On a sunny springtime afternoon near my home in San Diego, I learned that my mother was dying in a hospital 3,000 miles away. I flew to Baton Rouge and went straight to her hospital. The night receptionist told me her room number; and, after I asked, directed me to a room dedicated to prayer and meditation.
I found the small chapel, stretched, did yoga, and meditated, but I couldn’t relax. My mind raced with thoughts that stemmed from worry; my breath was shallow, and my pulse was rapid. I paced back and forth in the small room, slowly and deliberately, and tried to compose myself before going upstairs to see Wendy.
After a few minutes of pacing my breath and pulse still hadn’t slowed down. I paused and looked around, and noticed an open bible behind the chapel’s pulpit. I picked it up and scanned the open pages, and was surprised to see a verse I didn’t recall: Matthew 6:34, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I reread the verse, confirmed I was reading Matthew, checked the bible’s version, and read it again. I smiled when I realized that my breath and pulse had returned to normal, and that, for a few moments, I hadn’t felt worried. I returned the bible how I found it, walked out of the chapel, and rode the elevator to the intensive care ward to see my mother for what I suspected would be the last time.
As I approached her room I could see myself reflecting in the glass door. Beyond my reflection was Wendy, unconscious and hooked to machines. She was only 16 years older than I was – still young at 63 – but she looked much older in her hospital bed. She seemed frail, I looked tired. Surprisingly, despite her condition, her hair was braided neatly. I focused on that, and forced a smile as I opened her door.
The first thing I heard was a ventilator machine breathing for her, and a quiet but constant beep from her heartbeat monitor. Her pulse was 54 beats per minute; coincidentally, the same as mine.
Five IV tubes dripping fluids into needles on the backs of her hand. Bruises on her arms indicated that there had been multiple needle attempts over the previous days. I looked at the bags of fluids, and saw that she was being fed nutrients and opiate pain killers. Coincidentally, the bags were made in Tijuana, and had been routed through San Diego only two weeks before.
Tears came to my eyes, and I told her I was there, and I touched her hand gently, in case she couldn’t hear me. I repeated that I was there.
Her doctor entered the room, so I dried my eyes and looked up. After saying a few formalities, he said her liver had failed from alcohol abuse, and that she had been unconscious for three days, and that the only thing keeping her alive was the ventilator, and that she probably would never wake up, and that in the morning I would have to choose whether or not they’d remove her from her life support devices. If I did, she’d likely die within a few minutes. If I didn’t, the devices could keep her body alive for days or weeks or possibly longer. I thanked him, and he said he’d return the next morning at 8:00 AM.
When he left, I fell to my knees and cried with my eyes closed, unable to look at up at Wendy. When I was able to stand, I breathed and smiled and told her that I loved her and wouldn’t leave her side.
I carefully placed my big hand on her small one, avoiding the needles, and chuckled subtly and told her it was funny that we had the same heart rates. She would have laughed at that coincidence a few days before.
I tried to smile, but I began crying again, even though during flight here I had told myself I wouldn’t.
Visiting hours ended, but no one asked me to leave, so I stood up, blew my nose, and chatted about nothing in particular but in a kind voice, in case she could still hear me.
When I glanced at my watch I saw that I had almost 10 more hours until her doctor returned. I searched my memories for additional pleasant things to talk about. I told her about the people who had made and filled her IV bags.
A few hours later, after I had alternated talking and crying many times and was exhausted, a young nurse brought me a cup of coffee. She said it was “nurse’s coffee,” and that she had made it extra strong for the night shift.
I thanked her, and I asked about Wendy’s hair, because someone must have braided it after she had been connected to the machines. It wasn’t the style she did herself, but it looked good on her, even now.
“I wanted Miss Wendy lookin’ her best for you,” the nurse said in her southern Louisiana accent, with a hint of Cajun French. She introduced herself, and when I heard her pronounce her last name I guessed she was from near where Wendy lived. She told me I was right, and we chatted about Saint Francisville; it was an old French Catholic settlement on the banks of the Mississippi River in West Feliciana Parish, named after the patron saint of kindness to animals, and it’s surrounded by centuries old Cajun homesteads, thick forests, and gentle streams. Wendy loved it so much that she retired there.
Wendy wasn’t Cajun, she was Canadian, but her family – our family – was from Montreal and Prince Edward Island, where the Cajuns originated, and enjoyed hearing accents that reminded her of her childhood in Canada. Her full maiden name had been Wendy Anne Rothdram, but she used the last name Partin out of habit.
“I’m Jason Partin,” I told the nurse, pronouncing it like Wendy would have.
The nurse patted Wendy’s hand and said, in her sweet accent, “Miss Wendy, I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She smiled at me and left the room to check on another patient. After the door closed, I patted Wendy’s hand gently, and agreed that she looked beautiful. Then I smiled and said the nurse thought I was handsome, so she must know what she’s talking about. Wendy would have laughed at that. I hoped she heard me.
I rested my hands on Wendy’s for a while, but I grew cold and shivered in the air conditioned hospital, so I warmed my hands on around another cup of nurse’s coffee and paced slowly. When I paused, I sipped coffee and tried to imagine what Wendy would want to talk about.
I threw away the empty cup and placed a warmed hand on hers, and showed her Uncle Bob’s watch on my other wrist. I reminded her that I had it repaired and cleaned recently in San Diego, and that coincidentally a Rolex repairman lived up the street from me.
An hour or two later, I showed her the Rolex Oyster Perpetual again, and reminded her that it was as old as I was, but never needed a battery or winding. It was still useful, despite a few dents scratches, and would keep working as long as it remained in motion.
“Just like me!” I said, genuinely laughing. She had laughed when I made that joke two weeks before.
I looked at Uncle Bob’s watch and saw that it was almost 3am. I carefully removed my hand from Wendy’s and yawned and stretched and tried to stay alert despite feeling fatigued.
I talked about our family, and I cried from sadness, and asked why she hadn’t told me she was dying, and cursed and wept from frustration and exhaustion. Somehow, I found other things to talk about for a few hours, things that were less emotional. But I never talked about why I called her Wendy. She had never forgiven herself, or my dad, and I didn’t want to say anything that could upset her.
She had dropped out of high school to have me. But, six months after I was born, she had felt alone, and had been afraid of my dad and his family. She impulsively answered a hand-written note on a cafe wall to share gas on a drive to California, and she left that day, abandoning me at a daycare center.
California represented everything she wanted he life to be as a young girl. She had told me that I was conceived after she had first heard Led Zepplin’s 1971 song, “Going to California,” and lost her virginity to my dad. Many years later, after I had moved to San Diego, I could still recall the lyrics she loved:
Made up my mind, make a new start
Goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair
She almost made it to California, but she returned to Louisiana and tried to convince a judge that she had made a mistake and would be able to care for me. But it was too late. The judge had placed me in foster care. He told her she could visit me once a month, and that he’d reconsider after she found employment and health insurance and a place for us to live.
She saw me one weekend a month as she looked for work, and taught me to call her by her first name because she was ashamed of being a single teenage mother. She wanted people to think I was her little brother, not a mistake or baggage. She was still a young girl, and she still wanted to be accepted by adults and to date teenage boys.
It took her seven years, but she finally found a job in the chemical plants north of Baton Rouge. She said that my dad’s family name, Partin, both helped and harmed her.
I was returned to her custody in 1980, just after my grandfather, Edward Partin, went to prison for the final time, and around the time my dad was arrested the first time.
Nine years later, when I was 16, I asked another judge to emancipate me – to make me a legal adult – and he did. I was freed to make my own choices, and I settled in California, ironically.
30 years passed, but old habits are hard to change, and I still called my mother Wendy.
Those three decades had passed quickly, but 6am crawled upon us. I stared at the second hand move around Uncle Bob’s watch face, and didn’t know what else I could to say, yet somehow I talked for another hour. I refilled a coffee cup and sipped slowly. I would have to speak to her doctor soon.
When the doctor arrived at 8:24, we spoke briefly and he reiterated the options. It was a clear choice. My eyes watered and my lips trembled as I authorized removing my mother’s life support. He nodded, and gave us a moment alone.
When he returned, he removed turned off the ventilator and removed its tube from her mouth. She fought for air, and I felt my chest tighten and spasm with hers. I held her hand firmly so she would know I was still there, but I couldn’t speak because of the tightness in my chest.
I don’t know how I knew when she took her final breath, but I knew, and I spoke my final words to my mother: “I love you, Wendy.”
A few minutes later, her machine beeped that she was gone, but I didn’t feel that she had passed yet. I held her hand for 10 or 15 more minutes more, let go, and left the room so nurses could do their work.
I stayed in Saint Francisville while the funeral home prepared her ashes, and walked around Wendy’s home and reflected on my mother’s life.
She had built her dream home an hour upriver from Baton Rouge, where she volunteered at the West Feliciana humane society, fostering dogs until they were adopted by a permanent home. She had fostered a tiny dog named Angel, and had searched for the perfect home, but never found one that could love Angel as much as she did. Angel passed away after 14 years with my mom.
I found Angel’s ashes in a tiny wooden box on a shelf in Wendy’s house. It had a brass plaque that said, “Angel,” and inside was a black velvet bag with gold letters that said, “Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge.”
I held Angel’s ashes for a few minutes, wiped my eyes and blew my nose, and carried the box outside to a small wooden bench in Wendy’s garden.
The bench overlooked a small fishing pond, and was under tall pine trees and surrounded by azelea bushes. She had been designing a final resting spot for Angel, and had chosen a place in the shade. She loved spring in St. Francisville, especially then, when the azelea bushes were blooming, because their red and pink flowers stood out against the green pine trees in her garden.
Her bench was small but comfortable. It was the perfect size for two people who knew each other well to sit silently in the shade of pine trees, and watch ducks swimming in her pond. It was made from cypress wood of a nearby swamp, repurposed from a 200 year old home, and it would last many more lifetimes.
Wendy had placed a new bird bath near the bench, one of the small ones with a decorative bowl atop a pedestal. At its base, a small patch of freshly cleared soil foretold where Angel’s ashes would have been laid to rest. I sat on the bench beside the bird bath for a few hours, and thought about life’s coincidences and ironies.
Wendy had always wanted to travel, but she hadn’t left Louisiana since she was five years old, and her mother, my Granny, immigrated to Baton Rouge to join her sister and brother in law, my Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo. They all had been unfit to care for me when I was in foster care, and all died young. Wendy had inherited their unused retirement savings.
She was nervous traveling alone, so instead of traveling she spent her retirement building her dream home and garden. She said she’d travel after it was done, and after she found a home for Angel. I held Angel’s ashes, and imagined them traveling together.
I thought of Thompson Creek. It flowed nearby, and it was the first place Wendy had showed us when she began designing her home. It was a perfect place to spread their ashes.
I verified local rules for what could go into the water, told my family I’d be offline for a while, and sent an email with a time and place for Wendy’s memorial service. Two days later, four people who loved her stood above me on the bluffs of Thompson Creek and watched me kneel on the muddy banks and pour Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the remarkably clear water.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and it flows slowly. At first, their ashes sank to the bottom, and I watched pieces of Wendy and Angel break off and slowly drift towards the center, where water flowed more quickly.
I stood up and crawled up the muddy bank to join the memorial service. We silently watched Wendy and Angel’s ashes floating down Thompson Creek and towards the Mississippi River. They would mix with its muddy waters, and drift to the Gulf of Mexico and spread across all waters on Earth together.
At that thought, I fell to my knees and bawled until my asthmatic wheezing forced me to stop and gasp for air. The group reached for me, but I held up my hand and tried to communicate that I’d be okay.
When I could finally stand up, I felt that they expected me to say something. I didn’t know what I could say that mattered, but I started saying something, although through my tears and wheezing they may have only heard a few phrases, like “honor your mother and father,” “why, Wendy?”, or “just be happy…”, but most of what I said wouldn’t have made sense to anyone. My mother and I had always been private people, protecting our past. Her friends didn’t even know why I called her Wendy.
When I finally stood up, everyone else took turns saying their peace. They all loved her, and all said they had felt loved by her. I thanked them for that, and told them how much I appreciated them. They followed me to her home – my house, I realized – and we ate leftovers Wendy had frozen in neatly labeled and containers only a week before.
The offered to help in any way they could, so we arranged for Wendy’s possessions to be auctioned. I ensured the proceeds would be donated to the humane society, then I packed my bag and prepared to fly home.
I glanced at Uncle Bob’s watch and saw how much time I had before my flight. I looked around, and wondered if I should bring anything back to San Diego.
I choose Granny’s gold retirement watch. It was a gold Seiko, engraved with her name, Joyce Rothdram, and it thanked her for 25 years of service. Granny had been tiny, and her watch was so small that it would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl, but she had been proud of it.
Wendy had inherited it 30 years before, along with Granny’s retirement account. Granny had died at age 61, a year before being legally eligible to collect her first retirement check. Wendy died at age 63, a year after collecting her first retirement check. Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob had both died under 64.
When I had lived in Louisiana and lived with Uncle Bob as he died, I had thought 64 was old. Now, I was 46, and 64 seemed imminent.
I thought about the history of Granny’s watch and our family on my flight. When I arrived home, an eight year old girl hugged me and told me she missed me and was sorry my mommie had died. I thanked her, said I missed her, too, and gave her Granny’s watch. It fit her perfectly.
I showed her how to set it to the current time, 2:20pm, and when I asked her to look at and tell me what time it was, she said, “It’s time to play!” and I said she was right, and we went out side and played. I don’t remember for how long.
Four months later, on a sunny summertime afternoon in San Diego, I was walking home from Sunday’s farmers market with handfuls of bags filled with fruits and vegetables. As I passed a bus stop across from a 7-11 convenience store, I saw an old man in a wheelchair sitting in the bright sun.
He was shaking as if he had Parkinson’s disease or something similar. He had thin, gray hair, and I noticed that his scalp was freshly sunburned.
His mouth was circled by small red bumps and a few open sores. He hand’t shaved in several days, and food was caked in his whiskers. He only had one eye open, and the other was squinted tightly.
His wheelchair was issued from a Veterans Hospital, though the nearest one was a dozen miles away. I glanced at the hospital ID bracelet on his wrist and saw that he had recently been admitted to Scripps Mercy Charity Hospital, a mile away from the Sunday farmer’s market. The other ID bracelets on his wrists were too faded to read, and I assumed he had been in and out of a few hospitals for several weeks.
I saw people like him often in downtown San Diego, my neighborhood. By American law, no one can be denied emergency care, and if police suspect mental illness they can take that person to a hospital to be treated for three days. In California, the police code for that is a 5150. In San Diego, police usually take 5150’s to Scripps Hospital, two miles from my home.
The doctors and nurses at Scripps do their best, but, by law, must release patients after three days. No one pays their bills, and when the 5150 reimbursement ends, nurses reluctantly push them out the front door and onto the street.
Many patients are disoriented when they’re asked to leave, and they wander past the bus stop or through Balboa Park on their way to downtown homeless shelters. Some have family who eventually find them. Others become our neighbors and live out their lives on our streets. There were too many homeless neighbors to know them all by name, and most people ignore them.
The man in the wheelchair had dirty clothes, and he smelled of body odor. Two 7-11 hot dogs sat on his lap, untouched but covered in flies. He held a super-sized soft drink in his shaking hand, and it splashed bright red sugary liquid onto his pants. Flies crawled over his legs to sip from the red stains, but he didn’t seem to notice.
I asked if he needed help, or would like his wheelchair pushed under the bus stop shade. He mumbled “no,” and stared at me with his eye.
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, so I knelt by his side and listened more closely. As I leaned in, I saw that he was missing his front teeth, so I assumed other people had bought the 7-11 hotdogs for him. They were only 99 cents each, the same as his super-sized drink, but he wouldn’t have bought them, even if he had money, because he had no front teeth to bite them.
His heartbeat was obvious in his bulging neck arteries – probably due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease from smoking or exposure to harsh chemicals – and his breathing was forced and wheezing. Out of habit, I rested my left hand on his wheelchair, by his head, so that I could see the second hand of my watch move as I looked him in the eye. I counted his breath and pulse rate; there was nothing unexpected, and no immediate concern.
I introduced myself as Jason, and he told me his name was “Dan, or Danny, or Daniel or whatever; it doesn’t matter.” He said it confidently, brushing his hand through the air carelessly, as if his name was unimportant compared to what he knew. He radiated an air of contentness that belied his condition.
I offered him my LSU baseball cap, and he smiled broadly as he put it on with surprising deftness of his shaking hands. He took time to shape it, adjusting it precisely and pulling it down low over his eyes. He said it was a duck bill fold, like he wore in the army.
I had, too, for a while. Special ops wore caps with unauthorized duck folds to shade our eyes and arrogantly display that we were unconcerned about rules. With his hat like that, he looked like me. Or, he looked like I imagined myself in 20 years. I shuddered.
Danny seemed excited to have an audience, and he began telling stories. As he spoke, his lips flapped in and out of his mouth, unencumbered by teeth, and I felt spittle splatter on my face. I adjusted my distance without seeming rude, and tried to listen.
He spoke of strange things that I didn’t understand. He told a story of a one-legged table (how could we all eat on it!) and a giant plant with a single tap root circling the Earth (what happens when we cut it!) and how aliens can hear us; this was important to him, and he leaned forward and pointed his finger at me to emphasize words.
“They can hear your thoughts,” he said, and paused pointed at my chest once for every word that followed:
He withdrew his finger and leaned back, satisfied that he had shared something so important, and smiled and adjusted his baseball cap. He looked at me with his good eye, and asked how I’d describe a duck to an alien. But he didn’t wait for an answer.
“Quack!” he exclaimed. “Ha! that’d be funny! How could you describe a duck to someone who has never seen one!”
He laughed so hard that spittle flew past me, then he stopped laughing, leaned forward, and said, “Just like it’s hard for God to describe love to us.”
He pointed a finger towards heaven and aliens, but kept his eye on me, and allowed me time to ponder how God would describe love. Then he relaxed and leaned back into his wheelchair and took a breath to speak again.
He told more stories, but I was distracted and not completely focused on him, because in my peripheral vision I was watching people pass us.
Dozens of people walking from the farmer’s market passed us without glancing. Some even walked out of their way to avoid us. Car drivers stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop, but turned up the volume of their radios or looked at their phones. It was like we were in an invisible field, someone else’s problem, and not worth their time.
I live in America’s Finest City, with perfect weather and 78 miles of beaches and daily farmer’s markets. When I met Danny, I was on my way through Balboa Park, an oasis of trees and playgrounds within the city limits, and home to hundreds of homeless people. In the city, more than 6,800 homeless people live in the parks and alleys of celebrities, surfers, millionaires, and soldiers.
We have have America’s largest marine base, a navy shipyard, an airbase, and many private defense companies. 250,000 people in San Diego are employed by the military. And because San Diego has been a military out-processing center since World War II, our homeless population is disproportionately comprised of veterans who returned from war and stayed in San Diego because they had no where else to go.
A homeless person in San Diego is 4 times more likely to be a veteran than elsewhere, and 4 times more likely to commit suicide. No one listens to their stories any more.
“People are too busy,” Danny said, “Writing about this and that…” he trailed off and waved a hand to dismiss what people did with their time.
“You think a story about an IRA is funny?” He demanded suddenly, shocking me so much that I must have shown my surprise. He smiled, and waited for me to process what he asked.
I looked at Danny more closely. I was confused by what he had asked.
After my mom’s death, I had been writing a book about my grandmother’s IRA, her Individual Retirement Account that she began after immigrating to Louisiana. She died before using it, and Wendy had inherited it and used the money to build her dream home before dying, too. I had hoped to write a book that would tell their story and teach practical things to other single mothers trying to survive in America. I wanted to use their story to help other people.
But Danny was right, a story about an IRA didn’t sound funny, and I was shocked by the coincidence of him saying that. Not many people put thought into their IRA’s or the future, especially old veterans with faded 5150 bracelets.
“Tell them about a war veteran who got sick after being given experimental medications! Tell them how he fell asleep waiting in the Las Angeles Veterans Hospital! Ha! Vets have funny stories! Ha! Tell them about a friend who starts to annoy you, plays pranks on you, and rubs dog shit under your car door handle! Hahaha!” He laughed out loud, and more spittle flew from his lips.
He began telling stories again. I listened to the words but didn’t understand the metaphors, and after about 30 minutes I stood up and said I had to leave.
“Wait! Wait! I was talking too much,” he pleaded, more audibly than before. “I’m an old man. Please sit and tell me about yourself.” He gestured towards the bus stop bench, but I said that I should go, and that maybe I’d see him again soon. I smiled, and was about to leave, but he opened both eyes and stared at me intently. I stopped moving, and stared back into his bright blue eyes.
He was looking up at me, peering from under his duck bill, and smiling. He was no longer shaking. I’m not easily unnerved, but I was confused by his transformation and didn’t know what to say. I waited for him to speak again.
“What happens if we cut the root?” He asked, and pointed at me. I contemplated the metaphor, still too surprised to speak, but I didn’t take my eyes or attention off of Danny this time.
He waited patiently, then asked, “What happened when they cut the umbilical chord?” He pointed at my belly, staring into my eyes intently but no longer smiling. I thought of Wendy, and I shuddered again.
“Touch your belly button,” he instructed, mimicking the action. I was mesmerized by the coincidences of Danny’s words, and I touched my belly button. Perhaps part of me hoped Danny had words that would ease the sadness I still felt from loosing my mother.
“Now point up, and look at the sky,” he said, keeping both eyes on me but pointing towards Heaven and aliens. I pointed, too, and kept my eyes locked on Danny’s.
“Ask yourself, is it wind that moves the clouds?” At first, I mistakenly heard ‘Wendy,’ my mom’s name, and though I realized what he said, I still wondered if she were in the clouds.
I kept looking at Danny, and kneeled back down to listen to more stories. He kept both eyes open, but returned to mumbling and shaking. About 30 minutes later, I stood up to go again, but Danny kept telling stories. I tried to interrupt politely.
“Danny… Danny… Danny…” I waited for him to pause and look at me, then I said, “I have to go now. May I move your chair under the shade?”
He said yes, so I pushed him under the bus stop. I threw away his spoiled hot dogs, and asked if he wanted water. He did not, he still had his partially filled drink in his hand.
I offered him strawberries from the farmer’s market. His eyes lit up and he smiled and said yes! I gave him a box, placing it on his leg where the hot dogs used to be, and he popped one in his mouth, pushing it towards his back teeth and making content sounds as he chewed happily. He looked good in his hat, waiting for the bus without a worry in the world.
I looked at my watch and said goodbye and picked up my bags and began walking towards home, across Balboa Park.
I didn’t say hello to other neighbors along the way. I thought about what Danny said, and wondered if I would be like him one day, an old disabled veteran with stories to tell but no one to listen. I was lost in thought as I walked home.
But I didn’t think about it too much more that day, because it was almost 2:20pm, and I had a play date with an eight year old girl.
The night, I decided to stop working on the book about my grandmother’s IRA. Danny was right. It wouldn’t have been funny.
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