Wednesday, June 6, 2018

At 103 Years Old, Mildred Still Has Spirit Left to Give, Lessons to Teach

By the time the sun grew closer to dropping from the sky on Tuesday, I’d run out of excuses for not heading up to “The Manor,” as there was only one more hour of daylight on June 5th, the day that Mildred Kennedy turned 103. A hold-out from a return visit since Christmas, I had thought up fourteen good reasons to stay at home.

I truly wanted to avoid what could be the “final” visit to my dear spiritual mentor and delightful senior friend. But, odds were going against my hiding out, because today was filled with poignant, happy, funny memories and a supreme dose of guilt if I didn’t keep my promise to her. I longed for the days, just six years ago, Birthday 2012, when Bob and Kathy Richers and I had celebrated her special day with a beautiful meal featuring Bob and Mildred's favorite food ever--chocolate.

By 2014, her birthday celebrated at The Manor showed her coping, fairly well, with her new home base and because it was not her famous Apt. 10 in Bryan, you have to imagine that anywhere but there was not going to be entirely well received. But she eventually adjusted to it and became a trooper. Never once did I hear her say, "I want to go home" or "I don't like it here." The next picture is Birthday, 2014.

As I was running the roads of Texas with a dear friend Thursday morning, on a mission to collect a beloved toddler, I began talking about Mildred, recalling having been out of town several times on Mildred’s birthday in years past but still managing to get to her “in time.” Relating that for many years after my mother's passing, my friend Donna and I would call in from wherever we were with her family and friends, sometimes from a beachside balcony. I remembered the exchange used to go, “Is it still your birthday over there?” She’d respond, “It sure is!” and so we'd sing “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’d welcome our return in person whenever it was that we got there to book her for lunch. We made sure to make the call before 10 pm her time.

Another year my longtime friend from high school, Kathy, and I treated Mildred to see Wayne Newton in concert, one of her "things she'd always wanted to do." I rented a cushy-ride Cadillac from enterprise for "the girls," and I picked up Mildred, and her dear friend, Jane Lee, and we drove to San Antonio to meet up with Kathy. These two senior troopers (that would be Mildred and Jane, ha) navigated beautifully the path to the seating in the AT&T Center and they acted younger than Kathy and I did at the concert. Make all the jokes about Wayne Newton you want, the man puts on a show every time he goes on stage. And you can't say that about all entertainers.

Every year I realized that she had enough angels in her collection, but there always seemed to be just one more that might be a new one to bring her delight. Everyone knew she loved angel figurines, so a number of her friends had kept her collection vibrant over the past 40 years. In her best days, she loved the month of June because she said it was her “birthday month.” She had so many friends from her Sunday School class and church that they all got into an unspoken queue to book her throughout the month of June to take her to lunch or dinner. Every birthday event delighted her.

Last night when I walked up the hill to the building, entered and pushed the button on the elevator, I didn’t know what I’d find but I was sure it would be a less cognizant version of my buddy compared to December. That visit had brought the reality that she really didn’t know or could not recall who I was. I was prepared for that. My courage came from my promise I’d made to her that even if she could not remember who I was, I’d always come by and reintroduce myself to her if needed and that it would not bother me if she didn’t remember me. She said, “Do you promise?” and I said, “Yes.”

So, knowing I’d be journeying on a hot-as-heck afternoon to wish her “Happy Birthday,” fully understanding ahead of time that she would neither know me or appreciate the visit did not constitute the heart full of love that I believed I should have held going in. It was duty because I’d made a promise.

Last year on ‘the day’ I'd asked a dear friend, Betsy, to go with me as we journeyed up through the byzantine labyrinth to find sleeping beauty. Even though her eyes stayed closed most of the time, when we began singing to her, she did open her eyes, caught sight of Betsy, her beloved Bible Study friend, and she beamed. No words came forth from Mildred at that time, just loving looks and smiles. Betsy and I talked to her enthusiastically and she glanced over to me as if to thank me for bringing her her present--Betsy. I nodded knowingly and smiled some more.

Last night, dinner had been over, and everyone was back in their rooms. A dear staffer reminded me of which way her room was (I was used to going to the TV area or dining room) and as I walked in I heard a voice saying “hello?” “help!” but it wasn’t Mildred’s voice. I could see quickly that she was sleeping. The tri-divided semi-circular room accommodates three residents and the voice was coming from behind another light curtain.

I have to admit that at first my mind almost tuned out the plea for “Help” for a moment as I was so intently focused on Mildred that I only had energy enough to think about caring about/for her. My first thought the person on the other side of the curtain was having a bad dream.

I waited to hear it again, just it case it was a dream, the voice came again, “Anyone out there? I need help.” So immediately, I peered behind the curtain and said, “Can I get a nurse for you?” and she said, “No, I don’t need a nurse. I just need someone to help me get my call button. It’s dropped onto the floor.” That I knew I could handle, so I went over and retrieved it. The dear senior lady with no hair atop her head shined so radiantly and joyfully with the biggest smile as she said, clearly, “I cannot believe I’d let that drop. I've got it anchored now. Thank you so much.”

Embarrassed that I’d let 20 seconds go by before responding the first time, I said, “Thank you for letting me know you were in trouble.” She said, “You’re an angel.” And I said, “No ma’am, that title belongs to the lady who’s sleeping over there,” gesturing at a snoozing Mildred. She asked, You came to see Mildred?” and I said, “Yes, it’s her birthday today and she’s sleeping right now.” I smiled and gently made my way back to Mildred.

A fast glance around the room noted the 5x7 framed photo that I’d gifted Mildred with, holding the photo of Mildred and Hazle, the friend who dreamed up for months ahead of time what she would surprise Mildred with each year (a true soul sister of the heart).

A clear plastic container from “The Bakery” with a small round cake with pink icing on it, unopened, with an enclosed plastic fork, also unopened, were placed nearby on the small desktop near her bed, June 5, 2018. How time had flown.

Then I remembered June 5, 2012, when Mildred and our mutual friend, Myrl Sims, had joined me at the 2012 American Heart Gala, where The Buckinghams and Karan Chavis and her band were performing. I was delighted to introduce her to Carl, NIck and the rest of the band, and she loved seeing them perform.

My mind raced back to when for her 100th birthday, Kathy and Bob Richers and I had met up there and we had cupcakes for Mildred, her friends at the communal dining area, and for every staff member from every floor to come by and say hello and enjoy her day. My mind raced even further back in recalling how two of her co-celebrants had already gone to their heavenly reward, Ms. Katie Fazzino Viola (d. 7/12/17), and Sr. St. Anthony, whose last name I could not recall.

Interestingly, when I went online to the newspaper's site to search for Sr. St. Anthony, I ran the usual types of spelling search and Ms. Viola’s name had come up first. Stunned, I smiled and ran the search again, and found the name of Joann San Angelo, my mother’s best friend who had been our next-door neighbor for so many years. Another reason to smile…dear ladies who’d been members of St. Anthony’s Church and who, in their lifetimes, had spent countless hours supporting their church so lovingly and faithfully and both of whom spent their final days at The Manor.

Ms. Viola was special to me, even though she never knew my name, because through the years I’d visit Mildred and she would be there at the table, I watched her progress from going from a very restricted ability to communicate and eat her meals to one visit where we had a delightful brief communication (under Mildred’s watchful and slightly jealous eye) and I was so thrilled to see her doing so well.

Each visit of mine to Mildred usually coincided with the arrival of one of Miss Katie’s darling young family members to hug her, such as on this day, loving on her and talking to her as though she could talk back. What a thrill it was to see The Manor as a place where family members were flowing in and out for everyone there. And dear Norma Henry was such an anchor to our choir at First United Methodist Church, in addition to being a delightful, beautiful lady of her own accord. The light inside Norma's heart always shined through in any conversation with her. You can't always say that about everyone.

Another gentleman resident, too, had loving family there to hug and love him. He was often around the table when we would visit Mildred (Photos from her 100th birthday, June 5, 2015).

Sr. St. Anthony, while a resident, was really a minister of her own there, talking with everyone, maintaining a very strict discipline about making sure everyone felt as they belonged there. Even though confined to a wheelchair, her verbal skills and sharp mind made you believe she was standing right before you, smiling. I finally pulled up the right online tribute for Sr. St. Anthony Chrzanak, of the OSF, and I learned that (she’d passed away in her home on 4.27.18), she’d “ministered to patients, family members and physicians” of the CHI St. Joseph Health System.

BTW, OSF is The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, of East Peoria, Illinois, who minister to and who used to own and operate the hospital formerly known as St. Joseph Hospital, before eight, perhaps, name and staff changes. (Many locals will recall how Sr. Gretchen Kunz was a dynamo.)

Thinking of dynamos brought me back to Mildred, and her faithful ministry to so many at First United Methodist Church of Bryan. This coming Sunday marks the celebration of the church’s 150th year in Bryan and she won’t be there. But her presence will be felt as her beloved daughter, Camille, sings in choir and her adored son-in-law, Travis, now sits in what is still Mildred’s pew seat, whether or not Mildred is there.

In my frequent writings about Mildred, their focus is generally on my personal relationship with her. Be assured, though, that Camille is the best daughter Mildred could ever ask for and Mildred would tell that to virtually everyone, except for Camille, and Travis devoted many hours to "Mother K" with a true servant's heart. They are very dear people to me, and it's because of them that I get to "share" Mildred's life and claim her as part of "my family, too."

Mildred served our church on virtually every level of Christian servitude, not in leadership roles all the time, or even much of the time, but in caring ministries, writing cards to those who were sick or homebound, keeping up with all her Sunday School class members, anchoring the church’s prayer chain, serving our church faithfully in all funeral services. Protocol means and meant everything to Mildred. And no outsider was coming into “her” church without her having a watchful eye on what was, and was not, moved around.

She was sought after to be a full- or part-time employee of almost every funeral home in town, but she turned them all down, cheerfully, as she said her work was for the Lord, serving her church. She “worked” so many funerals and I remember when she was there for my Mom’s funeral. She wrote me the most beautiful card afterwards and said it was an honor to serve at that one.

It wasn’t much later when she told me, in one of our long evening visits on her porch at Waldenbrooke, that when it was my time to get married she would be proud to sit “in place” for my mom in the family pew. And, when the time came for the unity candle to be lit, if that was part of the ceremony I’d be going through (as if I might have had a choice, haha), she would be happy to stand in for Mom and represent her.

For over a decade now I kept her offer close in my heart and cherished it; I used to tease her that the venue could include a change to Las Vegas so she’d better be prepared to pack a bag and the look on her face at her opinion of that idea was priceless. Oh, how I loved to tease her.

As I stood there by her bedside last night, I remembered to talk her as though she could hear me. I didn’t have a lot to say but I shared a few things I thought might be relevant, and I sang happy birthday to her “her way” with “Happy birthday, God bless you,” as the end phrase instead of “Dear Mildred” and felt proud that I hadn’t bungled the notes as my emotions were starting to overrule me. My eyes filled with tears and I was mad about being human and a wimpy one at that, but I couldn’t help but hear the oxygen concentrator making an all-too-familiar painful memory of a sound in the background and the acceptance that her periods of sleep would be longer now as 103 years finally started to appear to have been taking their toll on her strength.

As I prepared to leave, I stopped back by her roommate’s section and asked if she was okay, and she said, “Well, they put me to bed and forgot to get me any water, so would you mind asking someone to bring me water?” The floor had been pretty quiet but I promised to see what I could do. I was delighted to find a dear LVN not too far into my search and she said, “Absolutely, right away.” I dropped back by to tell her that her water was en route and she said, “Thank you so much, you’re an angel.” I reassured her that I was anything but that, and said, “Happy to help. You have a good evening.”

As an afterthought I went back into Mildred’s room one more time, why I could not begin to tell you. I had no memory of intention to do that, but as I did, I could see her right eyelid open just a tad beyond sleep state and her left one less so but still she was aware of my presence, even if she could not truly see it. I sort of wanted to tell her that I'd become a Certified Life Celebrant and was officiating funeral services (not exactly following in her footsteps but it was as close as I was going to get), just to see the look on her face, but because I knew that inherently she would neither know or understand, that one day very soon, she'd get the full story and have a better view of the situation. I'm not sure she'll approve even then, but she'd love me through it, either way.

So, I talked to her a little more, repeating some of what I’d said earlier, and then I decided to sing to her one more time. Why not? At 103, you deserve as many repeats of that song as you can have, right? To my shock, surprise and delight, by the time I got to the “God bless you” part of the chorus, she hummed the last two notes, ever so gently. She opened her mouth slightly and air pushed out, forming the notes. I assure you I was not hearing things. A smile appeared on her face and her eyes went back to her sleep state.

She’d done it again. She’d turned my reluctant, fearful visit into a joyous occasion by showing me, at 103, that she can still teach, she can still receive love and she can show love. You just have to tune in to catch it. I blew her a kiss, as I always did leaving her place at Waldenbrooke. She'd walk to her back porch window and watch me to my car to make sure I got there safely and then as I'd get in my car, I'd always look up and blow her kisses and she blew them back right to me. That's how we said goodbye each time and I can't drive down Memorial Drive without wanting to blow a kiss to someone who is not Mildred who now occupies her apartment.

I smiled as I left and walked effortlessly down the hall, having been pained as I was walking in. Exiting the building I was convinced that her days here on Earth remain few. Not because of anything specific, just the acceptance that given the circumstances and my experience in being with and around seniors being one of my most favorite pastimes, it’s an educated hunch.

Her final lesson to me was this: Don’t fear a point in life when there is nothing more you can do for someone. There’s always something you can do. Just be there. That’s it. God, or the spirit of goodness, or the goodness of the universe’s spirit, depending on your faith construct, will handle the rest. Just, if you can, be there. It’s the best thing you can do, to show love to another person. Love lives forever.


On Friday afternoon, June 8, my phone rang. It was Camille, Mildred's daughter, telling me that Mildred had lived to age 103 and one day. I asked, "You mean she passed away on Wednesday?" She continued, "It was at 1:10 pm." I'd hit "Publish" on my post just twelve minutes later that same day. I felt I would be updating my story soon, but it was a profound feeling to know she'd finished her story before I'd completed mine. I knew I would add one more photo to this story, and waited per Camille's wishes until Monday when her official notice would appear in the newspaper. It just went live online.

When I was getting ready to leave Mildred's apartment at Waldenbrooke several years ago, I was in the living room, heading for her front door, when I saw this image. I said, "Stay right there!" and she did. I've saved this one until it was the proper time. All is right with the world. Once again, Mildred has the last word.