You Said Goodbye
The elevator eeks upward and the ride is painfully slow. You're on the top floor. No 'elevator music'. Thank heavens. As I step off I am met with silence's blanket. A quietness that's the norm even though a row of residents are lined up along the wall that entails the main living area.
My steps are soft as I place myself into its center. And a spectacle I feel. My cheeks are a glow from the warmth spilling into them. Each pair of wall lined eyes are upon me, gawking. The wanting hope that this visitor to be for them painfully clear in each cloudy view.
Minutes pass with no sound but for the clank of dishes over my shoulder. Either lunch has just finished or dinner is soon to begin. Time stands so still, that the last one blends into the next.
Finally, I see your familiar form pop out from the lineup. Your face and head are a shadow, though. But I know its you. As I’ve been told I look like you ever since my ears were able to understand formed words and sentences. As you come towards me the look of sunshine within your eyes and the upward curve of your lips tells me my visit lifts your spirit.
Your arm laces around mine. And its as if we’re walking along the corridor on the floor of my dorm just as I was beginning at Rochester Institute of Technology. I'd felt so timid and nervous the warmth of belonging eluded me like a carrot dangling just out of fingertips reach. The icy chill of aloneness prickles at the back of my neck. As I know this is your plight too. Neatly painted walls, semi-dirty carpet, a green door that signals the unisex bathroom, the other entrance to the mess hall, and a handful of closed doors slowly pass to our sides with our slow stroll to your room.
The snow white corner with two equally milky doors kitty-corner to another appears ahead of us. We step through the door to your space, or rather semi-private one. I glance at the mini-fridge, empty shelf above it, and the shared bathroom you use with the other resident that stays in this nook. Each looking undisturbed for quite some time.
And finally your shuffle takes you into your spot. It’s cozy, your room with pale green, a small flowered comforter Deb, your daughter-in-law, picked out for you and a small light-brown lazy-boy rocker in the corner. The hint of light that peeks through the only two windows in your room glows with a dash of daylight. A deep evergreen row lines along the endless flat grasslands just beyond Sunrise's parking lot. Its plain beauty so simple, a quick lift to my soul is instant. Oh how I'd wish this happened for you too. But I know it won't. As this is your cell. Not your home.
You sit, or rather plop your butt atop the flowered comforter making the bed spring upward a little. And I chose the lazy boy Kirk and Deb found for you. You don’t ever seem to sit in it, though. But I find it most comfortable. And secretly wish I could have it when you leave this place. The dislike upon my tongue is immediate. Oh how I wish you weren’t in such a place as this for your closing years. You aren't content. Who would be?
My childhood home, the house you and Dad built, sat across from rows upon rows of corn for years. That quiet street that grew to become a busy highway once the community college was built up the street are but a few things I will remember about Sanborn, New York. You and Dad owned your home outright. Paying it off several decades back. And that's an accomplishment, particularly now-a-days. I am not sure I will ever have one of my own, though, as thoughts of trekking to Ireland fill my head from time to time. But I know I won't go while you're still here. I'd always needed to travel and experience and take chances. Chances that most don't even contemplate. The road less traveled I took, as my one cousin says. Indeed.
So this isn't your home--your own home. But a place where you were put. And everyone hates to tell you. It will be your last. The cracks in my heart are ten-fold with that realization. Because I wouldn't want to live here. Not in my final days either. And I wonder, who will this happen to? Me, my brother, Kirk … a cousin?? My throat clinches and feels dry. Then your voice pulls me back to the moment. You are still here. And I best make the most of it.
"Hon ..." you say. You always called me 'hon' on the phone when we had our weekly chats. "Hon ... is Elaine taking care of my home?" you ask.
Seconds passed as I ponder how to answer because it was sold before you were brought here. Those first few months you were here at Sunrise Living in Shelbytownship, Michigan, you asked Kirk and I that a lot. And with your illness you would ask repeatedly the entire time we sat with you, making this ‘chinese torture’ complete.
So the sore upon my heart became permanent. The ache around it fills my chest. And these cracks deepen with each visit and weekly chat. So yours must be in pure shambles. As it crumbles, over ... and over ... and over with each re-realization of were you're at and how long you've been here. A zillion tiny broken pieces so shattered that repair is unimaginable. Of any kind.
Your voice is softer as you once again ask these same questions. "Hon, when will we be going to Sanborn?" "Hon, is Elaine taking care of the house and Dad's cadillac?" "Hon, are you taking me back with you to North Carolina?"
That last week of Christmas 2019 I was up there visiting you everyday. Each time you'd cry trying to understand why you couldn't stay in your own home. And why you couldn't come with me back to my home in North Carolina. And I cried with you. The one time your heart broke for three hours as the tears just flowed never once ceasing. I could hardly bear it. So I can't fathom how you did. Your dementia made this pain fresh and new, again and again and again and ... again ...
And it wasn't but a month and a half later when Kirk was telling me you weren't doing well. They were giving you multiple tests. And nothing was showing up as to why you were declining, and quickly.
During all this, the outside world was beginning to crumble; an epidemic of a virus. A virus that was sweeping the world. A deadly one at that. My insides prickled with this realization. They shut a lot of places, towns, states, countries down. Completely. The world was halting with a paralysis just as you were.
You couldn't have slipped from this world at a better time, though.
Thank heaven and the stars you have no more torture from dementia. But it would have been nice to be with you on your final days. I will miss you forever and a day, my sweet mom.
White cotton spots pepper a field to my right and dusty dry vines roll by to my left. Only North Carolina farm fields could be as so. A half hour later I pull up to a very familiar 4,000 square foot brick house. Having come almost twice a week since last summer, these reliable clients and their home have become very familiar.
"You takin care of my shoes?" Gail, the older of the sisters asks, staring at my very shiny burgundy Sanitas. I stick out a shimmering foot and smirk.
"How are you?" I pause looking at round shoulders and curved back, compliments of scoliosis.
And she asks of you, mom. I pause resting half my butt cheek upon my massage table. And I tell her about the last two weeks of your life how both I and my aunt, your older sister, called you almost everyday. You didn't talk much by then. And we couldn't understand you as you responded to our idle chit chat. But we both called just the same.
And then I tell her about one particular conversation. One conversation that was just between me and you. I didn't hear much from you coming from the other end of the line in between those pauses of my idle chit chat. But there was that one. That one were you managed to be understood.
"We take care of ourselves." A pause. "You take care of yourself ..." More pause. "And I will take care of myself..."
All I could think of to say was, "Oh sure mom."
And then your words came out in a stutter, "I ... love ... you hon."
Gail then planks both of her butt cheeks firmly onto the table beside me. "She said good-bye to you."
I look at her side profile. Smooth dark skin despite nearing 70. She continued, "All of us were around our father those final hours. He squeezed my hand right before he left us."
I digested my surprise as I worked that next hour. So it flew by. And then her sister, of whom I had waited near fifty minutes before she made her presence and plopped a very full hefty body onto my table. Still, the next ninety minutes flew by as well despite the wait. Later dry vines and dusty fields are to my right and white peppered puffs are to my left as empty grave pavement unveils itself ahead. My thoughts roll back to Gail's insightful revelation; 'she said good-bye to you'. Holy Crap.
And I do recall saying back, "I love you too." before I’d said, “Oh sure Mom.” Thank heavens.
Not much else came over the phone after that. So I'd gotten off the phone saying I'll talk to you tomorrow. It was still another week or so. But by then there were no more conversations. You slept most of the time. And Kirk had already started calling telling me of your status into Hospice. This warm revelation will forever stay etched in heart and soul, Mom. Plus the fact that my client had to tell me you had said good-bye.
You couldn't have given me a better gift.
your eternally loving daughter ... and Merry Christmas, always.