Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Finding an Angel on Christmas Day

This story begins as many have in years past, with my friend Mildred, but it has a far different ending than you’d expect, if you’ve been following this Christmas tradition for a few years. This Christmas, I was actually planning on mixing up my usual routine, determined to begin some new traditions while ending others I’d outgrown. I’d saved all my holiday cards to open for this day, and started a lovely pile (which as yet remain unopened) and placed presents off to the right so I’d have something special to see today.

As a child, Mom would always allow me to open one of her gifts to me on Christmas Eve, so my wait for Santa wouldn’t be so tough. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she created magic every year. Her sense of pageantry, ceremony, stories, songs we played on my record player, and her retelling of her rituals as a child was part of our grand tradition. I’m lucky that I’m now the repository of all her generation’s stories, as nothing was written down (who had time?). Today, only two of her generation are left to recall life, but only from where their memories begin. Lesson to others: share your stories with those who care!

Christmas Eve decorations included a small chapel, a nativity scene surrounding it, and an angel statuette she added from the what-not shelf, deciding it belonged there. It was fun to assemble the setting and my earliest learned duties were the “mechanical things” (now this meant assembling the color wheel to shine on an aluminum tree), which meant I got the box out of the closet, pulled out the motor platform, located the wingnut and secured it atop the color wheel.

I realize that’s not brain surgery, but when your mom spends time affirming your skills when you even know what a wingnut is, you just tend to feel good about yourself, albeit modestly so. Before anyone says “aww,” that aluminum was not a “real” tree, bottom line was that I had a major childhood severe allergy to cedar, pine, and fir trees. Flocked trees were fine, but those had faded from easy availability. The aluminum tree was the preferred medium for celebration and you really should have seen that color wheel at work! Stop laughing. It was pretty! I’ve outgrown those allergies, fortunately.

Today it was time for another tradition, the annual visit with Mildred, my 102.5-year-old friend, over at one of the local nursing facilities. It’s been exceedingly hard this year because I feared what condition I might find her in, and as much as I adore her, she used to say quite adamantly, “When I can’t be myself, I don’t want to be here!” And the last time I saw her with a mutual friend, she was sleeping through most of the day and neither of us expected it to be that much longer. We were both wrong.

Expecting to see what I’d seen before, I’d written out a simple note on a small greeting card that had two angels on it. Her quarters include a corkboard where special items can be pinned, so this was the first year I showed up without an angel gift. My intention was to pin her card to her corkboard in the suite where triangularly placed curtains turned one suite into three private sleeping areas, and then just sit quietly by her bedside, not expecting her to know whether I was there. I was wrong, which pleased me greatly.

When I arrived on her floor, I asked the LVN in the hall which room she might be resting in, the LVN smiled readily and said, “Oh no, she’s down in the dining room, eating dinner.” I said “What? In the dining room? Sitting up?” With my two-word sentences, the LVN was so polite when she could easily have dismissed my astonishment as ignorance. Eagerly, I bounded down the hallway and saw her propped up in a rolling chair almost as big as she was, bigger perhaps.

She spotted me quickly and seemed pleased for a moment, but the joy turned just as quickly to displeasure. Her face grimaced a little, but I didn’t take it personally because when I can’t figure something out right away either, I’m told I look unhappy, disappointed, or something else when I’m working through a puzzle in my mind, until I understand it. So, that’s where she was in the process. A kind LVN had charge of feeding Mildred, another lady who enjoyed a nap between bites and a sweet gentleman I’ve seen before who’d cleared his plate. This is a unique arrangement around a semicircular table, but it works well.

I didn’t say much as Mildred was gradually taking the forks of food that the LVN was silently counting that each patient took. She’d look over now and then, and all I’d do is smile reassuringly. Some of the words she said rapidly didn’t make sense but then she got into a flow of some and they weren’t directed at me. Her handsome LVN probably had more of her attention, understandably.

Eventually, I opened her card for her and she saw the angel, and didn’t seem pleased either. I asked her, “Do you like it? It’s an angel!” And her answer was direct, “No!!” Hmm. Okay. Granted it wasn’t the clearest angel drawing, but it was pretty and colorful, old-fashioned card. I stayed consistently calm and just smiled. Mildred’s table’s LVN was pretty patient, all things notwithstanding and I thought about the fortitude it takes to find victories in every bite when they’re not supposed to be emotionally attached to the patients. The compassion of LVNs in general and especially those who are away from their families on Christmas seems endless.

Realizing that I was not going to see Mildred break through and recognize me this visit, I didn’t feel like I’d failed to generate the awareness. Instead, I had already made peace with my joy just to see her upright in a chair when she surprised me. Her right arm reached out for the iced tea cup that was on her tray and she grasped it expertly and slowly drew it to her, taking a good sip, and then replaced it on the table without spilling. I was blown away. At 102.5 years old, I wasn’t expecting a lot in muscle coordination or spatial cognition, to be frank. Then again, she’s a lady who always does the unexpected, her signature, if only to defy preconceptions, ha.

The LVN said, “You can take her down the hall to the table in front of the nurse’s station.” I looked at Mildred and said, “Would it be okay with you if I took you down the hall?” She looked at me and nodded “yes,” with just one nod. The LVN quizzed me and I said, “She’s not remembering me yet and I want to make sure she trusts me first before I take her anywhere.” He absorbed my delay and started down the hall with Lady 20Winks. I followed and gently tried to guide the challenging rolling chair down the hallway, locating her in front of the TV.

Over the next 30 minutes, together we watched the Hallmark movie, “Coming Home for Christmas,” (2017), where brothers portrayed by Neal Bledsoe and Andrew Francis (I know, Who? It’s okay they’re Hallmarkers) fall in love with Danica McKellar over her two-week stint as a house manager, because that’s the storyboard (see photo). I’m not mocking; I’m admitting the fact that I’d already “heard” this one more than once. Scoff if you wish, but it helps to keep blood pressure low to have the Hallmark Channel on in the background vs. the news channels, trust me. During the commercials, I’d placed the angel card on the table, to her right, not too close.

Out of what she thought was my gaze, she extended her hand and brought the card closer to her but not too close. Expressing interest was a big win for me. Actually, her still being here to visit with in person was the biggest gift of all. As much as I try not to think of “the last,” at this point it became clear that she was safe, warm, and comfortable, except when another LVN attempted to take her blood pressure. She wasn’t having any of it and the LVN had to come back. Gently, sweetly and determined, the LVN was victorious, but Mildred had to give up her “other arm” to get a good reading. Her vitals were vital alright.

At the movie’s end, I decided that Mildred still didn’t know me, so I prepared to leave. As I put on my scarf and jacket, her face grew displeased, and I just kept smiling. I said, “Merry Christmas, Mildred” and she didn’t respond. That was okay. I understand. I said it again and did not attempt to hug or kiss her as I usually did. She didn’t know me and it would not have been safe for her. I did gently touch her shoulder briefly as I walked down the hallway. I paused, looked back, and she was following me with her eyes. I smiled again, waved, and blew her a kiss, saying “Merry Christmas” as I left.

The visit was a gift she gives me each year at this time. I am the recipient of her love each time I see her, sometimes specifically, other times indirectly. For years when she lived in her apartment on 29th Street, and in the adult residential community that has changed names three times but maintains its original beauty, it had simply become a joy to call her about 8 pm on Christmas night. It was after we’d both done our things, and I’d greet her with, “Is it still Christmas where you are?” and she’d reply, “It sure is, come on over!”

That’s when we would exchange our gifts for each other and have a cup of something I’d bring in from Starbucks or McDonald's (whichever was open), and she’d show me all the things she’d received that year and the cards were legendary. When I got back home each time, I felt like it had truly been Christmas for me.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As I prepared to exit the front door of the Adult Assisted Living Center, a happy lady came in first, carrying a plastic laundry basket of folded (warm) blankets. I imagined she was going to visit a relative with her favorite blankets all cleaned. As I made my way to my car out front, I saw a woman with white hair, walking strongly enough while using a walker, and she was making regular forward progress down the sloped driveway. I sensed immediately that this wasn’t a 'good thing.'

Just the fact that it was now a few minutes after 7 p.m. and dark outside, and the lady was going off into the cold (53°F) with a mid-length coat and no headwear bothered me. My first thought, sadly, was “She’s a runner!” There’s no one that I’m aware of in this facility who is under medical watch in terms of their worrying the patient might “up and leave,” as we say here in the south. I called out, gently, “Merry Christmas,” but she didn’t hear me.

Now, ask yourself what your thoughts would have been had you seen this woman on a walker, in the dark, on Christmas evening in bitter cold, oh yes, in a highly trafficked hospital section of Bryan with lots of dark places where miscreants can wreak havoc. The first thing I did was use my phone to look up the number of the main line inside the building. After 10 rings, I told the operator that I feared seeing “a runner” from their facility. She said I had the “Other side” of the facility and needed to call so-and-so phone number. I dialed. Let it ring 25 times, and it went into fail mode with the recording, “This wireless caller isn’t available.” Dad gum it.

I googled another number and called it. Woman answered and I explained I was concerned about the welfare of someone who might be one of their patients. She said, “You’ve reached the hospital, you need to call over there.” I explained that I’d already made two unanswered phone calls and she gave me two more numbers to try, both one digit apart from the other. No answer on either. Arrgh.

Watching to see whether the lady was going to try and cross 29th Street, my heart was in my mouth and I said out loud, “Lord, please don’t let her try to cross the street, please don’t let her cross the street.” The way the diminished traffic was scooting down the slick streets scared me. No answer at the now fourth and fifth phone numbers. I took off out of the parking lot, determined to see where she was heading so I could then reach out and get Bryan PD, because I was concerned for her safety, truly. I had punched up 911 in the phone but before I could push the button, I recalled that I should use the nonemergency number.

I saw the driveway of the nearby dialysis center and miraculously, there was no traffic coming toward me, so I gently glided into the driveway before she could reach that intersection. I didn’t proceed very far up the driveway and put the car in park, opened the door and waited a second for her. She didn’t seem scared at all and I kept smiling the whole time, the way I had with the unresponsive Mildred just moments earlier.

When she saw me, she smiled an angelic smile back my way and I said, “Good evening, Ma’am; Merry Christmas!” and she said, “To you, too.” I said, “My name is,,,,” introducing myself. “Do you live over at ***" (name of the place withheld)? And she said, “No, but I just came from there,” smiling. I asked, “Where do you live?” and she told me. I smiled and said, “I have many friends who’ve lived there, and would you please allow me to drive you the rest of the way home? It’s so cold out right now.”

And she smiled like an angel, I promise you! She said, “That would be so nice. Thank you very much.” And, so I said, “Wonderful, we’ll go now.” And she trusted me enough to get in my vehicle. I knew she had more trust in me than I could have ever hoped for. Had she continued to walk home, she’d have had to cross one of the single biggest intersections in town, and there were lights to cross at, to be sure, but they would only illuminate her visibility as a target for someone who might not have good intentions. She didn’t have a purse on her that I saw, but I’ll also suggest that unkind folks don’t always use good judgment in picking a target for harm, either.

All I could think of was that it was probably a year ago that I learned that a 95+-year-old woman was mugged right outside of our church, on a Sunday morning in broad daylight, for her purse. She was walking across the street from her parking spot near church to come in to worship service and…well, she wound up in the hospital and we were only four blocks away from the Bryan Police Station, too. Maybe now my excessive concern for her safety and well-being makes more sense. Even though I call this community “Mayberry,” times are when it is not.

I just felt like I wanted to reassure this angel that she was okay, but she actually seemed so tranquil and at peace that it was only for my sense of wanting her to know that no harm would come her way. I told her my name (again) and asked hers. She told me and immediately it sounded familiar. I said, “I was a little worried when I saw you walking home in the dark and it was so cold.” She said, “Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be this late when I came home but I have a friend over there and I just HAD to get her Christmas present to her. I’d thought about it earlier today but decided it was Christmas, after all, and she had to have her gift. It's Christmas!”

She told me her friend’s name and said how she was just temporarily in the PT/rehab area of the residence but that she lived back in her community. As I noodled my way around the dialysis parking lot I thought there might be a back way out. There wasn’t. I said, “Well, I don’t know this parking lot!” cheerfully, and just as cheerfully she said, “Oh that’s okay, we’ll go back the way we came.”

I said, “Your name sounds so familiar to me,” and she explained she was retired A&M faculty. I then asked the department and all at once it hit me…she was one of the earliest female full professors at A&M in a technical area. Turns out, further, that I knew one of her (late) colleagues well, and as we talked she was great friends with my major professor in chemistry and knew his entire family. She was sharp as a tack mentally and even knew the latest sad news about the loss of one of our mutual friends. She regaled me with a cute description of the great sense of humor “the boss” had.

The return trip home took less than four minutes in the car, but even with direct path and lights, walking would have consumed probably fifteen or twenty more minutes in the elements. When we pulled up in front, I opened her door and then got the walker back out. She said, “If you’re ever around on the 4th Thursday of the month, please let me treat you to dinner here. It’s 'Friends and Family night' here and sometimes they even have entertainment. Sometimes it's good; other times it's not."

I was very familiar with the night and the entertainment aspect because I’d been to those several times with Mildred over the years and an adoptive grandmother before Mildred had ever moved in. I thanked her but didn’t give her a card with my name on it, as I didn’t plan to follow up and accept her offer, just wanted to get her safely home.

As I opened the door to the front of the residential center, I nodded at the receptionist by the door before taking leave. I was so grateful that she was home safely, that she would be warm, and I had a chance driving home to reflect on the gift of love that this woman had shown to her friend in the rehab/PT hospital. She asked for no help from anyone. She didn’t seem to be the type of person who had a dependent bone in her body. She just wanted to make sure her dear friend was remembered on Christmas. She was a living angel in a human body.

My heart was full and at peace because I knew she was safe and that was all I could ask for. I feared first that she was a runaway and I feared next that she’d be hit in traffic and I feared further of someone knocking her on the head. So, there she forged forward without fear and I was wallowing in fear for her. Which one of us was the wiser? Clearly, she was.

Today, thanks to a few other search tools to which I have access, I saw it. She’s 88 years old, and her only concern in the world was to make sure her friend didn’t miss Christmas. In actual fact, she was the angel who made certain I didn’t miss Christmas either. I am forever grateful for that random happenstance. It was, truly, a very Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! As always, your writing is inspired and truly sourced from a divine place. :)