I sit at my computer and the little bar blinks in front of me. It taunts me because it knows that this is a hard one to write. It’s one of those stories that I hold close to me and have for years because it was when I realized how important it is to know people. Sit down and let them speak.
When I was about fifteen my grandmother was in the hospital. She was always the patient that wanted her own room and wanted everything in its place. She was sick and the nurses and doctors were the help so to speak. It is just the truth. Well, on this occasion she was not given that privilege, as she had a roommate, and was mad about it. One day I went up to visit her.
Hospitals. I hate hospitals. That sterile smell and those hard tile floors. The cream colored walls. The sounds of machines all around you as you walk through the halls. Then there is the idea that everyone is there because they are at their worst. At least on most floors. Granted, I am sure there is nothing but happiness up on the natal units. Although, there is always that one dad….I kid, I kid.
So, I walk with my mother and aunt to visit my grandmother in the hospital. We pass door after door as high pitched beeps and dings ring throughout. We enter my grandmother’s room and she is laying in a bed next to the window. Just inside the door on the left I see a small African American woman laying in bed. She looks at the wall ahead of her aimlessly. She is sitting in an inclined position; she has a white handkerchief on her head and is in white linens. I see her turn her head as we walk past her bed.
I sit at the foot of my grandmother’s bed as she, my mother and my aunt talk about family business for a moment. My grandmother begins to complain about the nurses and I tune her out as I look out the window at the summer’s evening sun.
The conversation goes on and my grandmother asks me a question, I crack a joke and I hear a little, gravely laugh from behind me. The little woman began talking to me specifically. I had been talking about school and she was saying how important education was from the other side of the cloth partition.
My mother pointed towards the woman and mouthed, “Go talk to her.”
I think back to then and how I acted initially. I remember I shook my head “no”. I thought at the time that it would be weird and that I didn’t know this woman. I thought my mom was insane.
“Be nice,” my mother mouths and I ask if I can sit with her. She says, “I’d like that,” and I walk over and sit next to her. We introduce ourselves. I feel such remorse because her name escapes me now and I just remember at the end of the day thinking to myself, “This is important big guy, remember her name”.
So, I sit next to this woman as she continues to talk about how important education is. I look at her but she stares just past me. We talk about what she was doing there, to which she just said she hadn’t been feeling well. I talk about my grandmother and her being there and I tell her about being excited to start driving soon.
She was so small and I could tell that she was not well by the encroaching gauntness on her face but she had such a warm smile and huge eyes. She was a beautiful person altogether. I ask her about her family and she tells me that she has a son and a daughter but she had not seen them in a while.
I asked if they knew she was there. She said yes but they were busy and lived out of state and that they would be there some time next week. I remember how she spoke about them. There was this deep affection for them but she told me of how long it had been since she had seen them.
I begin talking about my little brother and how much of a pain in the butt he was and made her laugh. She had a deep, warm laugh this time and it made me smile. We continued to talk about everything from hospital food to the weather. Then, I can’t remember what I was talking about but she began to nod off.
I trailed off and looked over at my mom as she waved me to come back over. She mouthed, “Let her sleep.”
I was sad that she fell asleep as we had had a great conversation. I stood up and noticed a sign just above her.
No Family Contact, Visually Impaired
and then one on pink paper to the right of that that read:
I went back over and sat down. My mother smiled and patted me on the shoulder as they began talking about something else. I wondered about those signs. I realized she was blind and that’s why she looked past me. I wondered if she knew about the no family contact and what did that mean. Finally, I wondered what “on watch” meant. I thought of all the possibilities but couldn’t figure it out. I realize now it’s more so that I didn’t want to.
An hour or so passes and I am sitting in the chair as my mother, grandmother and aunt talk loudly about another family member that was being a butt-head at the time but I stared out into the darkening blue sky. I get it now that it was perspective that that conversation gave me.
I hear from behind me in her whimsical southern drawl, “Is that young man still there?”
I smile and look up at my mother, who is smiling as well.
“Yep, he’s right here,” she says.
I get up and walk back over to where I was sitting before. We talk a bit and I tell her that I love world war II information. I tell her about documentaries and movies and books and video games that I have played. She smiles at me and tells me this:
I apologize that it isn’t verbatim but this is paraphrased of what she said:
“My husband was in world war II. We met when I was 14 and we had our children a few years later. We got married just before he left. He was a good man and a good father. I miss him very much.”
I ask if he was at Normandy.
“No, you see black folks wasn’t quite like that back then. So, he was on the Arizona down in Pearl Harbor and was a cook. He wrote to me all the time. We wrote back and forth. Then the Japanese bombed it but he survived, thank God. He made it out and came home but he was only home a week and he was hit by a city bus. I do miss him.”
I asked her if she ever remarried but she shook her head “no”. I asked her a couple more questions about it but I could see on her face she didn’t want to talk about it. So, I spoke about how incredible it was that she lived through so much and had been through so much and how I admired her. She smiled and told me that I sounded like a smart young man.
A few minutes later my mother came by and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Ready to go,” my mother asked, “Grandma fell asleep and visiting hours are almost over.”
I stood up and turned to my friend.
“I gotta go but it was great meeting you. I’ll be back in a couple of days though and I’ll visit you again,” I said as I shook her small fragile hand. I still remember her smile. It was ear-to-ear and mine reflected hers.
“That sounds good. It was great talking to you as well. Study hard,” she said and I left.
As we walked to the van in the parking lot, I asked my aunt what that pink sign meant. What did “On Watch” mean.
I will never forget this.
“It means death watch. She must be close to passing away. It’s good that you talked with her though. Some of those patients don’t get to do that,” my aunt said nonchalantly, her years of being a nurse making her words matter-of-fact.
I talked up my new friend and the story of her life the whole way home. I even talked about it to my friends the next day.
It was two days later that my grandma was released, so we went up to get her. I walked in the room and my heart sank. I saw that the curtain had been drawn back against the wall now. The bed was made perfectly and tucked in. The signs were taken down and the monitors didn’t blink or beep and I missed that sound. I asked my aunt if maybe she was just somewhere else. Maybe an x-ray. Just somewhere but my aunt shook her head ‘no’.
“Honey, she passed away yesterday evening. She was gone when I came up to visit during my shift,” my aunt said in a lamenting voice.
Man, I wish I could tell you how hard my heart sank but it’s hard to put into words. i didn’t know her very long but we talked and I connected with her.
I write this story even though this is one of those memories that I like to hold on to. Keep it for myself in a selfish way, i guess. I tell it to you because I hope that other people can see how good and interesting she was, even if she didn’t have anyone there with her. I hope she knew that I was going to keep my promise. I hope I did her an ounce of justice here.
That was just over a decade ago that I met an extraordinary person by chance and I have not had a conversation as deep and meaningful as that since.
I miss my friend and the words we shared.
I dedicate this post to her.