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 airplane ticket to Baton Rouge. Two days later, my plane began its decent and I stared out the window, worried and fatigued and lost in thoughts.
The plane landed and I methodically reached above my seat and retrieved my overstuffed suitcase, being careful to not hit someone on the head as I heaved and lowered it to the walkway. I had packed hastily, not knowing how long I would be gone, and had shoved a few days of clothes into the baggage I carried with me to Baton Rouge. I navigated the bulky suitcase off the plane and out of the airport and into the dark and rainy night, and my phone requested a ride to Our Lady of the Lake hospital without me having to speak. I waited as patiently as possible, ostensibly motionless. But, like when we see a duck sitting calmly on a river, we never look under water and watch its feet pedaling fiercely and fighting the current just to sit still. My thoughts were racing, but I stood still and waited silently.
A driver pulled up and I slid into the passenger seat and she drove towards the hospital without having to ask where I was going. I didn’t see rain often in San Diego, an arid desert beside the sea, and the Baton Rouge raindrops bouncing off the windshield rekindled my senses and sparked pleasant memories of Baton Rouge and the mighty Mississippi that flowed nearby. Rain and rivers had been my life before I left 30 years before.
I watched the wipers slap raindrops away and I only partially listened to the driver say phatic and predictable things about the springtime weather and LSU baseball that year and the size of crawfish this season. She asked what brought me to Baton Rouge, and I tried to be polite and apologized and said I was exhausted. I alluded that I had arrived at the airport at night and was going straight to a hospital, and I hoped that the tone of my voice conveyed that I didn’t have energy left over to chat. Even in the best of times I’m reticent, a private person around people I don’t know well. She gracefully let me ride in silence, and I relaxed and watched where my thoughts drifted, and they bounced quickly and were so noisy inside my head that I saw rather than heard the windshield wipers marking time as we rode down Interstate 10 towards Our Lady of the Lake Memorial Hospital.
I walked into the hospital and approached the night attendant’s desk and asked for Wendy Partin’s room number. She searched her computer, told me, and I asked if they a chapel or meditation space where I could stretch before going upstairs. She directed me to a small room with a pulpit and a few seats and not quite enough space for yoga, but I stretched as best I could and tried to meditate, but my mind kept jumping forward and worrying about what I would discover. My breath was shallow and my heartbeat raced and I stood up and paced back and forth, trying to wake up my tired body and relax my active mind. I stopped when I noticed an open bible behind the pulpit, as if someone had left it open when reading to people sitting in the chairs packed into the room. Out of hope that there would be a serendipitous message or at least a distraction, I glanced down and saw the final pages of Mathew and read the final verse, 6:34:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day had enough trouble of its own.”
I was so surprised that I picked up the bible and checked its version. It was a New International Version. I hadn’t read a NIV – or any other version – in decades, but I thought I knew most versions well. I tried to recall what I had read and mindlessly reached for my smart phone to look it up, but I stopped and remembered the time and realized that my breath and heartbeat had calmed; I had been distracted just enough. I set the book down as I found it, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, smiled at the irony, and rode an 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. 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 new Phillips Respironics respirator that had coincidentally been manufactured in San Diego earlier that year. The IV lines in her hand connected to an older model Carefusion infusion pump next to the respirator. It, too, had been manufactured in San Diego. The bags of various IV fluids had been packaged in Tijuana four miles across the border from San Diego; they were not medications intended to heal, they were nutrients for sustaining body functions and morphine for dulling pain. 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. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and pushed her door open.
The room was cold, air conditioned like all late night intensive care wards in America, and I smelled disinfectant and coffee. I walked slowly and stood beside her bed, 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; there wasn’t a lot of room for that many needles. I stared at my hand, 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.
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 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, and there was little or no hope.
Coincidentally, Steve Jobs had recently died from liver failure secondary to cancer; he was a billionaire, and had developed the first home computer and was responsible for my smart phone, but money couldn’t accelerate anyone’s name on the liver transplant list. And alcoholism wouldn’t remove you from it, unless you died. I couldn’t envision a more equitable process for such a limited commodity. There was little or no hope Wendy would receive a liver in time.
The doctor 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 she could live – her heart would beat – for weeks or even months. But, he reiterated, it was unlikely she’d awaken from her coma if we kept the machines attached. He told me I could decide whether or not to disconnect the machines and that he’d return at 8:00 AM to hear what I decided. I thanked him and glanced at my watch and saw that I had just over 11 hours with Wendy. I thanked him again, mindlessly, and watched him leave.
As soon as the door closed, I collapsed to one knee and bawled, “Why, Wendy?” and I sobbed for a few minutes.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I would have visited more often, I explained too late. I knew that she knew that, but waves of guilt still washed through my body and I sobbed and told her that I loved her many times. While I sobbed my thoughts raced and reprocessed our conversations from the past 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. I hadn’t known. Like me, Wendy was reticent and a private person.
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 remain silent when I felt sad or angry or judgmental. Her room was more spacious than the chapel, and I walked around her room as I chatted and inspected the machines to keep my body awake and to distract my mind. I told her how our heartbeats were the same, and even managed to smile and joke, “Like mother, like son!” but I ran out of things to chat about and I began telling her about the machines in her room and the coincidences behind them simply because it was something I knew well. A cheaper version of her IV pump had recently been recalled for safety flaws and false alarms, but I didn’t want to talk about that, especially because I was still frustrated at that team. I glanced at her IV bags and saw who had signed off on their quality control in Tijuana and who had received them in San Diego and shipped them to Baton Rouge, and I told her about Oscar and how, coincidentally, he had seen his mother in-law connected to the same IV pump and bags only two months before, when she had been in an automobile accident visiting him from across the border. She survived – by US law, all emergency room treatments are free at first – and he said seeing her connected to IV bags he had approved added a sense of peace and purpose to his work. He had signed off on Wendy’s IV bags only three weeks before. I told her how Oscar liked to play music with his kids, and that he liked the shirt she had mailed me. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t packed that shirt, or that I had packed hastily, unsure how long I would need to stay to handle the inevitable. That didn’t sound fun, so I didn’t say it, and I found other things to chat about.
I told her about her respirator, 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 Phillips Respironics 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; ironically, in less than a year from that night, those respirators would be mass produced when the Covid19 pandemic first began, and even automobile manufacturers would help by using Philips quality control instructions, and a million free respirators would be manufactured with my ugly, scared finger pointing at a tiny part. But I wouldn’t get to tell Wendy that in person.
Life’s funny some times, full of ironies and coincidences. I smiled at the coincidence behind her respirator and held up my left hand and showed her the scar on my forefinger. She had always hated that scar because it reminded her of my dad; as a child, I had cut it with a machete when I was helping him trim his marijuana plants. I rotated my hand and showed her my broken finger, healed askew from being broken thirty years ago. She had hated that finger, too.
I grew too tired to think or speak clearly. I couldn’t recall having been more exhausted and emotionally drained, and I had tears in my eyes when Wendy’s door swung open and a young nurse stepped inside. It was almost midnight. 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 Mizz subtly, drawing it out in that lovely Louisiana drawl I had missed since leaving home. Her name tag was a French name common among the Cajuns near where Wendy lived, St. Francisville, a small parish an hour upriver from Baton Rouge.
The nurse extended a cup of coffee towards me and said she brought it for me and that it was “nurse’s coffee,” made extra strong for the night shift. I took it and felt a deep sense of gratitude for the timing and thanked her and sipped it and watched her check Wendy’s IV tubes and bags. She moved diligently, delicate and mindful of Wendy’s IV needles and tiny hands. Compassionately. Gracefully. I was happy, for a moment, that she had been there with Wendy when I was not.
I liked her. She was gentle and caring and softly spoken and good at her work. 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, and I felt that she had gotten to know my mother better in three days of her coma better than most people would in a lifetime. Wendy was an extremely private person, but anyone who saw her saw a kind soul.
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, omitting “even now.” The nurse smiled and said with a hint of pride as subtle as her accent, “I wanted Mizz Wendy looking her best for you.”
She looked back at Wendy told her, matter-of-factly, “I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She patted Wendy’s hand and smiled at me 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 loooked 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.
Most 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 but 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 serious and contemplative countenance too often. As I sat in that cold hospital room, I felt more than imagined how much time had passed.
For years, people had assumed I was her brother, not her son, especially when they heard me call her Wendy. Old habits are hard to break, and I had called my mother Wendy since I was a child in the foster system and she was a teenage mother. She fought for seven years to regain custody of me, but she had felt embarrassed by being called “mom” when all of her friends were carefree and enjoying high school, and she taught me to call her Wendy and people thought I was her brother and that’s what I’ve called her since. The nurse’s comment about Wendy’s youth was not meant to pry or solicit information from me, something I had experienced since a child and was still sensitive to; rather, I felt that she commented on Wendy’s youth from a genuine sense of compassion and sadness that any woman would be in intensive care, alone, no matter her age or the situations and choices that had led her there. She was compassionate, with Wendy’s suffering, unconcerned about the past. Unlike me, Wendy’s only child and last surviving relative, someone who expected her to be more than she could be now, the nurse wouldn’t ask her why she had kept her suffering a secret, or why she hadn’t sought help for her self before it was too late.
The nurse left and I glanced at my watch and saw that I had less than seven hours with Wendy.
I displayed my watch and reminded her that I still used Uncle Bob’s Rolex. He had taken care of Wendy when her mom immigrated from French Canada to Baton Rouge, where he and Auntie Lo were living. My grandmother, Joyce Rothdram, followed them when she felt she had no other options. She, too, had been a young single mother, and when Wendy was five years old they arrived in Louisiana, and they lived with Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob and all of them said they felt at home surrounded by the accents and culture of growing up in Prince Edward Island, coincidentally where the Cajuns had originated. Wendy wasn’t French Canadian, but loved Louisiana and had lived there almost all her life, and she knew Uncle Bob’s watch well. He had bought it from a New Orleans jeweler around the time I was born. It was a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that never needed winding, a classic watch style that no one would know was a Rolex unless they looked closely or recognized it. An Oyster Perpetual isn’t really perpetual; it absorbs energy from the motion of your hand and stores it in tiny, precise springs, and those springs unwind when you’re still. But an Oyster Perpetual would wind down within 24 hours on its own and was perpetual only as long as you were. Uncle Bob had used it as metaphor up until the day he died, shaking it with his fingers when he was too weak to lift his hand, and it continued to work until the morning after he died. I inherited it then, when I was 16 years old. He had been proud of the watch, the nicest he could afford at the time, and he had shown it to a young Wendy and then to a young me, and he had pointed out that the second hand moved smoothly and effortlessly, unlike the jerking motions of quartz watches or, God forbid, the new digital watches that were just coming out back then and flashed too much information at you.
I said to Wendy that I didn’t know what he would have said about our modern smart phones, but I held up my hand and said that his 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, talking through our smart phones, and I hoped she could hear me again.
I told her another Uncle Bob joke, that unlike digital watches that stopped working: if his Rolex broke, it would still be right twice a day. Feeling momentum from old laughter, 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 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 cups 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. I thought I had been exhausted in the small chapel, but I saw that I hadn’t been tired at all compared to how I felt then. It was almost 4:20 AM. I laughed and told her what 420 meant in San Diego. It was rumored to be old police code for marijuana, and was a common joke that everyone relaxed at 4:20 PM. Or AM, if possible, I joked. Only two weeks ago we had laughed that pot was legal almost everywhere, 36 states out of 50 as I write this. Wendy had gotten in trouble for smoking pot as a teenager, and my dad had been arrested for growing it and was sent to federal prison for two years during Reagan’s War on Drugs. I ended up in the foster system because of something that was then legal in most states and even encouraged by the Veterans Administration as an alternative to the then daily news of prescription opioid addictions. By 2019, when I was joking about 420 with Wendy, few people, if any, were arrested for possessing marijuana or put into the foster system because there parents had. Life’s funny, in an ironic way, I said, and I smiled a smile that was better than crying at 4:20 AM. I sort of joked that I would have appreciated relaxing with a huge pile of pot by that time.
The young nurse came back in just before 7:00 AM and checked Wendy’s IV tubes and reset the IV pump that had been beeping a false alarm; I had reset it a few times already, before they alerted anyone, but she had been nearby and responded quickly. Satisfied that everything was fine, she brushed Wendy’s hair gently away from her face – I hadn’t noticed it fall – and then she stood silently and we smiled at Wendy together as I sipped nurse’s coffee that she had handed me before attending to Wendy. I assume she had been bringing it to me. It was extra strong – I had heard that somewhere before, like in a dream – and I sipped slowly and stood silently. I didn’t want to talk but I didn’t want the quiet company to end. The nurse sighed, patted Wendy’s arm, and told her she’d be getting off work soon but would see her tomorrow night, and 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 by someone you wished had stayed. I tried to not think about her arriving the next night and seeing Wendy’s bed empty or with someone else in it.
I didn’t know how long the young nurse had been working in intensive care. Some people recover from deep comas and there’s always hope, but sometimes hope prolongs suffering, like a boxer staying in the ring and fighting the inevitable and taking more beatings than he would if he acquiesced. 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.
I stared the coffee cup until it was too cold to drink, threw it away, took a breath and exhaled, and stood by Wendy’s side and said I was there and wouldn’t leave. I rested my hand gently on hers, just in case she hadn’t heard me but could still feel.
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. 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. I had been with more people after their final breath than I cared to recall, and I never knew how I knew when I let go, but I knew it was not time to let go of Wendy. My mouth kept forming a silent word, “love,” because that’s all I felt other than pain, and ten minutes after the nurses removed the respirator tube I released my mother’s hand for the final time. 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. At least the pain had subsided.
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 while I took care of business, and that her house was remote and without cell phone reception so don’t worry about me, and that I preferred to not hear from anyone as I mourned and I would see them soon. My phone began ringing less a few seconds later, the time it took for an email to circle the globe, and I spoke with the people I loved the most who knew to ignore my requests for solitude. I was a private person, like Wendy, but they knew me well, maybe even better than I know myself, and they called. I spoke with people I loved as I located Wendy’s car and connected my phone to her speaker system. It was a new luxury car with less than 3,000 miles, one with automatic braking and steering that could practically drive itself on dark rainy country roads, and my phone was new and one of the best available, but after an hour of driving I lost cell reception and rode through the rain in silence, peacefully, realizing more and more why it had been hard to reach Wendy all these years. We rely on technology too much, I reminded myself. I set the windshield wipers on full strength and they wiped away nature’s tears and I drove in silence with both hands on the wheel and tried to not cry.
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 my old high school and the chemical plants where she and her mother had worked and retired, past civil war battlefields and 200 year old plantations and private prisons named after them, and down miles of empty, unlit country roads sparsely populated by only a few shacks and trailer homes scattered here and there between dense patches of pine trees. I crossed from East Baton Rouge Parish and into West Feliciana Parish, turned down an even smaller road and arrived at her home near St. Francisville. I pulled into her driveway and parked her car. It had stopped raining, and I sat still in her driveway for a few moments and stared at her fishing pond down the subtle hill below her home.
Her house was a mansion by most people’s standards. It was modern Cajun, beautiful and tasteful, with a steep roof that shed even hurricane rains, and a porch that oversaw a fishing pond. The pond was surrounded by stately oak trees with long branches swooping down and back up again and draped in tangled gray Spanish Moss, a symbiotic plant on many levels that I had learned about from my first foster father, a Louisiana tree surgeon. He had given Wendy her first job, and he, too, had passed away too soon.
The porch ceiling rotated slowly and drooped slightly from the humidity but still kept the mosquitoes away. Nearby, Thompson Creek flowed gently past St. Francisville to the mighty Mississippi River a few miles away. She had lived an hour upriver from Baton Rouge, quietly, peacefully, and surrounded by nature and history.
I left her car and went inside her house and walked around. It was my house now, I realized unexpectedly, and I felt even more saddened and deflated by the reminder that all of our family was deceased, too. There things decorated the house. I wandered around as if wandering through a museum of my family history, and my thoughts followed. Finally, exhausted beyond what my body could bear, I collapsed on the sofa and fell asleep instantly but 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. All of Louisiana is named by Catholic parishes, not counties like the rest of America, but few people know that, even people who go to church every Sunday in one of the historic churches in town. After mentioning Saint Francis, I had written from a place within myself that harbored judgement, and I added a quip i, “… and she had brought breakfast sandwiches to the Angola prisoners who worked at the humane society.”
Her town had 1,500 residents and three prisons. 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 pay to see prisoners chased by bulls; I had passed a giant sign advertising it on my way to Wendy’s. But, Wendy wasn’t from Louisiana and she had never expressed a religious preference, and I omitted the quips from Wendy’s obituary, even though we had joked about Angola only a few weeks before. She was a good neighbor, a Good Samaritan who helped people regardless of where they were from, and I deleted details about Saint Francis and Angola prisoners because they came from a place I did not want to express with words.
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 submitted everything to TheAdvocate.com, and her obituary would be printed within two days and would be visible 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. Wendy’s clothes were folded neatly, immaculately laid in organized drawers, just like Granny had done. Granny had died at 62 years old. Auntie Lo’s fine chine and silverware was tastefully displayed in an antique cabinet carved from 200 year old local cypress wood that had been salvaged from a nearby Cajun homestead; Wendy had commissioned a local artist to make it just for the things. Auntie Lo had died at 63 years old; Uncle Bob at 62. I felt that life was too short, a cliche that makes more sense each day.
Morning came slowly. 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 was a tiny black velvet bag filled with Angel’s ashes and embroidered, “‘Till we meet at the Rainbow Bridge,” a place where pets meet their humans 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 sanwhiches to the prisoners from Angola that sometimes worked at the shelter. She had been a good neighbor. She had fostered a tiny dog named Angel, nursing her back to health and searching for the perfect home that would love the tiny little dog as much as she did. She never found one, and Angel passed away after 14 years with my mom.
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. I knew I’d spread Angel’s ashes with Wendy to help them find the Rainbow Bridge together.
Four days later, early on the morning of April 10th, 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. That’s why the Cajuns had settled there; everyone need water and food and a place to call home, even if only for a night. Wendy loved it there. She had always wanted to travel, but wanted to finish her retirement home so she’d always have a place to return. She hadn’t spoken of traveling for three years.
I knelt on the muddy bank 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 towards the Mississippi River, where they would flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico and merge into all oceans on Earth and travel the world together. I collapsed, drained, and cried so deeply that I couldn’t hear the people above me. After a while, I stood and limped up the muddy slope and joined them and we spoke of how much we had loved her and how much she had loved her Angel, and how much she meant to all of us and how short life is.
We walked to the house and ate Wendy’s leftovers, Cajun classics. Someone repeated Wendy’s favorite pun, that she had been born Wendy Anne Rothdram and she thought WAR was bad until she married Ed Partin and he WARP’ed her, and that was much, much worse. We all laughed at that for a minute or two, and I added that she always wanted me to thank her for not naming Edward Grady Partin III; in telling her version, I emphasized “the Third” with my fingers held up in mock quotation marks and used Wendy’s accent, pronouncing it as she had, “da’ T’urd,” and everyone laughed harder and thankfully no one asked why I called her Wendy or asked why she had kept the Partin name.
Wendy and Ed Partin were only married for a few months and had barely spoken in 47 years. She had always been a private person, even to me, and I don’t know why she choose to remain WARP’ed.
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 volunteered to help while I was in San Diego. They told me how much Wendy had done for the humane 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; I’m sure I would have felt that no matter how often I had visited.
I washed Auntie Lo’s gumbo bowls and Uncle Bob’s cocktail glasses and was almost ready to leave. I looked around for anything that I’d want to carry back to San Diego in my stuffed bag. I found was Granny’s gold retirement watch, engraved “To Joyce Rothdram for 25 years of service.” It was petite, like Granny had been, and would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. She had left it to Wendy 30 years prior. I put it in my pocket and accepted a ride to the airport and carried my bag inside and bought an LSU baseball cap and boarded the plane. We took off and I glanced down and saw Granny’s tiny 680 square foot house directly below my window. Wendy had sold it and used the money and Granny’s retirement fund to build her bigger, nicer retirement house that I had just inherited. I lowered my new LSU baseball cap over 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 magical. 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. I’d tell who Joyce was one day, if it happened naturally and was useful for her to learn. It wasa Seiko quartz watch, a fine watch, and fortunately remarkably different than everyone’s digital smart watches, even the ones that looked analog or cell phones with digital clocks or other things that she already knew. 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 was dead, and that she and Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob had died before enjoying retirement, and she had dome what needed to be done at the time and worked 25 years and then died before being able to legally withdraw her savings, and that Wendy had worked for 25 years at an almost identical chemical plant and had done her best and still died six months after receiving her first social security check; or that no one would know Wendy had designed a peaceful place to rest her Angel but never found the time, and because of laws no one would inherit her social security, but, hopefully, it will magically grow and be there for eight year old girls who are lucky and turn 63 one day. That would be too much. Instead, I asked her what time it was. It was just about 2:20 PM Pacific Standard Time, but 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, lost in thought, 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 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 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.
He laughed at other people’s naiveté, “Ha! They think magnetic fields are important?” He waved towards the north pole and dismissed it. “It changes every 45,000 years, anyway.” He pointed at me and said, “Focus on what’s real.”
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 perhaps another time, and began to collect my grocery bags when he stopped shaking and glared up at me and opened both eyes and stared at me with both sky blue eyes alert and focused.
Of course I was surprised. But, I became mesmerized when Danny began speaking calmly, clearly, and with a focus that I felt. I leaned in.
“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, “And how do you know if it’s wind that moves the clouds?”
I looked up at the few small tufts of clouds in our blue sky, and felt saddened by memories because I thought Danny had asked if it were Wendy, not the wind, that moved the clouds. After a moment of sadness a brief moment of smiling, thinking about the Coreolus Force that moves the clouds even though we do not see it. Smiling was my cue, it let me know I was ready to listen again. I kneeled back down and waited silently for Danny to begin speaking again.
He began shaking and mumbling like before, and he spoke and I listened for another 20 minutes or so, and when I finally stood to leave again I asked him again if he’d like to be pushed into the shade. He said yes, 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, and I asked if he’d like some strawberries. His eyes lit up and he smiled and mumbled yes and I replaced his stale hot dogs with a pint of strawberries, and he popped one in his mouth and slid it to the back where he still had a few teeth and munched happily and thanked me. 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, like when he had told me his name. I collected my handfuls of groceries, wished Danny well, and carried the groceries 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, not after 30 years, and time had frozen at 2:20. It was still correct twice a day, and I didn’t plan to have it repaired because I felt that her watch was always right now. 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. We didn’t see it that way, maybe because it reminded me of home.
We watched a few clouds move across the sky and the maroon sky grow dark, and we watched silhouettes not unlike clouds pass between us and the stars, 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. 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. 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. 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. It really was America’s Finest City. We were lucky. I drifted off to sleep and slept peacefully and began writing anew the next morning.
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