ZEPHYRHILLS — Regina Nagy sewed her crosses together in the privacy of her bedroom. She liked to look out the window of her home across a private street, to the pine trees and the sky beyond. The crosses she made were going out to the world.
Mrs. Nagy designed the crosses for comfort and durability. She gave more than 1,800 of them to dying patients and their families.
Each cross is about 4 inches long, two layers of plastic canvas stitched with colored thread. They are soft and springy and small enough to fit in the palm of the hand.
They are brown and green, yellow and lavender, light blue and dark purple. A thin crimson line runs down the reverse side, for the blood of Jesus, who carried a cross.
On top of the larger cross she sewed a smaller one, which she said symbolized the cross believers carry as Christians.
Mrs. Nagy had delicate, wrinkled hands that preferred to keep moving. She had sewed all her life: crocheted quilts, costumes for her many angel dolls, lighthouses and Christmas cottages out of yarn.
As a young woman, the New York native made bridal dresses on Fifth Avenue. Then she married Michael Nagy, a handyman who played the guitar. They had a dairy farm, then worked for a cutlery company.
She was shy but adventurous and loved to ride ski lifts or go fast in a boat. She was a bit of a worrier, but kept porcelain angels and images of the Virgin Mary near to soothe her. She saved money, but couldn't resist giving to any charity that sent photos of people starving.
They moved to Zephyrhills around 1990. Then Michael Nagy died of lung cancer. Hospice workers had helped at the end, and his widow never forgot their kindness.
So when Valerie Nagy, a hospice social worker, asked her mother to make a few crosses for the chaplain late in 2004 or early 2005, Mrs. Nagy, who was recovering from bypass surgery, obliged with 10.
"I had an elderly patient who was both blind and deaf," said the Rev. Tom Marshall of HPH Hospice in Dade City. "Touch was all she had."
When Marshall touched her shoulder and slipped a soft blue cross into her hand, the reaction was dramatic.
"She took two deep breaths, and a little tear came out of her right eye," Marshall said. "She began to trace the outline with her hands, and cradled it from then on."
The next day, Valerie Nagy delivered a message: "Mom, Tom needs more crosses."
Mrs. Nagy made 10 more. Those quickly ran out.
"After that, she kept going and going," said Valerie Nagy, 59.
By the time she got the hang of it, Mrs. Nagy could finish a cross in an hour. She churned out up to three a day, and most days made at least one. She prayed over each cross, asking for whatever blessings the person receiving it might need. It gave her purpose, her daughter said.
Along the way, she made a brown one with white trim — for herself.
Word traveled among patients that there was a "cross lady." Demand increased. Though the hospice is officially nondenominational, Marshall could give crosses to patients who shared a Christian world view or who might have just wanted one.
Their responses frequently mirrored that of the deaf and blind patient. "Some people don't visibly react at all," Marshall said. "But the big physical reactions were almost routine."
Mrs. Nagy officially joined HPH Hospice as a volunteer in April 2006. She made peanut-butter drop cookies that became almost as famous as her crosses.
She suffered a stroke in November, which limited her movement. Now it took three hours to make a cross. She said she wanted to make 2,000 before she died.
Increasingly, she began to talk about death. "She was ready to go," her daughter said. "Since I work at a hospice, it's not a new thing for me at all. But when it's your mother, it's a different story.
"She was not afraid to die, and she told me that many times."
Mrs. Nagy began receiving hospice services in March. She continued to make crosses until a heart attack April 5. That evening, Valerie Nagy watched her mother sit up in bed, as if studying something. Her daughter has seen hospice patients appear to be reaching at something as they lie in bed, often heavily medicated. "She had her arms outstretched," Valerie Nagy recalled. "She said, 'I want to go. I want to go there.'
"That was very reassuring to me, that she was going where she wanted to go."
By her own count, she had made 1,820 crosses, 180 short of her goal. However, her daughter said, she only counted the crosses she made after joining the hospice in 2006 — not all the ones she made before, or the countless requests for crosses by friends, or for 40 prisoners, or for relatives who wanted to hand out crosses overseas.
"I think between the crosses she made since she was a volunteer and the ones she didn't count, she probably did reach her 2,000," her daughter said.
Mrs. Nagy died quietly at 11:52 p.m. April 8 at the age of 87, her hand closed around her brown cross.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.