I was strolling near my home in San Diego when I answered my phone and learned that my mother was dying in a hospital 3,000 miles away. I hung up and purchased the next plane ticket to Baton Rouge.
Two days later my plane began its decent and I stared silently out the window. It was dark and raining heavily, and all I could see in the window was my exhausted face reflected back at me. I had barely slept. I was fatigued, and lost in memories. My eyes were bloodshot, and my cheeks were puffy from having cried silently for most of the flight.
The plane landed and I methodically reached above my seat and retrieved my overstuffed suitcase, being careful to not hit anyone on the head as I heaved and lowered it to the walkway and slung my yoga over my shoulder using a strap I had wrapped around it at the last minute the night before. I had packed hastily, not knowing how long I would be gone, and had shoved a week’s worth of clothes into a carry on suitcase so I could go straight to the hospital as soon as I landed.
I navigated the bulky suitcase off the plane, and my phone requested a ride to the hospital without having to speak, thankfully. I waited outside, under the driveway and shielded from the rain and ostensibly motionless; but, I was like a duck sitting calmly on a river, under water the duck’s feet are paddling fiercely against the current just to stay still. My thoughts raced, and I fought against accepting what I believed deep within myself and what I’d inevitably see at the hospital.
A driver pulled up and I slid into the passenger seat and she drove down Interstate 10 and towards the hospital without having to ask where I was going. I knew the drive well, even though it had been decades since I had driven along it, and I looked at familiar sites and new buildings and listened to the driver chat pleasantly about phatic things like the weather and LSU baseball and the size of crawfish that season, and how much she liked earning extra money driving for a few hours after she got out of her office job. She spoke like countless drivers I had met all over the world, and I didn’t engage in conversation. I rode silently and paddled franticly and watched raindrops bounce off the blacktop and listened to her windshield wipers marking time on the 20 minute drive to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.
We arrived and I thanked her genuinely, and I walked into the reception and approached the night attendant’s desk and asked for Wendy Partin’s room number. It was after visiting hours, but I said I was her son, Jason. The receptionist searched her computer, and as she focused on her screen I realized I had left my yoga mat in the car. I felt a brief burst of irritation at myself, and then more irritation at being irritated about something relatively unimportant, but I stood still and waited until the receptionist finally found the room number. She was a cheerful and bubbly woman with meticulous makeup and perfectly coordinated clothing, and she was more than twice the body weight that most people consider healthy. Her perfume wasn’t subtle.
I asked if the hospital had yoga mats for visitors, and I smelled fried food on her breath when she said, loudly and enthusiastically, “A yogurt what?” She pointed across the lobby and said, “They got a snack machine over there.” Mindlessly, I followed her finger and its long elaborately decorated fingernail to a vending machine packed with fatty and sugary processed snacks seemingly designed to put people in the hospital.
She was a lovely person, but I felt irritation building and knew that if I responded it would be harshly. Instead, like I had learned from my grandfather a long time ago, I remained silent and smiled for a moment. The irritation passed, for the most part. Still smiling, I asked if there was a chapel or exercise room where I could stretch before going upstairs; it had been a long flight. She pointed at a door next to the snack machines and said cheerfully, “Sure thing, Sweetheart. In there. I’ll call Mrs. Partin’s doctor and tell her you’re here.”
I thanked her and limped to the room and saw it was small and packed with chairs and a pulpit but no yogurt mat. I set my bag aside and stretched as best I could in the cramped space and tried to relax for a few moments. Failing that, I paced back and forth, up and down the narrow isle, hoping exercise would settle my mind. I had always been more alert when moving, and the flight and layover had been almost eight hours of sitting, and worry had crept into my thoughts and added to my fatigue in and the cycle led me to feel irritation about yoga mats, to see a cheerful receptionist as overweight, and to form sarcastic thoughts about vending machines. I wanted to focus when I saw Wendy, so I paced and waited, hoping my mind would settle.
I paused when I noticed an open bible behind the pulpit, as if someone had left it open after reading to people in seats. Hoping there would be a serendipitous message or at least a temporary distraction, I glanced down and saw the final two pages of Mathew. I began reading the final verse, 6:34, but stopped, surprised and perplexed. I reread it twice but still didn’t recognize the words. I picked it up to see which version it was. A New International. I hadn’t read a NIV or any other version in decades, but I thought I knew the concepts well enough that different words wouldn’t surprise me. Mindlessly, I reached for my smart phone to check the NIV against a King James, but I stopped when I saw the time and, surprisingly, realized that I felt calmer. My breath had been shallow, but now it was normal. My heartbeat had been rapid, but now it was more typical. I looked at the second hand on my watch and counted my heart for fifteen seconds, multiplied by four, and mentally marked 54 beats per minute; it was only four beats above normal for me, which wasn’t remarkable because the circumstances. I felt as ready as I could be that night, and I smiled as I set the book down and reflected on the irony of Matthew 6:34:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I placed the book back on the pulpit like I had found it and retrieved my bag and rode the elevator up to Wendy’s room in the intensive care ward.
I approached her room and saw her face through the window of her door, and my faint reflection was beside her. We have the same chin, though mine was dappled in two days of grey beard stubble. Her eyes were closed, and her hands rested outside of her bedsheet. She looked frail. She was still young, only 64, but she had aged beyond her years since I saw her last, and the machines hooked to her body accentuated her fragility. She was breathing through a tube connected to a respirator, and several IV tubes stretched from the back of her hand up to an IV pump. Her heart was beating at 54 beats per minute, coincidentally the same as mine, and her respirator breathed for her at four to five breaths per minute. Mine was more; her ventilator was adding oxygen to her breaths, and she did not need to breath faster. The IV bags were not medications intended to heal, they were nutrients for sustaining the body and morphine for dulling the mind. It was unlikely she would know I was there.
I breathed a few times, smiled, and pushed the door open. The room was cold and I smelled disinfectant and coffee. The machines beeped constantly and the respirator pumped air in an out of her body loudly, the sound of fake breathing; she had been hearing that all day and all night for three days, and that saddened me. I approached the bed and stood between her and the machines.
“Hey Wendy,” I said softly, “It’s me, Jason. I’m here.” I rested my hand on hers in case she couldn’t hear me but could still feel touch. I had to avoid the IV needles in her wrist, and noticed several bruises up her arm from where needles had been or where a nurse had failed to find a vein. Wendy was a petite woman and had tiny hands, and she didn’t have a lot of room for that many needles. I stared at my hand on hers, huge by comparison, and repeated, “I’m here…” I began to say, “and I won’t leave you,” but I broke into quiet tears before the words came out and I stood still, paddling against the current and still resisting the inevitable. I was too late to change anything and I couldn’t make myself smile, but I could stand still by her side and not say anything.
I held her hand and sobbed for a few moments, but when I heard her door open I wiped my eyes and looked up. A doctor stepped inside and said that although visiting hours were over and I’d have to leave, he had heard I was coming and waited to speak with me before going home for the night. After a few polite statements, he explained that he had been her doctor for three years, ever since her liver had failed, and that she had been on a national liver transplant list that I knew had countless people on it. Steve Jobs, the billionaire who had developed my smart phone, had just died of liver failure; all the money on Earth couldn’t help her now. The doctor didn’t say it, but I knew there was little or no hope.
I stood silently and he told me that she had kept consuming alcohol despite the risk. Her condition had deteriorated, and she had gone into a coma three days before and would probably never wake up. She would die within minutes or days without the machines, but that with them her heart would beat for weeks or even months. But, he reiterated, it was unlikely she’d awaken from her coma. He told me I could decide whether or not to disconnect the machines and that he’d return at 8:00 AM. I glanced at my watch and saw that I had just over 11 hours and mindlessly thanked him and waited for him to leave.
As soon as the door closed, I collapsed to one knee and bawled, “Why, Wendy?” and I sobbed for a few minutes louder than the machines that beeped and respirated. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “I would have visited more often…” I began to explain too late. I knew that she knew that, but waves of guilt still washed through my body and I bawled that I loved her many times.
My mind raced and reprocessed memories of conversations the previous three years, and I began seeing patterns that made sense in hindsight but had seemed confusing, unpredictable, and frustrating at the time. Our livers process blood toxins before those toxins poison our brains, and when it’s damaged our thoughts and actions change or revert to old habits. Someone with liver failure may sound drunk when they are not, and they may not yet know their liver was failing. It takes several years of abuse to accumulate enough damage for a liver to be damaged beyond its ability to heal. She hadn’t drank when I was a child, and barely drank when I left Louisiana thirty years prior. I hadn’t known, though I could have if I had listened more closely, and I felt the realization of that pierce my ego and deflate my spirit, and I stopped questioning why Wendy had or had not done anything. It didn’t matter.
Wendy had always been reticent. Sweet, but private and reserved, circumventing questions about her family. You had to listen listen to what she didn’t say as much as you listened to her words, and that’s difficult during phone calls and brief visits and the seemingly idle, phatic ways we often speak to each other. I rested my hand gently on the back of hers again, took a breath, and calmly repeated that I loved her and wouldn’t leave her.
Over the next few hours I sought things to chat about. I didn’t know if she could hear me of if she’d understand my words, and I focused on my tone of voice and tried to speak softly and consistently and with a rhythm different than the slow metronome of her respirator. Her room was more spacious than the chapel, and I walked around her room as I chatted and inspected the medical devices to keep my body awake and to distract my mind. I told her how our heartbeats were the same and somehow managed to smile and joke, “Like mother, like son!” I told her that her IV bags had been manufactured in Tijuana, 16 miles across the border from San Diego, and about her respirator, made by the San Diego company Phillips Respironics, and how it was funny that the scar on my finger that she had always hated was in a photograph used in its manufacturing instructions. That photo had explained what needed to be done better than my words could have, and they had kept it in their quality system and used it to manufacture 35 to 50 respirators every month, including the one in her room, coincidentally. They cost the hospital $38,000 to $82,000 each, depending on which software or accessories they ordered, and all of them were manufactured using a photo of my ugly, scared finger pointing at a tiny part. She had the nicest version; it monitored exhalations as well as inhalations, though even I didn’t see why that mattered. Life’s funny sometimes, full of ironies and coincidences, and I smiled and held up my left hand and showed her the scar on my forefinger in front of the respirator, and quipped that I had a hand in making it.
She had always hated that scar because it reminded her of my dad. As a child, I had sliced it open with a machete at his house, and she had paid my hospital bill. I rotated my hand and showed her my broken finger, healed askew from being broken in a wrestling match thirty years prior. She had hated that finger, too. She had paid a lot of my hospital bills growing up, and the list of broken bones, wrestler’s cauliflower ear, and stitches had been expensive for a single mother working for an hourly wage. She had been a good parent. That mattered more than the cost of a respirator, I told her. She had been proud of my success.
Midnight approached and I grew too tired to think or speak clearly. I had tears in my eyes when the door opened and a young nurse stepped inside. She greeted me with grace that allowed me to cry privately even though she was standing in front of me, and she said I must be “Miss Wendy’s son.” She had a lovely Cajun accent, pronouncing it “Mizz” Wendy and lingering on the Mizz to emphasize kindness and respect. She spoke with a classic, charming southern accent that eased worries and calmed minds.
She extended a styrofoam cup of coffee towards me and said sit was “nurse’s coffee,” made extra strong for the night shift. I accepted it and hoped my gratitude showed through, and thanked her and cradled the warm cup in my cold hands and sipped slowly and watched her check IV tubes and bags of fluid. She moved diligently, delicate and mindful of Wendy’s IV needles and tiny hands. Gracefully. Compassionately. I felt grateful that she had been there with Wendy when I was not.
I liked her. She was gentle and caring and softly spoken. She adjusted a wisp of Wendy’s her hair and said, “Mizz Wendy’s so pretty, and so young.” She said it mindlessly, to no one at all. I told Wendy that I agreed – she did, indeed, look pretty – and I asked the nurse about Wendy’s hair. It looked good on her, I said. The nurse smiled and kept looking at Wendy and said, with a hint of pride as subtle as the b in subtle, “I wanted Mizz Wendy looking her best for you.” She was good at her work.
The nurse and I chatted briefly about Louisiana and where Wendy lived, St. Francsisville a small, quaint, historic town an hour upriver. She said it was beautiful there and I agreed, but I omitted that I would have been happy to see it for other reasons. We chatted a few more minutes and she left and I glanced at my watch and saw that I had less than seven hours left.
She smiled at me and looked back at Wendy and told her matter-of-factly, “I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She patted Wendy’s hand and said she had to check on other patients and that she’d be back in an hour or two. She left, and I reiterated that Wendy looked pretty, and said that the nurse must know what she’s talking about because she said I was good looking. I smiled and hoped Wendy had heard us. She had always liked being called Mizz Wendy.
People had commented on how young Wendy looked all my life, especially when I was nearby and our physical differences were more obvious. She was 64 and had looked younger, vibrant and athletic and with strawberry blonde hair meticulously conditioned and cared for. I was only 16 years younger, 47, but I looked older than my age, slightly worn out and with many scars and a limp and premature grey hair and a receding hairline, and a contemplative countenance when I’m tired, which seemed to be more frequently with each year that passed.
For most of my life, people had assumed I was Wendy’s brother, not her son, especially when they heard me call her Wendy instead of mom or mother or some nickname common in the south, like Maw or MamMaw. Old habits are hard to break, and I had called my mother Wendy since I was a toddler in the foster system. She had met my biologic father, Ed Partin, in high school and they were only married for a few months; I don’t know why she kept his last name. He was one of a long line of convicted felons, murders, rapists, drug dealers, and assassins; a violent and influential family, by most people’s definition. She had a nervous breakdown and abandoned me, and a Louisiana judge removed me from my biologic family and placed me with a guardian, Ed White. But, she returned and fought the Partins for years and then the Whites for more years, and eventually a judge was on her side and she regained custody of me. But, she had me when she was 16 years old and alone, a high school dropout without a job, worried and frightened. She saw me every month or two and took me on day trips working or looking for work, but had felt ashamed of her situation and taught me to call her Wendy and let people believe I was her brother, a choice she made as a child, and I’ve called my mother Wendy ever since. We didn’t talk about it much. Like Wendy, I’m reticent to discuss my family history.
I walked to Wendy’s bedside and showed her my watch and said I still used Uncle Bob’s Rolex. He had worn it while taking care of me when I was young, and with Wendy when she was also an only child of a single mother. Granny had fled Canada when Wendy was five and lived with her sister, Auntie Lo, and Uncle Bob while she looked for work. They had all come from French Canada, Prince Edward Island, coincidentally the same area that the Cajuns had fled 200 years before. Louisiana was French then, and Baton Rouge means “Red Stick.” Uncle Bob joked the French named it when they discovered it, much to the chagrin of the Native Americans who had painted big tree poles red to mark their territory for hundreds of years. Uncle Bob taught us things like and how to laugh at life’s ironies when our mothers were at work and we felt victimized. He felt the past couldn’t be changed, but the future was whatever you wanted it to be. He never offered advice, but he always said he tried to live a life without regrets. Wendy knew his watch well, and would have smiled if she could see me wearing it, and we would have chatted pleasantly about our family and the metaphors Uncle Bob left us.
His watch was a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that never needed winding, a classic style that no one would know was a Rolex unless they looked closely or recognized it. James Bond wore one in early 007 films, before endorsements. It was a good choice for an international spy, eloquent and reliable yet discreet, just like James Bond and Uncle Bob had been. An Oyster Perpetual absorbs energy from the motion of your hand and stores it in tiny precise springs that slowly unwind when you’re still. Uncle Bob had worn it daily until the day he died, rocking it back and forth with his fingers when he was too weak to lift his hand. I had stayed with him for his final three months and inherited his watch and wore it to a courthouse and asked a judge to emancipate me from my family, and at age 16 I was legally an adult and allowed to join the army and leave Louisiana and begin making my own choices. A few years later, Wendy and I would joke that we both became adults at 16, but only I got to leave. Thirty years later, I was back in Baton Rouge one last time.
I held up my hand and told her that Uncle Bob’s Rolex was old and scratched, but it was still useful as long as it stayed in motion. “Just like me!” I beamed. She had laughed at that joke only two weeks before.
I told her another Uncle Bob joke. Unlike digital watches, I said, if his Rolex broke it would still be right twice a day. Feeling momentum, I rubbed my thinning hair and flashed the long C-shaped scar across my scalp that she had always hated and repeated what he had said when rubbing his own thin grey hair, “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” I laughed and reminded Wendy of Uncle Bob’s final request, to have his hearse drive around town towing a U-Haul so that his neighbors would know he was taking everything with him. I told Wendy that not renting a U-Haul for his funeral was my only regret in life. I smiled broadly but she didn’t respond, and I stood still and listened to the beeps of her machine and my heartbeat and the almost unnoticeable ticking of Uncle Bob’s second hand.
I paced and chatted and cried and sipped from another cup of nurse’s coffee and looked at my watch and saw that it was just after 4 AM. I had less than four hours remaining with Wendy. I was exhausted, unable to think clearly. I paced until 4:20, and I laughed and told her what 420 meant in San Diego; it was rumored to be old police code for marijuana, and had become a common joke that everyone in town relaxed at 4:20. Wendy had gotten in trouble for smoking pot as a teenager, and my dad was sent to prison for growing it, and I was in the foster system because of it. Now it was legal in 36 states and encouraged as an alternative to expensive medications. Life’s funny, I said to Wendy.
Her IV pump alarm went off and I checked the tubes mindlessly and reset the false alarm and rested my hand on Wendy’s and told her I wouldn’t leave her. The young nurse came back just after 7AM and checked Wendy’s IV tubes. Satisfied that everything was fine, she gently brushed a wisp of Wendy’s hair away from her face and then stood beside me, silent and smiling softly towards Wendy. I sipped the coffee she had brought. I didn’t want to talk but I didn’t want the quiet company to end. She sighed, patted Wendy’s arm, and said she’d be getting off work soon but would see her tomorrow night. She asked me if I needed anything before her shift ended. I shook my head no, and when she left I sobbed quietly in the amplified loneliness of a room just emptied and tried not to think about tomorrow and the nurse finding an empty be or another patient. I stared into the cup until the coffee was too cold to drink, threw it away, took a breath, exhaled, and stood by Wendy’s side and said I was there and wouldn’t leave.
I didn’t talk about what would happen at 8AM. Some people recover from deep comas and there’s always hope, but sometimes blind hope prolongs suffering, like a boxer staying in the ring and fighting the inevitable and taking more beatings than he would if he acquiesced, relinquished hope or pride or whatever kept him in the ring. I had had held more peoples’ hands as they passed away than I could recall without thinking about it for a while, and I had seen hope help and hope hurt and I had felt it help and hurt, too. Sometimes hope carries us through challenges, sometimes it prolongs suffering. Wisdom, I heard, is knowing the difference. Maturity, I assumed, was not just knowing something intellectually, but feeling it so deeply that it’s a part of you. I didn’t cling to false hope, but I wasn’t able to live without regrets, even when I didn’t see how things could have been any other way.
The IV alarm went off again and I checked the tubes and reset the alarm and placed my hand back on Wendy’s and embraced the silence as best I could.
The doctor arrived at 8:23 AM and we spoke briefly and said he’d return in twenty minutes so that I could say goodbye. He didn’t know I had been with her all night and I didn’t tell him. He returned with two day shift nurses and they began to disconnect the machines and I held Wendy’s hand and told her I loved her again and again. As soon as they removed her respirator tube she gasped and convulsed and the heartbeat machine flatlined. I waited, because I did not feel that she had left yet. My mouth kept forming a silent word, “love,” because that’s all I felt other than pain, and I released Wendy’s hand some time after the nurses removed the respirator tube. The doctor marked her time of death six minutes before I would have, and I left her room to make arrangements for her cremation and felt nothing but sadness and fatigue.
I called home and told them what had happened and what I’d do, and I used my phone to email friends and family and tell them that my mother had passed suddenly and that I was sad but okay and would stay at her house in Louisiana for a week and that it was remote and without cell phone reception so don’t worry about me, and that I preferred to not speak with anyone while I mourned and I would see them soon. I turned off my phone and located Wendy’s car. It was a new luxury car, fewer than 3,000 miles, and it had all of the modern features, like automatic brakes and a self-driving steering wheel and heated seats that massaged your butt when no one else was around to do it. It’s something James Bond would have envied. She had bought it only a few months before, after wrecking her old car. I pushed a button that turned it on and set the windshield wipers on full strength and they wiped away nature’s tears, and I drove away in silence with teardrops sliding down my cheeks and both hands on the wheel and my mind focused on the wet road and the long drive ahead.
The rhythm of the rain hadn’t changed since I had arrived the night before, and through the windshield I watched small creeks and rivers overflowing onto the winding country road that led from Baton Rouge to her home, past Scotlandville High School for the Engineering Professions, where I had been expelled, and Exxon Plastics and CoPolymer, where Wendy and Granny had retired, past the Fort Pickens civil war battlefield and 200 year old plantations and private prisons named after them, where countless families had lived and died, and down miles of unlit and tree lined country roads. I left East Baton Rouge Parish and passed a weathered sign for West Feliciana Parish and turned down a smaller, unmarked road, the one where Wendy had crashed her old car. She had spent a lot of money on the dogs’ emergency room visit and hospital stay, yet never complained. I could still smell them in her luxury car, and the seats already had scratch marks from their claws.
20 minutes later I arrived at Wendy’s home in St. Francisville. Like most of Louisiana, her area was named for Catholic saints and church parishes from the time of King Louis and Queen Anna, and I pulled into her driveway reflecting on all the history I had passed. It had stopped raining, and I turned off the car and sat still in the driveway and stared at the fishing pond beside her home and a pair of mallard ducks drifting across its dark and glassy surface.
Her house was a mansion by most people’s standards. It was modern Cajun, beautiful and tasteful, with a steep roof that shed hurricane rains and a porch that shielded hot summer sunshine. The porch ceiling fans rotated slowly to keep the mosquitoes away, and they drooped slightly from years of southern Louisiana humidity. It was surrounded by stately oak trees with long branches swooping down and back up again and draped in tangled gray Spanish Moss. Thompson Creek flowed gently nearby, and it passed downtown St. Francisville on its way to join the mighty Mississippi River a few miles away. She had lived peacefully, quietly, and surrounded by nature and history in a home she had designed herself. She had loved it there.
I left her car and went inside her house and walked around. It was my house now, I realized, and I felt even more deflated by the reminder that all of our Canadian family was deceased. I was the last one, and I knew I’d sell it and everything inside it. You can’t take it with you.
My family’s things decorated the house, and I wandered around as if wandering through a museum. Finally, exhausted beyond what I could bear, I collapsed on the sofa and fell asleep instantly and slept restlessly.
I awoke late that evening and worked through the night preparing to leave for home as soon as possible. I struggled writing an obituary. Baton Rouge and Saint Francisville are traditional in many ways, and I realized that people who knew my mom were now at the age where they began their mornings by reading the obituaries, and newspapers were still common. I didn’t know how to summarize Wendy’s life in a few sentences, especially because she was such a private person, but I think she would have appreciated what I finally wrote and what I omitted:
Wendy Rothdram Partin, a resident of St. Francisville, LA, passed way on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at the age of 63. Wendy attended Glenoaks High School in Baton Rouge, LA, and retired from Exxon Mobil. She is survived by her son, Jason Ian Partin, of San Diego, CA. She was preceded in death by her mother, Joyce Rothdram, and her aunt and uncle, Lois and Robert Desico, all of Baton Rouge, LA. During her retirement, she became a master gardener and enjoyed helping people with their lawns. She enjoyed cooking, and took food to anyone she knew who was ill or grieving. Wendy loved animals, and worked with local shelters to foster dogs until they found permanent homes. She passed away unexpectedly from liver failure. In lieu of gifts or a service, please spend time sharing what you love with your neighbor, listen to what they love, and help each other.
I had originally written about the coincidence that St. Francisville was named for Saint Francis, the Catholic patron saint of kindness to animals. Few people realized that, even in Louisiana. I had written from a place within myself that harbored judgement, and I had added a quip “… and she had brought breakfast sandwiches to the Angola prisoners who worked at the humane society,” an immature jab at her neighbors. St. Francisville had 1,500 residents and three prisons detaining almost exclusively African Americans. Angola prison, the private one, was named after a plantation that had been named after an African tribe, and it hosts America’s longest running prison rodeo. Locals attend church and then payed to see prisoners chased by bulls for the prison’s profit. I had passed a giant sign advertising that year’s rodeo on my way to St. Francisville. I resented that rodeo and the prisons as much as Wendy had hated my scars and talking about herself. My anger was part of why I had left Louisiana, and though I rarely thought of it, being home and tired brought those memories to mind. I hadn’t learned to say anything funny about the hypocrisy I saw, and had almost published the snarky comment. I had wanted to convey was that she was a Good Samaritan, by definition, but to see the good I wanted to emphasize the bad. But she had never expressed a religious belief, and I deleted details about Saint Francis and Angola prisoners and the private things she did to help her community. I wanted her obituary to be discrete and eloquent, like she had been.
Satisfied with what I wrote, I searched for a suitable photograph that showed her young enough for high school friends to recognize her but old enough for former coworkers to also recognize her. I found the perfect one from when I had visited 15 years before and she was smiling and playing with the two dogs she was fostering then. I submitted everything to TheAdvocate.com, and her obituary and photo would be printed in the next morning’s paper and would be online from April 8th to April 9th, 2019.
I returned to the house, tired but unable to sleep, and paced throughout the night among my family’s things. The ceilings were high above, like old designs before air conditioning, when hot air would rise and drift out the openings above the windows. It was spacious, and my footsteps echoed in the empty rooms. The only sound was a gentle hum from an air conditioner, keeping out the humidity and protecting the artwork on her walls.
Her clothes were folded neatly, immaculately laid in organized drawers, just like Granny had done. Auntie Lo’s fine china and silverware was tastefully displayed in an antique cabinet, and Uncle Bob’s gold cocktail kit was on the kitchen counter next to an unopened bottle of wine. Expensive framed original paintings decorated the walls, inheritances from Granny and Auntie Lo’s family in Canada; they had grown up in a relatively privileged family before moving south. Their things were all that were left. Uncle Bob had died at 63, Granny at 62, Auntie Lo at 64. I looked towards the ceiling and shouted, “Why, Wendy, why?” No one answered, and I sighed and walked through the museum, lost in thoughts that were driven by feelings of loss and embittered by irony.
Morning came slowly. I glanced at my watch and decided it was a good time to leave. Businesses would be opening soon. I drove into downtown Saint Francisville to find internet reception again. I opened her email account and began to write a message to her contacts and people she loved when I realized I didn’t know where I’d spread her ashes. I paused and thought of places she’d appreciate. An idea came to mind from somewhere, and I typed the time and location in an email and sent it along with a draft of her obituary and a link to The Baton Rouge Advocate web page.
That afternoon I wandered around the house again and discovered a small wooden box engraved with a simple but eloquent brass plate that said, “Angel,” one of the dogs Wendy had fostered. Inside the box were two tiny LSU doggie hair ribbons and a floppy black velvet bag filled with Angel’s ashes. Wendy had embroidered it with gold flecked thread, “‘Till we meet at the Rainbow Bridge,” the legendary place where pets meet their owners in the afterlife.
Everything in her home showed that she loved all of the dogs she had fostered over the years. She had volunteered the West Feliciana Humane society and brought breakfast sandwiches to the prisoners from Angola that sometimes worked at the shelter, though only a few people at the society knew she did that. She had been a good neighbor. She had fostered a tiny long haired dog named Angel, nursing her back to health and searching for the perfect home that would love the scraggly pooch as much as she did. She never found one, and Angel had passed away after 14 years with my mom. No one could love her as much as Wendy had.
I took Angel’s box outside to a spot in Wendy’s garden. I sat on a tiny bench under tall green pine trees and beside red azeleas were just beginning to blossom and I looked up at the blue sky and gently drifting white clouds. I looked down and saw a small patch of brown dirt, freshly dug beside a delicate bird bath, and realized that was to be Angel’s resting place. But no one in our family would live there or visit, and I knew I’d spread Angel’s ashes with Wendy to help them travel to the Rainbow Bridge together.
Four days later, people who loved Wendy joined me on bluffs above the banks of Thompson Creek and watched me carry Wendy and Angel’s ashes down to the water’s edge. The water is remarkably clear creek for southern Louisiana, where most of our water is slow moving and murky from the silt that feeds our fertile farm land. Wendy loved it there. She had always wanted to travel, perhaps to France or somewhere exotic, but had said she’d finish her retirement home first. She hadn’t spoken of traveling for three years.
I stood on the muddy bank and bent over and poured Wendy and Angels ashes into the clear water. The creek is wide but shallow, and water clings to the bank and flows more quickly near the center. Wendy and Angel’s ashes sank at first, but began to break apart and slowly drift downstream. I knelt and watched Wendy and Angel drift to the center and flow faster towards the Mississippi River, where they would flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico and merge with all oceans on Earth and travel the world together forever.
I collapsed to my knees, drained, and cried so deeply that I couldn’t hear the people above me. Had they been able to hear me, they would have only heard a few phrases between sobs, glimpses into an incoherent and nonlinear conversation in my mind. Between muffled sobs, someone listening closely may have heard, “honor your mother and father…” or “how?” or “just be happy…” or a other things I can’t recall; I do recall my younger self, questioning how to honor a mother who had abandoned me, and I felt Wendy answer to just be happy.
Wendy had died a good person and therefore more aware of her past sins than most people. Only I had seen her transitions in life. I knew that the past can not be changed, and today I wanted to speak with my mother from a place no one else had seen, unfiltered and unworried about what people may think about either of us.
After a while, I stood up and wiped my eyes and brushed off the sticky mud that clung to my knees, and limped up the bank and joined the people who had been waiting patiently. We spoke of how much we loved her and how much she had loved Angel and all the dogs she fostered, and how much she meant to all of us and how short life is and how unexpectedly death comes. Somehow, in all that talking, we found ways to laugh and appreciate the views from the bluffs above Thompson Creek, and Wendy’s memorial service came to an end.
Several came back to the house and we reheated leftovers and talked about what a good cook she was, and how many people had received pots of her gumbo when they were sick or grieving. In the inexplicable way that funerals progress, we found things to chat about, and had a lively debate on a dark gumbo roux or a light one. I preferred dark, Wendy had preferred light, and everyone had a differing opinion they were happy to discuss. But everyone agreed that she had been a good neighbor, the epitome of a Good Samaritan, and that she would be missed.
I had made made arrangements to sell the house. Everything inside would be sold in an auction benefiting the West Feliciana Parish humane society, and their volunteers would help while I was in San Diego. Several were there, and they told me how much Wendy had done for the society and how much she would be missed, and I couldn’t help but regret that I had not been there to see her more often and gotten to know her better later in life, after she had retired and mellowed and realized who she had always been.
I accepted a ride to the airport, and asked for an hour more. I washed Auntie Lo’s gumbo bowls and Uncle Bob’s cocktail glasses and replaced them in Wendy’s cubard and looked around for anything that I’d want to carry back to San Diego in my overstuffed bag. I remembered seeing Granny’s gold retirement watch and retrieved it. It was petite, like Granny had been, and was so tiny it would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. Granny had left it to Wendy 30 years prior, and it was engraved “Joyce Rothdram 25 yrs” She had been proud of that gold watch, especially as a single mother who immigrated to America and worked hard and overcame odds and found a job and bought a house and did her best. It was perfect. I put it in my pocket and picked up my bag of dirty clothes and rode to the airport with one of Wendy’s friends and chatted with her during the hour drive. I bought an LSU baseball cap from one of the airport shops and boarded the plane.
We took off and I glanced down and saw Granny’s tiny 680 square foot house directly below my window. As children, Wendy and I had both looked up from Granny’s house and stared at people staring at us from airplane windows and imagined becoming one of them and traveling the world one day. Wendy had sold it and used the proceeds and Granny’s retirement fund to build the bigger house that I had just inherited; Granny had invested wisely, and her IRA had grown exponentially. I lowered the cap to hide my eyes and wept all the way home.
The plane touched down in San Diego and I went straight home and was greeted by an eight year old girl. She threw her arms around my neck and told me she was sorry my mommy died, and I hugged her and thanked her and told her I brought her something. She perked up and watched me slowly pull Granny’s watch from my pocket, like a magician about to do trick and making sure everyone was watching closely before doing anything special. Her eyes lit up when she saw Granny’s gold watch emerge and sparkle in the afternoon sunlight, and she exclaimed, “It’s beautiful!” I showed her Joyce’s name on the back and taught her how to set the time on an analog watch and listen to the ticking. It was a Seiko quartz watch, a fine watch, and remarkably different than everyone she knew’s digital watches and cell phones that told time. Her watch was gold and beautiful and sparkled in sunlight when you held it just right and a nice lady in Louisiana named Joyce had given it to her and she was happy to have it, and she hugged me again and thanked me. I helped her put it on and it fit perfectly. I didn’t tell her that Joyce had been dead for a long time, and that she and Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob had died before enjoying retirement, and Granny had done what needed to be done to take care of Wendy and died before being able to legally withdraw her retirement savings or use the government’s social security despite having paid for it over 25 years, and that Wendy had also done her best and worked for 25 years and died six months after receiving her first social security check. Or, that even though all of my family had paid social security for almost 100 years, I wouldn’t get any and neither would any 8 year old girl, unless they lived to be 63 and it was still available to them. That would be too much. Instead, I asked her what time it was. It was just about 2:20 PM Pacific Standard Time, and she beamed, “It’s time to play!” I agreed and we went outside and played for I don’t know how long.
Later that evening, I sat with Cristi on our balcony and stared at the stars and listened to the waves crash on the beach and the seaguls call and I hoped my mind would settle. She was the only one who knew my family history, and she knew that I was a private person, like my mother, and that I’d speak when it felt right. I sat silently and reflected on Matthew 6:34 and its context and all that had happened and all that I felt needed to be done, and I sighed gently at the irony of worrying about tomorrow already and said that it had been a long week and that I was grateful to be home. We sat silently until I dozed off and Cristi gently woke me and guided me to bed. I slept peacefully with her by my side.
Four months later, on a beautiful Sunday morning in San Diego, I was strolling home from a busy weekly farmer’s market when I saw an old man sitting by himself in a wheelchair. He was in the bright sun beside a bus stop in front of a convenience store a few blocks up the street from a large farmer’s market in the densely packed urban neighborhood of Hillcrest. He twitched slightly with muscle convulsions that shook the super-sized drink in his hand and spilled sticky bright red fluid onto his pants. Two 99-cent hot dogs from the convenience store rested on one of his legs, untouched. The wheelchair said “property of the San Diego VA Hospital,” but the veterans hospital was several miles away along an uphill road to Hillcrest so I assumed he lived nearby and used the VA chair permanently. His right wrist had a new admissions bracelet from Scrips Mercy hospital only a mile away along the flat ridge, and higher up his arm were several faded bands from at least one other hospital. I assumed he had been a 5150, the California police code for a potentially mentally ill patient would could be a threat to themselves or society and, by law, could receive 72 hours of free healthcare in any emergency room in California. Scrips Mercy was a charity hospital near my home in Hillcrest, and 24 hours a day police and ambulances and paramedics bring homeless people from all over San Diego County to Scrips Memorial there because there are few alternatives, even in America’s Finest City of San Diego. The Scrips staff does their best, but must release patients after 72 hours and often release patients out the front door without someone to pick them up. Many patients have no where else to go and they stay and become my neighbors. Many are veterans. San Diego’s homeless population has 4x more veterans than other cities, a combination of our many military bases – almost 250,000 people earn their livelihood through San Diego military – and our perfect weather all year and the military outprocessing centers that have been the final stop for many of America’s service people since WWII. Their suicide rate was also 4X the national average, and with an estimated 6,000 homeless people within a small radius of my home, I was worried when I saw someone alone because I knew that government resources were spread too thinly to help everyone.
I said hello, paused until he looked up, and asked if he’d like to be pushed into under the shade of the bus stop. He nodded “no” strongly enough to stand out despite his twitching body. I offered him water and he nodded no. I said my name was Jason and asked if he needed anything and he said no in a voice that was muffled by lips that flapped in and out of his mouth and was punctuated by gasps of breath common among COPD patients who had smoked too much or had worked in polluted areas; his neck veins bulged with the extra force necessary to circulate enough oxygen to stay alive, and most of his front teeth where missing, which would explain why he mumbled and why the hotdogs hadn’t been touched. The corners of his mouth were dotted with pinpoint open sores that I did not recognize an hoped were not communicable. He had one eye open, and it was a lighter blue than the cloudless skies above us. His other eye was squinted shut. His face was wrinkled and sunburnt. Surprisingly, he was smiling subtly, or at least seemed content and at ease.
I leaned in closer and asked his name and rested my left hand on his wheelchair by his head where I could see my watch and counted his breath and the pulse beating through his neck veins; with an analog watch, you don’t have to remember numbers and do math, you can stay focused on your patient and watch the second hand sweep a quarter rotation to mark time. I told him my name was Jason and asked his, and he waved his hand as if to dismiss the idea of a name and said “Daniel or Dan or Danny; it doesn’t matter!” His hand fell back to his lap beside the other one and he clasped his super-sized drink. His breath rate was expected and his pulse was high but not dangerously so; he likely had mild COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmanary Disease, common among smokers and coal workers and veterans who had been exposed to chemicals. I kept my hand on the tope of his VA wheelchair so I could glance at the time without seeming distracted.
I asked Danny if he’d like my hat, and his eye perked up and his lips formed what I assumed was a smile and he mumbled yes! I took off my LSU baseball cap and handed it to him and he stuck his drink between his legs and took my hat and moved his hands so deftly that I was shocked; he bent the bill into a smooth curve and tucked the top in closer to the front, and slid the hat on in a quick motion and lowered the bent bill over his eyes and peered up at me with a broad smile. He looked sharp. He said that in the army they used to fold his cap in a duck bill, like the special forces, and I assumed he had been a veteran, possibly from the Vietnam Ware era. I looked at his smiling face and realized that with his LSU cap pulled low and folded like a duck bill he looked like me, or what I’d probably look like in 10 to 20 more years. We bore a remarkable physical resemblance and I shuddered but don’t know why, and I didn’t have time to think about it because he stopped smiling and leaned towards me and began telling me stories quickly and without pausing. I could barely understand him, and I leaned in and tried to be mindful of the spittle that flew from his flapping lips as he told stories quickly and without pausing, especially because of his open sores.
I stayed on one knee and listened politely, not really understanding everything he was saying, but I began to pay more attention when he paused, looked at me intently with his one good eye, and said, slowly, ensuring I was listening, “Do you think a story about an IRA is funny?”
I was shocked because I had spent the past few months writing a memoir about my Granny’s IRA, her Individual Retirement Account that she had managed so wisely but hadn’t lived to use. I had wanted to write a story about Granny and Wendy that could help other single mothers trying their best to become financially free. But Danny was right, that didn’t sound funny. I wondered why, of all things, he would mention an IRA.
“Tell them about a veteran who takes experimental medicines and falls asleep in the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital.” He opened his eye wide and pointed a finger up at me and said parts of a funny story about falling asleep in a VA hospital, but I didn’t understand all the words and he didn’t pause before changing stories.
“Tell them about a good friend who’s annoying, rubs dog shit under your care door handle!” He mimicked rubbing dog shit under a car door handle, and his face lit up in a joy that I didn’t understand, and he continued.
He spoke of aliens that know what we’re feeling from “Exactly,” he emphasized, lurching his finger at my face with every syllable, “14,” point, “miles,” point, “away.” He leaned back into his wheelchair and smiled up at me and let me process what he had just said, then he leaned forward and continued and laughed at other people’s naiveté, “Ha! They think a compass helps them get where they’re going. Magnetic fields aren’t important!” He waved towards the north pole and dismissed the magnetic field. “It changes every 45,000 years, anyway.” He swirled a hand around his head a few times to emphasize the magnetic poles flipping. He said something about focusing on what’s real, or what’s important, but I didn’t hear the exact words.
He spoke of so many things that I can’t recall them all. He told tales of a giant plant with a single tap root that circled 2/3 of Earth. “What happens when they cut it?” he asked, but continued before I could answer or ask who they were. He spoke of a one legged table and people trying to eat from it, and asked what happens when they cut the leg. He spoke enthusiastically and incessantly, happy to have someone listening for a change.
I listened without interrupting for 20 or 30 minutes. People passed by us without seeming to notice, carrying bags of groceries from the farmers market or walking in and out of the convenience store. Cars stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop and drivers checked their phones or adjusted their stereos without paying attention to us. I began to feel uncomfortable, both physically from kneeling and, for a reason I didn’t understand, slightly embarassed, as if I were watching people with more health and resources and judging myself for not being them. Danny seemed unphased, or unworried, like he had been about his name.
“How would you explain a duck to an alien?” he asked, smirking slyly. Suddenly he shouted, “ Quack! Quack!” and I glanced around at the people walking past the busstop and stopped in their cars at the red light in front of us and noticed that no one seemed to notice us, even with Danny quacking loudly. It was as if we were surrounded by an invisible field of someone else’s problem. Danny kept talking, unconcerned about the people passing us and their problems.
I had been with Danny for almost 35 minutes and my knees were sore and I had bags of groceries to carry home. “Danny… Danny… Danny…” I repeated until he paused and looked up at me, then I stood up.
“I have to go now,” I said, and his eye lit up and he apologized and said he was an old man who liked to talk too much and he asked me to sit and tell him about myself. I said sure, and I sat on the bench and Danny began speaking again. I stood up and apologized again and said I should leave, and Danny stopped shaking and glared up at me, and he opened the eye that had been squinted shut all that time and stared at me with two sky blue eyes, alert and focused.
Of course I was surprised. I would have thought I was old and had seen too many things to be surprised, but Danny had just shocked me. I stayed, kneeling beside his wheelchair again, and leaned in and began listening more closely.
“How would you explain Love to God? How could he explain it to you?” He paused and I stared, mesmerized by a feeling I did not understand. He pointed a finger at my face and said, “Point to the sky,” and then he pointed to the sky and so did I. “Now touch your belly button,” and we did, and he asked, “When they cut the chord, what did they sever?” He pointed back at the sky and said, “How do you know if it’s wind that moves the clouds?”
I mistakenly thought he had said, “How do you know if it’s Wendy that moves the clouds,” and I felt saddened and realized my mistake and followed his finger to the sky and watched a few small tufts of clouds drift lazily across the blue sky. I didn’t know if it was wind or the Corrioluss force or something else moving them, but I didn’t say anything. I knelt back down and waited for Danny to begin speaking again.
He started speaking again and kept both eyes open, but he was shaking and mumbling like before. He spoke and I listened for another 20 minutes or so about things I didn’t understand and with many words I can’t recall. When I stood to leave again I asked, again, if he’d like to be pushed into the shade. He said yes this time, and I pushed his chair under the covered bus stop in front of the convenience store with people walking to and from the nearby farmer’s market. I threw away his fly covered hot dogs and asked if he’d like some strawberries. His eyes lit up and he smiled and mumbled yes and I rested a pint of strawberries on his lap and he popped one in his mouth and slid it to where he still had a few teeth and munched happily and thanked me through strawberry red stained gums. I said I was writing a book and asked if I could tell his stories and he mumbled yes with a wave of his hand that dismissed the notion of worry, just like when he had told me his name or dismissed magnetism. I collected my four bags of groceries, wished Danny well, and began walking home.
It was just about 2:20 pm. I had an important play date with a lovely young lady who still wore Joyce’s tiny gold watch, though sparkling when held just right had faded with time. The battery didn’t work after 30 years of sitting idly, and time had frozen at 2:20. But it was still correct twice a day. And, for her, it was always time to play. I didn’t plan to have the battery replaced just yet, and I think Uncle Bob and Granny would have appreciated that.
After playing, we made dinner with farmer’s market vegetables and enjoyed a meal together and sat on the balcony and watched the sunset reflect onto the eastern clouds. It was June, a rare time in San Diego with clouds all day. They call it June Gloom. I didn’t see it that way, maybe because it was the time of year that reminded me of rainy months in Baton Rouge.
We watched a few clouds move across the sky and the sky transition from blue to maroon to dark illuminated by the lights of downtown, and we watched silhouettes not unlike clouds pass between us and the stars. It was like a puppet show put on by the gods for all to see, and I told Cristi that the book I was working on wasn’t funny enough. We smiled because she knew it wasn’t what I wanted to say and she was patient. She had to be to be with me. I joked too frequently about things many people take seriously. Maybe I couldn’t write funny stories or teach people about IRA’s I said, but that I felt I should write something. I felt it deeply. My family history mattered. And the war; I rarely talked about it, but felt I should.
She listened and allowed me to collect my thoughts. I had a lot of stories I could share, and I knew that one day I’d be too old to remember or wouldn’t have anyone willing to listen, especially because everyone seems busy or in a hurry to be somewhere else or simply isn’t interested. That’s fair. And I didn’t want to preach, because I never liked hearing people preach to me as a kid, and since then had seen so many people take their final breaths that believed the kindest thing we could do for them is to listen, and the kindest thing we could do for people who don’t ponder death is to never introduce doubt with our opinions. No one wants to feel regret, to see death and wonder if something they had heard was right or wrong. Every person we meet will die one day, and I didn’t want to waste their time with my opinions. Besides, everything you need to learn about an IRA is already online, I quipped. We rarely need more information, we usually need more time.
I stopped talking and she didn’t say anything and we held hands and were still and watched silhouettes slowly float between us and the stars. We really did live in America’s Finest City, and we knew we were lucky and that’s the best part in our story. I began drifting off to sleep. She said something sweet that I don’t recall, and I drifted off to sleep and slept peacefully by her side and began writing again the next morning, imagining what I’d want an eight year old girl to know about war and my Partin family.
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