In her day she would have most certainly been the teacher the young boys fell in love with. The photos of her are of a black and white beauty with high cheek bones and sparkling eyes behind studious glasses like the ones the secretary wears until she takes her hair down one day and hears, "Why Miss Smith, you're beautiful".
On December 23rd, my husband and I brought Mrs. H home to live with us. She'd been in and out of the hospital for many months battling congestive heart failure, kidney failure and diabetes. Her days were blurs of dialysis, hospital beds and nurses trying to find a vein.
The moment he wheeled her from the car into the living room beside the Christmas tree that's too big for my house, she looked at me thoughtfully. "I woke up the other night in the hospital and cried for a long time," she said with wide eyes. "I don't know why. I just felt sad to be there."
I knew why. Hospitals for all their busyness are very lonely places.
Exhausted from the ride home, she managed to eat a little fruit before snuggling into the "real" bed in the room we'd prepared for her. She hadn't wanted a hospital bed so she was tickled pink when she sunk down into the soft sheets of the twin bed. Her ear to ear grin made me feel like a rich woman who'd given her some great gift rather than a small bed in a small room.
The next morning she woke at 6AM and called for her son to help her use the potty chair. Wanting to spare him that sharp reality, I bolted to her room which in our tiny house only took just shy of 3 seconds. "I'd love some black coffee," she told me once we'd finished the business at hand. She drank every drop while offering stories of relatives I'd never met and based on her opinions of them, hoped never to meet.
Christmas Eve morning was full of laughter and big smiles and I looked forward to many more moments like these I imagined she and I would spend over time.
But by 11:30 AM, I began to realize Mrs. H hadn't come to our house to while away her twilight years with us. She'd come home to die.
In a twinkling of an eye, I saw her body begin the downward slide the way you might see a thermometer drop in a cold room. She commented she didn't feel very well while the visiting home health nurse was here checking her over. "Sherri," the nurse said to me as we stood outside her room, "you've taken on a very big job and I don't want you to feel like it's your fault if Mrs. H doesn't do well".
By evening, the physical changes a body goes through during the process of dying began to manifest and for what felt like an eternity, my husband and I cleaned and changed her every few minutes. Any hope I'd had to try and spare him certain images was lost as I couldn't manage the physicality of turning her without his help.
I prayed a silent prayer when she had her first accident that God would give me strength not to show what a weak stomach I have so that maybe she wouldn't feel so embarrassed. I wanted her to think this kind of thing was second nature to me and thankfully He answered my prayers as throughout the days and nights that followed, I handled all manner of things that normally would have left me unconscious on the floor.
That first night, Mrs. H began to process her life in dreams. She talked to her Momma and to her brother and even went fishing for her supper. Every little bit she'd open her eyes and look to her left toward a blank spot on the wall. "I'm not ready yet," she'd say plainly while shaking her head and then she'd go back to the 80 years of memories she needed to sort through.
"I'm not ready to go yet," she again told the one she could clearly see but we couldn't. And then she added, "I'll be ready to go about 6:30." When she said it I was the only one in the room and so I debated whether I should say anything. In the end, I was glad I did.
At 6:16 PM on December 27th, I stopped the clock in her room. She took her last breaths surrounded by a room full of people who loved her.
My husband, a giant of a man who rarely shows emotion and who has to me always seemed to pride himself on his ability not to cry, was brought to his knees during the time she was with us. He babied her, loved her, cared for her every need and whispered to the woman whom he had called Mother, "I love you Momma." Tears flowed easily and often as beside her bed she taught him that to be broken in love is not childish but rather the mark of the wisest of men.
When the nurse came to make her ready for the funeral home to take her away, I asked if I could help. Without sleep to break up the days, it felt like I'd been taking care of her for years and to leave her now and let someone else take over seemed wrong. When the nurse left the room to talk to the family, I brushed her hair while whispering how much this time had meant to me.
The long stretcher arrived covered in a soft, deep velvet but before they could see, I hid the family away in a back room with doors closed. They'd seen so much already, but I knew that final bell could never be un-rung. In the moment before we lifted her out of the "real" bed she'd appreciated so much, I looked at her and realized it wasn't her at all.
In her place was just a shell. An empty shell. The woman who'd filled it up and made it laugh and cry and love had moved on now. She'd used up every ounce of what it had to offer and had absolutely worn it completely out. Gone on to where broken bodies aren't even a faint memory, the old cliche took on deep meaning for me as I knew she'd taken nothing with her.
A lesson I like to think she meant especially for me.
You see, before she'd arrived I had been concerned only with trying to make this little house into something it can't be. I worked like a mad woman trying to make it spotless while at the same time cursing it and wishing for new furniture and new floors and bigger rooms and finer things. I was embarrassed that Mrs. H and all the family that would surely arrive on her shirt tails would see my life as it is and realize I wasn't nearly good enough.
Not now. Not after her last lessons.
When inevitably that unseen one arrives at my bedside and asks if I'm ready, I hope I leave behind a thoroughly used up shell and that anything I've had to give, I've given. Thank you Mrs. H. You were a teacher 'til the end.
Copyright © Sherri Bailey
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