Faded brown eyes now shaded blue could not hide the years of pain and hurt inside. The widow hardly ever speaks anymore, even to the nurses at the Blue Ridge Rest Home where she had come to stay since the last stroke. Dementia. That’s what they called it. Most days here lately she doesn’t even respond to her own name. The widow seems contented to lounge in the old, over-stuffed recliner that was brought here by her family and clutch the little bundle tied with worn ribbons.
The new doctor at the home showed more interest in the elderly here in three weeks than most of the doctors in their entire stay. Working two years here was one of the things they had agreed to when getting student loans for college. Most of the new doctors put in their time here as if they were caring for a vegetable garden. Doctor Rose spent more time with the residents, truly concerned if they were well or not, whether their families had visited or if they had eaten their meals. ‘Healing with heart,’ he had called it. He treated them all as if they were still young and vibrant and cut back on the medications that left so many of them lethargic. He knew it was a common practice to ‘dope them up.’ It was done to make caring for them easier, less time consuming and more cost effective.
Making his rounds, Dr. Rose asked for the widow’s chart. He studied her history and then her face. Her wrinkled skin wasn’t gray like most elderly patients. Her cheeks were flush which set off her almond shaped eyes and button nose.
“Nurse Baldridge. Has any of her family visited lately?” asked Dr. Rose.
“I don’t recall having seen any visitors during my shift, but that doesn’t mean none of her family have been here. I think her daughter lives out in California somewhere. I’m not sure about the son. I remember seeing him about two years ago. Had a nice family with him… drove a van, yes- with Kentucky license plates, I remember now,” she replied.
Dr. Rose touched the widow’s forehead as if to acknowledge her presence. Turning, he asked to be kept informed if she had any visitors. Nurse Baldridge scribbled a notation on the chart and placed it in the slot on the door. Seeing the widow drift off to sleep, she moved to put the bundle on the nightstand. As she took the bundle from the widow her eyes opened wide in horror. “No!” she cried out loud, and then fell back onto the bed, hands trembling, arms reaching out.
Dr. Rose responded to the commotion quickly asking, “What is this?” handing the bundle back to the widow. Other staff members had arrived to see what was the matter and offer help.
Olivia, the cook from the kitchen, sensed the widow’s anxiety and butted in defending her, “It looks like an old piece of a quilt or something but it doesn’t matter what it is or what’s in there. It ain’t hurtin’ nothin’ or nobody. She loves it like a child and it’s one of the few things she has left in the world and nobody should take it away from her.” Olivia folded her arms in defiance, her café au lait complexion turning crimson.
Dr. Rose scribbled another note in her chart, “Bundle tied with ribbons to be kept with patient at all times.” He winked to Olivia then replaced the chart. She allowed the slip of a smile to emerge in return.
With her bundle restored, the widow clutched it ever tighter to her chest and drifted off to sleep. Olivia patted the widow on the arm and reassured her that she would see to it that her bundle would remain with her always. Olivia wondered out loud, “Ain’t that a fair turnabout?! When we’s born we’s needy and when we’s about to kick de bucket we’s needy agin’.” She returned to the kitchen thinking of her own mother and softly hummed one of the old spirituals she remembered her singing as she worked.
Dr. Rose understood the attachments that formed with the staff and some of the residents. Seeing people on a daily basis in such an informal environment often fosters friendships. Most doctors discouraged the practice simply because death was so frequent and mourning often took so much energy from the staff. Olivia was very fond of the widow and often anticipated her lucid periods and treated her to special pies or other soul food from her own kitchen. Just a couple of weeks ago she baked a chocolate sheet cake for her seventy-eighth birthday.
After work, Olivia went home and saw to her own family’s needs. She cooked up a pan of country ham and red-eye gravy, fist-sized biscuits, mashed potatoes and green beans seasoned with a nice juicy ham hock. Olivia smiled and remembered red-eye gravy and biscuits as one of the widow’s pleasures and set aside a small portion to take to her tomorrow. The widow eats like a bird most days. One more day and she would have the whole day off on Thursday.
When morning arrived, Olivia showered, dressed and packed up the biscuits in foil and a bowl of the red-eye gravy she had saved for the widow. She put it on the seat next to her and used the seat belt to secure it. As she arrived at the back door of the rest home she saw the hearse turning in the long driveway behind her. “There must have been another passing last night,” Olivia thought as she carried her parcel and reached the back door. Suddenly her thoughts were of the widow and she didn’t like what she felt. Once inside, she set her things down and headed for the widow’s room.
Olivia could see Dr. Rose in the doorway. Nearing the room she heard him say, “I signed the time of death and dated it June twenty-fifth, two thousand thirty-one. She was seventy-eight.” He took the chart and left the nurse to collect the effects. Nurse Baldridge had removed the pink and blue ribbons from the widow’s precious bundle. Opening the bundle she could see that it was a very worn small quilt in the pattern of Jacob’s Ladder. Olivia asked Nurse Baldridge if the widow said anything before she died.
“As I recall she did call out a name as clear as a bell. That’s why I came in here.” the nurse answered.
“Do you remember what the name was?” Olivia inquired with concern in her voice.
Nurse Baldridge handed Olivia a red ribbon from the bundle and a yellowed parchment that had nearly worn through at the folds. “Yes, it was something like Bonnie Tyler. No, it was Donna Tyler.”
As Olivia unrolled the red ribbon she tried to remember if the widow had ever mentioned the name. The ribbon carried a message, ‘Always Loving You Both.’
The wheels of the bier gently squeaked in the hallway as attendants from the funeral home came to collect the body. Olivia shed a quiet tear and said a silent good-bye to the widow. The attendants lifted the frail body carefully and placed her on the bier.
“She drove an eighteen-wheeler in her younger days, you know.” Olivia said as she covered the body with a clean white sheet, being careful about the head and feet. “Good-bye, Lady.”
Dr. Rose returned with the widow’s file and other personal effects. “The children have been notified and are making arrangements to return home. The daughter said this was the thirty-fourth anniversary. Do you know anything about that?” Olivia detected just the hint of a tremble in his voice and moisture about his eyes. She shook her head.
They both stepped to the window to watch as the hearse disappeared down the driveway and beyond. Olivia carefully opened the worn parchment. A faded photograph fell to the floor as she read the title at the top, ‘Donna and Tyler’. Dr. Rose retrieved the photo of a young woman and a little boy and handed it to her. “Oh, this must be Donna and Tyler.” she said.
With the widow now out of sight Dr. Rose turned to complete his morning rounds. The hustle and bustle of morning routines brought Olivia back to reality as she returned to pack up the widow’s belongings. Seeing the pink and blue ribbons discarded in the waste can, she bent to rescue them and noticed the names, almost worn off, ‘Donna’ on the pink and ‘Tyler’ on the blue. She carefully folded the red ribbon, photo and poem inside the little quilt and tied it with the pink and blue ribbons. She boxed the widow’s record file and other personal effects and sealed the cardboard box, labeling it for the children.
It was Wednesday the twenty-fifth day of June and Olivia felt as if she had lost a member of her own family. Olivia collected her apron and purse at the end of her shift. In the car she patted the quilted bundle on the seat beside her. “One more stop to make,” she said and quietly hummed as her mother had many years before.
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez has a friend Pat Bare who lost her daughter Donna and grandson Tyler in a horrific car accident in 1997. A mother eventually copes, but the pain of loss never ends.
Copyright © 2014 Jackie Saulmon Ramirez. All Rights Reserved.
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