When I learned that mother was dying 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. A few minutes later, I left the small chapel and rode the elevator to Wendy’s room in intensive care.
I approached her room and saw her behind a closed glass door. She was young, only 63 years old, but looked much older in her hospital bed. She looked frail. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was hidden by a ventilator tube. Her hands were obscured by tubes and needles. I noticed my reflection beside her, and even though I was translucent I saw how sad and tired I looked. I forced a smile and opened the door.
The first thing I heard was a ventilator and heartbeat monitor. She was breathing at 4 to 5 breaths per minute, and her pulse was 54. That was good, but her blood pressure was too low.
I recognized the ventilator and IV pump, because I had supervised the manufacture both, coincidentally. I instantly saw the irony but did not dwell on it because ot was the best we could do at that time.
Bruises on her arms belied multiple attempts by nurses to stick needles. Her low blow pressure would have led to collapsed veins in her arms. All tubes were connected to smaller vessels on the backs of her hands. I looked at the bags of fluids, and saw that she was being fed nutrients and opiate pain killers. I saw the bags and my mind flashed sensations of the people who had made them in Tijuana and shipped them to Baton Rouge only a few weeks before. A man named Oscar had signed off on those bags.
I told Wendy I was there, and I touched her hand gently in case she couldn’t hear me. I rested my hand on her forearm, and repeated that I was there.
The pump beeped a warning that an air bubble could be entering her IV tubes – that could kill her – but the line was clear, so it was a false alarm. But it was still a terrifying sound: it could have been real.
A nurse who rushed in to check the line. She reset the pump’s alarm, and assured me that everything was all right for the moment, and that Miss Partin’s doctor would be in shortly. She left quickly to answer another alarm. I returned my attention to Wendy and told her about the coincidences in her room, and said that I’d be by her side.
I stood beside Wendy, quietly holding her hand and unwilling to speak. I feared that I could not speak and restrain my slowly dripping tears, so I waited as patiently as I could, When her doctor finally entered the room I wiped my eyes and looked up at him. After a few formalities, he reiterated what he had said on the phone two days before: her liver had failed from alcohol abuse, the machines were keeping her body alive, and that she’d probably never wake up. 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 for his directness, and he said he’d return the next morning at 8:00 AM. He left me alone with Wendy again.
I fell to my knees and began crying before her door finished closing. I lifted one hand and rested it on Wendy’s forearm and let myself sob as silently as possible for a few minutes. When I was able to stand, I told Wendy that I loved her and that she had done a good job raising me and that I was sorry for not visiting more often and for not realizing how sick she had been. I don’t know why I said all of that; she knew, and had heard me say that only two weeks before. Maybe I was justifying myself, because every time someone I loved was dying, all of my choices come rushimg forward as emotions of regret. We can all love more graciously and be kinder more consistently, and knowing it makes our lapses more poignant when we realize we’ll never have another chance.
Visiting hours ended, but no one asked me to leave. I stood by her side and held her hand silently for a while. I tried to feel unconditional love and share it with her now, hoping that would patch the lapses.
The nurses changed shifts, and I glanced at my watch and saw that I had almost 10 hours until her doctor would return. My cheeks tightened and my lips trembled and I kept starting at my watch, knowing how emotionally draining the last night with a loved one can be. I became overwhelmed by anticipation of the inevitable, and I fell to my knees again, bawling this time. I don’t know how long passed before I could stand up again and try to be there for Wendy. I wanted her to know I was fine, and that she was loved. I searched for a pun or coincidence or bit of irony that had been a source of her humor, and I said how funny it was that we had the same pulse. Like mother, like son! We laughed together, and I searched memories for things to chat about.
A few hours later, I had alternated between talking and crying so many times that I was exhausted. Fortunately, a young nurse on the night shift brought me a cup of coffee. She said it was “nurse’s coffee,” and that she had made it extra strong. I thanked her and sipped from the paper cup as she checked on Wendy’s machines. I wrapped both hands around the cup to capture its warmth, and allowed my mind to settle. Hospitals can feel cold, especially when you’re fatigued, and it’s easy to forget to warm yourself.
I asked the nurse 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 with a hint of Cajun accent. 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. Wendy loved it so much that she built her dream home there, surrounded by thick forests, gentle streams, and Cajun homesteads from when Louisiana was still part of France.
Wendy wasn’t Cajun, but our family was French Canadian, from near where the Cajuns originated. She enjoyed hearing Louisiana accents that reminded her of her childhood in Canada.
“I’m Jason Partin,” I told the nurse, pronouncing it like Wendy would have, Pah’tan
The nurse patted Wendy’s hand and said, in her sweet accent, “Miss Wendy, I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She looked back up at me and smiled 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, that the nurse must know what she’s talking about because she said I had good looks, too. Wendy would have laughed at that, and I hoped she heard me.
I threw away the empty cup and placed my warmed hand on her cold one, and talked for a while about things I can’t recall. Her IV alarm beeped loudly, and I scanned the tubes and quickly reset the pump before the Cajun nurse would come in. I looked at my watch, and saw that we had almost six more hours together. I didn’t want that time filled with false alarms.
I showed Wendy my watch, a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. It had been Uncle Bob’s, and I 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 beamed, genuinely laughing. She had laughed when I made that joke two weeks before, before I knew that her liver was failing. She had always been a private person.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost 3am. We had more five hours.
I talked about our family and cried from sadness, and asked why she hadn’t told me she was dying, and cursed and wept from frustration and exhaustion. I was too tired not to. Fatigue makes a coward out of anyone, and I wasn’t strong enough to withhold my sadness and regrets.
Wendy was young. She had dropped out of school to have me when she was 16, eloping to Mississippi where it was legal for kids to marry without parental consent. She suddenly found herself as a young mother married to a man who did not love her. She abandoned me at a day care center and fled to California, and I was taken into state custody. Louisiana judges were afraid of grandfather but tried to protect me. They placed me in the foster system.
Wendy returned to Baton Rouge and was given criteria to meet before she could regain custody. She felt unloved and ashamed, and taught me to call her by her first name so people would think I was her little brother and that she was taking care of me once a month. Over the years, she found stability and a job with healthcare and fought for custody and won me back. But by then I was eight years old, and would forever call my mother Wendy out of habit. I never learned why she kept my dad’s family name. She was a private person, and we hadn’t discussed our family history in almost 30 years. She had done the best she could at the time.
I thought about my family as I stared at the second hand on our Bob’s watch. It moved without ticking like a quartz watch; instead, the hands glided around the face smoothly, effortlessly, and without resting. The internal springs collect and store kinetic energy from movement of my hands; it had kept time for almost half a century. In that time, it had seen the death of all of our family. I would be the last, now that Wendy was dying. I would be the only person left on Earth who knew our history. I didn’t know what to say. I cried.
6am crawled upon us. I didn’t know what I could to say, but I felt I should, and somehow I talked pleasantly for an hour. I refilled a coffee cup and sipped slowly, knowing my throat was dry and swollen from the cold air conditioned room and a night of crying and talking. I would have to speak to her doctor soon. The IV alarm beeped, and I reset it and paced silently with my hands wrapped around the nurse’s strength coffee.
The doctor arrived at 8:24 am and restated our options. My eyes watered and my lips trembled as I authorized removing life support. He nodded, and gave us a moment alone.
When he returned, he removed her ventilator. I looked away as he pulled the tube from her mouth, and looked back when I heard hear gasp for air. She fought for a breath and managed to gulp down a few. I felt my chest tighten and spasm with her effort, and I held her hand firmly so she would know I was still there. I couldn’t speak because my tightened chest wouldn’t inhale deeply enough and my mouth was filled with choked back tears.
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. I held her hand until I felt she was no longer there, then let go and left the room so nurses could take her body to be cremated.
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 that would love Angel as much as she deserved. Angel passed away after 14 years with my mom. No one could love her as much as she deserved.
I found Angel’s ashes in a black velvet bag in a wooden box on a shelf. The box said “Angel,” and the bag said, “Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge.” Clipped to the were two of Angel’s tiny LSU hair ribbons that she wore on Wendy’s lap during football games. I held it all in my hands for a few minutes, then wiped my eyes with my forearm and carried the box outside to Wendy’s garden.
I sat on a small bench overlooking Wendy’s fishing pond with the box of Angel’s ashes on my lap. The bench was next to a delicate bird bath and a freshly scraped patch of dirt that was to be where Angel would rest. Wendy had designed it. She had designed all of her garden. She had said it would be the perfect place for her little Angel one day.
The bench was small but comfortable. It was made from repurposed cypress wood off a 200 year old Cajun homestead, and would last many more lifetimes. 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 land on the pond. It was April, and the azelas were just beginning to bloom. Wendy had planted them under the pine trees and around Angel’s bench. She had wanted to see one more spring before committing to Angel’s final resting place.
Wendy had always wanted to travel, but never found the time. She hadn’t left Louisiana, not even to visit me in California. She had planned to travel after retiring and finding a home for Angel.
I sat and listened to crickets chirping and birds singing, and I felt the cool afternoon breeze blow on my face, and I smelled the scents of springtime in Louisiana, and my thoughts drifted to Thompson Creek. It flowed nearby, and had been the first place Wendy had showed me when she began designing her dream retirement home. It was peaceful, and the perfect place to spread Wendy and Angel’s ashes.
I verified local rules, told my family in San Diego 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 on the bluffs a few feet above me. They patiently watched me kneel on the muddy banks and pour Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the clear water.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow. It flows slowly, and their ashes sank to the bottom of the still water near the bank. Tiny pieces began to break away, and I watched Wendy and Angel drift towards the center of the creek, where water flowed more quickly. We watched their ashes float down Thompson Creek towards the Mississippi River, where they would mix with the waters of America’s largest river and drift to the Gulf of Mexico and spread across all waters on Earth. Wendy and Angel would travel the world together.
I fell to my knees and punched the muddy ground 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 to keep them away. When I could finally stand up I felt that I should 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?”, and, from some source I did not understand, I looked to the sky and answered myself, “just be happy…”, But most of what I said was inaudible or wouldn’t have made sense to anyone but Wendy and me. She was a private person, and so was I.
When I finally stood up, everyone else took turns saying their peace, then they walked with me back to her house, where we ate leftovers Wendy had frozen in neatly labeled and containers only a week before. It was classic Cajun cuisine and her favorite shrimp and corn soup that she had always brought to neighbors who were sick or grieving. The flavors and good memories worked their way into our hearts, and we laughed and talked about good food and the beauty of Saint Francisville and all of the things we loved about Louisiana and Wendy.
We arranged for her possessions to be auctioned and donated to the West Feliciana humane society, and I packed my bag and prepared to fly home. I glanced around and wondered if I should bring anything back to San Diego. Everything from my Louisiana family was there, three generations of memories and a lifetime of stories that only I remembered now. I wondered what could summarize all of that and fit into my small backpack for the flight home.
I choose Granny’s 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, and had willed it to Wendy 30 years before.
Granny had died at age 61, a year before being eligible to collect her first retirement check. Her family, Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob, had both died around the same time, and both had been under 64. Wendy had inherited all of their retirement accounts and used her savings to build her dream home. She died at 63, less than a year after receiving her first retirement check. All had been alcoholics. I was 46 and finally free from alcohol. On the long flight home I thought about my family and how quickly time passes.
When I arrived in San Diego, an eight year old girl hugged me and told me she missed me and was sorry my mommie had died. I said I missed her too, and showed her Granny’s watch and put it on her wrist. It fit her perfectly. I said it was hers, a gift from my mother, and she beamed excitedly and forgot that she was sad and asked how it worked. 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 outside and played without looking at the time again that afternoon.
Four months later, I was walking home from our Sunday farmers market with handfuls of bags overflowing with fruits and vegetables. I passed a bus stop across from a 7-11 convenience store, and I saw an old man in a wheelchair sitting in the bright San Diego sun.
He was shaking as if he had Parkinson’s disease or some similar neurologic disorder. He had thin, gray hair, and I noticed that his scalp was freshly sunburned. He must have been sitting in the sun for at least an hour or two.
His mouth was circled by small red bumps and a few open sores. He hand’t shaved in several days, and spittle was caked into 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. 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 and only a mile from the farmers market.
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 and through the shade of 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 streets or within the park. There were too many homeless neighbors to know them all by name, and most people ignore them. I can see many from my balcony overlooking Balboa Park.
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 over 15 seconds, one quarter revolution of the second hand, and multiplied by four. There was nothing unexpected about his breath and pulse rates, so there was no immediate concern.
I introduced myself as Jason, and asked his name. He brushed a hand through the air and replied in an offhand manner, “Dan, or Danny, or Daniel.” He said it didn’t matter what I called him, and he brushed his hand through the air again, as if moving aside something unimportant.
I took off my LSU baseball cap, still new from my trip to see Wendy, and offered it to him. He smiled broadly as he put it on with surprising deftness. His hands shook, but that’s not why he took time to adjust his new hat. He seemed to enjoy the process. He adjusted it this way and that, and bent the bill a few times until it fit precisely as he intended. He pulled the bill low over his eyes and looked up at me and smiled and said it was a duck bill fold, like he wore in the army.
I had worn a cap like that once, too. It wasn’t regulation, and only special ops or undisciplined units wore it like that. I looked at him looking at me and shuddered. In my cap, he looked like me. Maybe in 20 years. Or ten. I shuddered again.
Danny seemed interested in having 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 instead of a quick quip he leaned forward and pointed his finger at me and emphasized each word.
“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, pointed at me, and said, “How hard is it for God to describe love to us.”
He kept his eye on me and moved his finger towards heaven and aliens, and allowed me time to ponder how God would describe love. When he felt I had thought about it deeply enough, he relaxed and leaned back into his wheelchair and took a breath to speak again.
He told more stories, but I was distracted and unfocused. In my peripheral vision, I was watching the people who passed 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, and some turned up the volume of their radios or looked at their phones without paying attention to two people talking at a bus stop, even someone as remarkable as Danny. 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, as if he had heard my thoughts. “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, and tried to shake off the surreal feeling that was making its way through my body.
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. Both had been single mothers who dis their best. I had hoped to write a book that would tell their story, and teach practical things to other single mothers trying to prosper. I wanted to use their story to help other people, especially their kids. I wanted the cycle to end.
But Danny was right. A story about an IRA didn’t sound funny. But planning for the future is important. I had been surprised when Danny mentioned an IRA; few people talk about retirement plans, 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 loudly and made hand motions mimicking spreading shit under a door handle, and more spittle flew from his lips as he kept laughing.
His laughter trailed off, and he began telling stories again. I listened to the words but didn’t understand the meanings, 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 the eye that had been squinted shut all that time 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 mischievously. He was no longer shaking. I’m not easily unnerved, but I was confused and didn’t know what to say. I waited for him to speak again.
“What happens if we cut the root?” He asked slowly, and pointed up at me. I was too surprised to speak, and 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, still staring into my eyes intently, but no longer smiling. I shuddered again.
“Touch your belly button,” he instructed, demonstrating the action on himself. I was mesmerized, and I touched my belly button.
“Now point up, and look at the sky,” he said, keeping both eyes on me but pointing towards the 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 shuddered again. I followed his finger, and felt the cool ocean breeze, and watched the few clouds in our sunny skies for a few moments.
I looked back down at Danny, and he began speaking again, but more softly this time. I kneeled and listened to more stories. He kept both eyes open, but returned to mumbling and shaking. A while later, I stood up to go again, but Danny didn’t stop 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 afternoon. I had an important play date with an eight year girl that afternoon.
The night, I decided to stop working on the book about my grandmother’s IRA. Danny was right. It wouldn’t have been funny. Instead, I wondered what stories I had that were important enough to to me to share, and entertaining enough for someone to take time and listen.
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