I was sitting in the largest wheelchair I’d ever seen. So large in fact it not only held my almost 200 pound frame but my sixteen year old daughter was sitting comfortably next to me. We were snuggled up, and comfortable. Both of us looking at our respective electronic devices and trying to forget where we were and why we were there.
It was a hospital corridor. Much like all hospital corridors across this country. Neutral paint covered the top portion of the walls, while stark white paint covered the lower. The line of demarcation of the paint was a wooden chair rail. The afternoon sun cast rays of bright yellow light through the over thick windows making it difficult to see the electronic screens that held our attention.
Not ten feet from where we sat, through a large door and half hidden by a curtain lay my daughters Great-Grandmother. She’d been lying in the industrial grade bed for three days. Not moving, not responding to any stimulation and not eating. Her face was covered with a large oxygen mask. The machine was pumping almost pure oxygen into her lungs. She needed this machine, it breathed for her. It kept her alive.
Surrounding her still body was my wife, my brother-in-law, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law and two pastors from church. They stood around her holding hands, praying and singing. A touching sight to behold. A tragic sight. A sight in which we all will eventually succumb to.
When I first arrived I did not go in to the room. There were too many people in there. I stayed outside, said some comforting words under my breath and waited. My daughter on the other hand, a child who has more strength and wisdom than I ever did at her age or even twice her age, went right in, held her Great-Grandmothers hand and kissed the dying woman’s forehead as gently as a new mother kisses her newborn child. Tender, lovingly and with all the compassion a human body is capable of. Then she stepped out of the room and joined me on the over-sized wheelchair.
Over the course of the next few hours, people came and went. Loved ones, family, friends, nurses and orderlies, everyone had kind words to say. When stories were told, people listened. When tears were shed, comfort was given.
I bided my time. Eventually people filed out, others found chairs to rest in, and space around the woman I’ve known for thirty years was open. I walked in, squeezed her hand, bent down and kissed her on her forehead and said a few words to her. My daughter did something similar. However with her, she asked that she have some time alone in the room with her Great Grandmother. She sat in that dark room, alone with the dying woman whom she’d loved and spoken with for the past sixteen years and made her peace. I’m sure that whatever she said was important. Was essential to the both of them. And while the Doctor’s say she was unresponsive, I believe the woman heard her. Then we went home minus my daughter’s mother.
We packed up some clothes and necessities for my wife and I headed back to the hospital. She wanted to stay the night. I couldn’t blame her. She had been close to this woman for her entire life and I don’t think a week went by where she didn’t see her or at least talk to her. This woman had been like a second mother to her and she wanted to be there for her at the very end.
I, however, am more pragmatic. I knew what was going to happen, I’d accepted it long ago and I knew that there were things that I had to ensure happen mere hours from where we were. Responsibilities to my life, my daughter’s life and my wife’s life. So I did what I had to do. I took care of what needed to be taken care of.
It was early morning when she finally passed. When I got the phone call, well, the second phone call, I woke up my daughter and we went back to the hospital. Once again the family was all there. I said my peace once again as did my offspring.
Later, over breakfast, while everyone was talking and I slowly picked at my food, I thought about what this woman had meant to me. What memories I had of her. What effect on her family she’d had and what sort of life she had lived.
This is what came to my mind.
She was a loving wife and mother who had buried one child and her husband. She spent World War II working at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard while her childhood friends and family fought against the Nazi’s and the Japanese. She took in her daughter and grand-son after a failed marriage, loved them and supported them in a time where most families wouldn’t have. She cared for her husband when he wasn’t able to care for himself and she was there when he passed. Through all of this, she maintained an iron backbone and showed the world what a proud and independent woman she could be.
As time does though, her body began to break down. Her health failed and the woman who once ran my daughter over with a motorized wheelchair became constrained by the frailty of the human condition. A sad sight to witness.
One of my earliest memories of her was of her in the farmhouse in North Carolina. She was always in the kitchen, cooking fabulous food with all the things the health nuts tell you not to eat or cook with. She was always smiling, always fussing and always happy to pour you a glass of homemade sweet tea. Meals were epic, meat, vegetables, bread and dessert were always ready. A veritable thanksgiving feast in the heat of the south in mid-July.
Anyone fortunate enough to be around her for their birthday or holiday would leave with full stomachs, warm hearts and gifts.
If you had something to say, she’d listen. If you needed advice, she’d be gentle but firm. If you needed a hug or a shoulder to cry on, she was there. Her tall frame, her comforting shoulders and her soft, heart-warming eyes made you feel comfortable and at home. Even if you had just met her. Her demeanor was one that made you love her and care for her because she genuinely loved and cared for everyone she met. Even through all her trials and tribulations.
I know her life wasn’t easy. It couldn’t have been. A rural lady from a small southern town who moved to a much larger city on the seaboard to help out with the war effort. A move that introduced her to the love of her life. A move that gave her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren when the world was in turmoil and no one was sure what was going to happen from one day to the next. A daughter herself, raised through the Great Depression and taught morals and principles that she took with her to her grave.
A woman I loved and admired has passed on. My heart is saddened and my heart is not alone. I don’t think I will ever truly understand the influence she had on my life or the lives of others but I do know that she was a great person and she will be missed.