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It was a bright, breezy, unseasonably warm Sunday in late March when I pulled into the parking lot of Parker Institute for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care. Earlier that day, I had called Caroline to let her know I would be coming to see her again, and to find out how she was feeling.
“Terrible,” she growled. “I threw up all my breakfast this morning, and I haven’t had a thing to eat since,” she continued in that distinctive gravelly voice of hers.
As I entered the large airy passageway, my thoughts were with her. The sliding glass doors to the lobby opened noiselessly and I stepped onto the line to have my ID checked and my picture taken. It was time-consuming, but I supposed, a necessary security measure handed down by the powers that be.
I proceeded up to the third floor and as the elevator door opened, I was met by the sound of country music. A crowd of wheelchair-bound residents and visitors gathered around a man dressed in black as he stood at a microphone belting out “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Some people’s faces beamed as they enjoyed the show, others sat seemingly untouched by the performance. My eyes searched for Caroline even though I knew I would not find her there.
Room 350 was tucked away around a corner off the main corridor. Sunlight streamed into the space through a large window, locked now, but when opened, led onto a terrace.
I found her there, lying in bed, her head raised, sleeping peacefully—the light-colored plastic-rimmed glasses still perched on her nose, a Time Magazine open on the facility’s over-bed table. The cotton robe she wore covered her slight frame, thin strands of gray hair wisped themselves onto her shoulders; she exhaled evenly through a mouth hung slightly open. Her bony arthritic fingers, clasped lightly together on her belly, took on the rhythm of her breathing. She looked almost childlike.
Not wanting to wake her, I stood at the foot of the bed waiting. Finally, I removed my jacket, pulled the chair away from the wall and sat down. Then she stirred.
“Oh you’re here. Why didn’t you wake me?” Caroline said, her lips wrinkling into a delightful smile.
“How are you?” I inquired.
“I feel a little stronger,” she said slowly. “I couldn’t walk when I first came in here. The physical therapy isn’t easy, but it’s helping—today, for the first time, I took a few steps holding onto the walker.”
She looked better—not quite as pale. Her clear blue eyes came alive as she spoke.
“Bring your chair over here close to the bed,” she directed, and I obeyed.
We chatted—mostly, I listened. She talked about her son Richard. He was so good to her—he saw to it that she had everything she needed. She wanted to know about the Poets & Writers group and I filled her in on some of the most recent assignments. She didn’t miss a beat.
Her face softened with happiness as she continued talking. “You know, my granddaughter Darcie was here today. She brought Layla with her.”
Caroline showed me a photograph of her great-granddaughter. The adorable three-year-old stood in the middle of the floor in a little pink dress and matching tights. Her mouth was open in song and
in her hand she held a miniature microphone. The great-grandma gazed at the snapshot a few moments and then lovingly pressed it to her chest.
At dinnertime, I arranged her tray and removed the warming lid from the plate, as I might have done at work years ago.
“Always a nurse,” she quipped and we both laughed.
She ate just the macaroni and cheese that evening, savoring every little bite of it and keeping up a steady conversation at the same time. Soon after, I moved the chair I had been sitting in back towards the wall and approached her to say goodbye. We smiled; she kissed me on the cheek. I patted her hand, never thinking I would not speak with her again.
The last time I saw Caroline, it was from outside the door of her room in Long Island Jewish Hospital. Her eyes were closed, her mouth agape, a bag of IV fluids dripped its contents into a vein in her right forearm. She exhaled and it seemed an eternity before she took the next breath.
I stood there and wished her God’s blessings.