash dishes,” Morrie recalled. “Then I started making things. I bought the business after I got out of the service.”
He created breads, pies, cookies and shortbreads, all from scratch.
Kind of like his hats.
Morrie’s daughter, Karen Lauters, taught him how to make them in 2001 when he recuperated at her house following hip surgery.
Ever since, he’s made hats.
Despite skin cancer that envelops his cheek, he sits up in his bed, and meticulously wraps the yarn around the spindles. Every day. Sometimes almost all day.
God had a plan for your life. You can see it in every step you took. I’m the hat man. I just did what I liked to do—help people.
“I made one this morning,” Morrie said. “I probably won’t finish this one before tonight. I make them all in the bed. I watch TV and make hats. If I feel like I’m going to sleep, I put it down.”
Somehow, the motion of making hats resembles a long life, well-lived. The pegs could be construed as days, the yarn, a lifetime, and part of the legacy he’ll leave.
“It’s easy once you get the hang of it,” Morrie said, his hand deftly wrapping the yarn. “You just keep going around every peg. You just keep going around, and going around…”
Morrie reaches into a bag and pulls out a brown hat to demonstrate a finished product.
“See there’s a rim around here that’s for your ears,” he said. “They’re really warm and I make all different colors. I do it all day and all night. I fall asleep at 11 and wake up at 2 and do it again. I’m certainly glad I can do this.”
The hats not only help others, they help Morrie. His wife, Donna Mae, died in 2000. He’s a happy soul, lingering in pleasant memories, but days can get long in a nursing facility. Knowing you’re in hospice, longer still.
Morrie has skin cancer, and a mass on his kidney. He’s under Spectrum Health Hospice.
“I never thought I would be in a place like this,” Morrie said. “But I was willing. I know it has to be.”
A framed photo of Donna Mae adorns the wall nearest his bed. A well-worn Bible rests on his nightstand.
As each day dawns, he looks forward to hats, the splashes of color, the texture of the fibers in his fingers. But most of all, he delights in the way he feels when he’s being productive and helping others.
“It makes me feel good to make them,” he said, flashing his trademark smile. “That’s what keeps me going.”
For Christmas, his birthday and Father’s Day, Morrie receives yarn. Fellow residents donate yarn, so do churches, friends and acquaintances.
The yarn is colorful, like the finch that flits to the bird feeder outside his ground-floor window.
So are his stories.
He talks of being a baker in the Navy during World War II. Once, while he baked pumpkin pies, crews offloaded a large tank from the ship. The vessel listed.
“It tilted the ship and ruined the pies,” he said, chuckling at the memory.
As an adult, he became the neighborhood helper, washing windows for all the ladies on his street.
“In those days, they brought the coal and wood logs,” he said. “I’d go to their house and pick them all up and put them in their basement. I’d shovel snow.”
He never took money for his labors.
“When I was done, I’d walk away,” he said. “It makes me feel so good. It really does. That’s what I like, helping people.”
There was one person he couldn’t help. And it broke his heart.
His youngest son, Russell, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last November.
“He had stomach pain in May,” Morrie said. “In six months he was gone. That’s tough stuff. I couldn’t even go to the funeral.”
But Morrie believes in destiny, and in higher callings. He feels he’s lived one.
“God had a plan for your life,” he said. “You can see it in every step you took. I’m the hat man. I just did what I liked to do—help people. I shoveled snow, cut grass. It just makes me feel good, you know? That’s all my life is, helping people and doing things.”
Rev. Steve Luchies, a chaplain with Spectrum Health Hospice, said he feels honored to support Morrie now that Morrie is at a stage of life when he needs the help of others.
“We are doing all we can to assist Morrie to have the best quality of life possible,” Luchies said. “We are controlling his pain and managing his health symptoms. As a chaplain, I help Morrie identify sources of meaning and strength in his life.”
Russell’s memory is one of those sources. Helping the homeless, another.
Luchies said Morrie inspires him.
“During one of our visits, I read an inspirational reading about gifts that God gives people,” Luchies said. “Morrie shared that God gave him the gift of helping other people. He smiled as he talked about ways he’s helped people throughout his life.”
It’s a long list, woven tightly into his legacy.
“He spoke of shoveling snow and mowing lawns for people,” Luchies continued. “He served our country during World War II and served others through his work as a baker and church custodian. He also volunteered for a hospice and at a blood bank.”
As his body fails, Morrie’s mission to help others remains intertwined with his soul.
“Even though his health limits Morrie to remaining in his bed most of the time, he has found a way to help homeless people by knitting hats,” Luchies said.