When I learned that mother was dying in a hospital 3,000 miles away, I flew to Baton Rouge and went straight to her hospital. The night receptionist told me her room number; and, after I asked, directed me to a room dedicated to prayer and meditation.
I entered the tiny chapel and found room to stretch and try to wake up after a day and night of anxiously waiting for my flight, and a long flight that had been delayed at a layover. Two nights had passed since I learned I’d probably never speak to Wendy again. My breathing was shallow; it increased my worry, and that worry made my heartbeat too rapid to relax. I was tired and anxious and not ready to see Wendy.
I sat still and unsuccessfully tried to relax, to be mindful of my breath and heartbeat until I calmed. It didn’t work, and after a few minutes I began pacing, hoping to wake up mentally and burn off stress physically. A few minutes later, I noticed an open bible behind the chapel’s pulpit and paused. It was open, and when I scanned the page I was surprised to see a verse in Matthew I didn’t recognize, 6:34, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I reread the verse, confirmed I was reading Matthew, checked the book’s version, and read it again and suddenly realized that, for a moment, I hadn’t been worried. I was awake. My breathing and pulse had returned to normal. And, though I was tired and saddened, I wasn’t worried. I smiled subtly, not because I was trying, but because that’s my normal countenance, just like my grandfather. I knew that smiling meant that I was ready to see Wendy, so I returned the bible how I found it and walked out of the chapel and rode an elevator to her room in intensive care ward.
As I approached her glass door, I saw Wendy unconscious and hooked to machines. She was a young woman, only 63 years old, but she looked much older in her hospital bed; frail, her eyes closed, and her mouth hidden by a ventilator tube. When I noticed my reflection beside her, I realized that I had stopped smiling, and that I looked as sad and tired as I felt. I forced a smile and opened her door.
The first thing I heard was her ventilator and heartbeat monitor. She was breathing at 4 to 5 breaths per minute, and her pulse was 54; coincidentally, the same as mine. I saw five IV tubes dripping fluids into needles on the backs of her hand, and bruises on her arms indicated that there had been multiple needle attempts over the previous days. I looked at the bags of fluids, and saw that she was being fed nutrients and opiate pain killers. Tears came to my eyes, and I told her I was there, and I touched her hand gently, in case she couldn’t hear me. I repeated that I was there.
Her doctor entered the room and I dried my eyes and looked up. He spoke a few formalities, then told me what I had learned on the phone: her liver had failed from alcohol abuse, she had been unconscious for three days, the machines were keeping her alive, and she’d probably never wake up. He then told me that in the morning I would have to choose whether or not they’d remove her from her life support devices. If I did, she’d likely die within a few minutes. If I didn’t, the devices could keep her body alive for days or weeks or possibly longer. I thanked him, and he said he’d return the next morning at 8:00 AM.
I fell to my knees and began crying before her door finished closing. I lifted one hand and rested it on Wendy’s forearm, away from the needles, and let myself sob for a few minutes. When I was able to stand, I focused on a few slow breaths and smiled and told her that I loved her and wouldn’t leave her. I spoke softly and kindly for a while, in case she could hear me. Visiting hours ended, but no one asked me to leave.
I glanced at my watch and saw that I had almost 10 hours until her doctor would return. My cheeks tightened and my lips trembled and I kept starting at my watch, knowing how emotionally draining the last night with a loved one can be. I fell to my knees again, bawling this time, even though I had repeated to myself on the flight that I wouldn’t. I don’t know how long passed before I could stand up again and try to be there for Wendy. We don’t know what our loved ones experience when they know they will take their final breath soon, but I wanted Wendy to know I was fine, and that she was loved. I began by laughing and saying how funny of a coincidence was that we had the same pulse. As we laughed together, I searched memories for pleasant things to talk about.
A few hours later, I had alternated between talking and crying many times. I was exhausted, but fortunately a young nurse brought me a cup of coffee. She said it was “nurse’s coffee,” and that she had made it extra strong for the night shift.
I thanked her and asked about Wendy’s hair, because someone must have braided it after she had been connected to the machines. It wasn’t the style she did herself, but it looked good on her, even now.
“I wanted Miss Wendy lookin’ her best for you,” the nurse said with a hint of Cajun accent. She introduced herself, and when I heard her pronounce her last name I guessed she was from near where Wendy lived. She told me I was right, and we chatted about Saint Francisville; it was an old French Catholic settlement on the banks of the Mississippi River in West Feliciana Parish, named after the patron saint of kindness to animals. Wendy loved it so much that she built her dream home there, surrounded by thick forests, gentle streams, and Cajun homesteads from when Louisiana was still part of France.
Wendy wasn’t Cajun, but our family was French Canadian, from near where the Cajuns originated. She enjoyed hearing Louisiana accents that reminded her of her childhood in Canada.
“I’m Jason Partin,” I told the nurse, pronouncing it like Wendy would have, Pah’tan
The nurse patted Wendy’s hand and said, in her sweet accent, “Miss Wendy, I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She looked back up at me and smiled and left the room to check on another patient. After the door closed, I patted Wendy’s hand gently and agreed that she looked beautiful, that the nurse must know what she’s talking about because she said I had good looks, too. Wendy would have laughed at that, and I hoped she heard me.
I threw away the empty cup and placed a warmed hand on hers, and talked for a while about things I can’t recall. An hour or two later, I showed her the Rolex again. It had been her Uncle Bob’s, and I reminded her that it was as old as I was but never needed a battery or winding. It was still useful, despite a few dents scratches, and would keep working as long as it remained in motion.
“Just like me!” I beamed, genuinely laughing. She had laughed when I made that joke two weeks before, and that memory led me to cry again and curse my ignorance and her secrecy. She had always been a private person, even to me.
I looked at Uncle Bob’s watch and saw that it was almost 3am. We had five hours.
I talked about our family and cried from sadness, and asked why she hadn’t told me she was dying, and cursed and wept from frustration and exhaustion.
Wendy was young. She had dropped out of school to have me when she was 16. She abandoned me as a baby, and the courts were afraid of my dad and his family, and I was placed in the foster system. She had been ashamed, and taught me to call her by her first name so people would think I was her little brother. She found a job and fought for custody for seven years. She won shortly after my grandfather went to prison, but by then I was eight years old and called her Wendy out of habit. Later in life, she would tell people she wanted me to call her Wendy so that we’d become friends rather than the bad relationship she had with her family. She ended up being right, and I still called my mother Wendy. I never learned why she kept my dad’s family name. She was a private person.
I stared at the second hand move on Uncle Bob’s watch. It moved without ticking like a quartz watch; the hands glided around the face smoothly, seamlessly, and persistently. It had seen the death of all of our family. I would be the last one. I felt despair creep into my body as I realized it would see Wendy’s last moments. It would probably outlive me.
6am crawled upon us. We had three hours. I didn’t know I could to say, yet somehow I talked for another hour. I refilled a coffee cup and sipped slowly, knowing my throat was dry and swollen from the cold air conditioned room and a night of crying and talking. I would have to speak to her doctor soon.
He arrived at 8:24 am and reiterated my options. My eyes watered and my lips trembled as I authorized removing my mother’s life support. He nodded, and gave us a moment alone.
When he returned, he removed her ventilator. I looked away as he pulled the tube from her mouth, and looked back when I heard hear gasp for air. She fought for a breath and managed to gulp down a few. I felt my chest tighten and spasm with her effort, and I held her hand firmly so she would know I was still there. I couldn’t speak because my tightened chest wouldn’t inhale deeply enough and my mouth was filled with choked back tears.
I don’t know how I knew when she took her final breath, but I knew, and I spoke my final words to my mother: “I love you, Wendy.”
A few minutes later, her machine beeped that she was gone. I held her hand until I felt she was no longer there, then let go and left the room so nurses could take her body to be cremated. I stayed in Saint Francisville while the funeral home prepared her ashes, and walked around Wendy’s home and reflected on my mother’s life.
She had built her dream home an hour upriver from Baton Rouge, where she volunteered at the West Feliciana humane society, fostering dogs until they were adopted by a permanent home. She had fostered a tiny dog named Angel, and had searched for the perfect home, but never found one that could love Angel as much as she did. Angel passed away after 14 years with my mom.
I found Angel’s ashes in a tiny wooden box on a shelf in Wendy’s house that simply said, “Angel. Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge.” I held Angel in my hand for a few minutes, wiped my eyes and blew my nose, then carried the box outside to Wendy’s garden.
I sat on a small bench overlooking Wendy’s fishing pond. She had placed there recently, next to a delicate bird bath and a freshly scraped patch of dirt that was to be where Angel would rest with a few of ducks landing on the pond. They had always enjoyed that. The bench was small but comfortable. It was the perfect size for two people who knew each other well to sit silently in the shade of pine trees. It was made from repurposed cypress wood off a 200 year old Cajun homestead, and would last many more lifetimes.
Wendy had always wanted to travel, but never found the time. She had planned to travel the world after retiring and finding a home for Angel. I had left Louisiana 30 years before. I had wanted to see Wendy more often, but didn’t set aside the time. I thought about that for a while, despite knowing it wouldn’t help anything.
I sat on the tiny bench and listened to the crickets chirping and birds alternating singing their songs, and felt the cool springtime breeze blow on my face, and my thoughts drifted to Thompson Creek. It flowed nearby, and it was the first place Wendy had showed me when she began designing her home in a new community called the Bluffs on Thompson Creek. The Bluffs were so remote that cell phones didn’t work there. It was peaceful, and the perfect place to spread Wendy and Angel’s ashes.
I verified local rules, told my family in San Diego I’d be offline for a while, and sent an email with a time and place for Wendy’s memorial service. Two days later, neighbors who loved her stood on the bluffs a few feet above me and watched me kneel on the muddy banks and pour Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the clear water. Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and it flows slowly. At first, their ashes sank to the bottom, and I watched pieces of Wendy and Angel break off and slowly drift towards the center, where water flowed more quickly.
I stood up and crawled up the muddy bank to join the memorial service. We silently watched the ashes float down Thompson Creek, towards the Mississippi River, where they would mix with its muddy waters and drift to the Gulf of Mexico and spread across all waters on Earth. Wendy and Angel would travel the world.
At that thought, I fell to my knees and bawled until my asthmatic wheezing forced me to stop and gasp for air. The group reached for me, but I held up my hand to keep them away. When I could finally stand up, I felt that they expected me to say something. I didn’t know what I could say that mattered, but I started saying something, although through my tears and wheezing they may have only heard a few phrases, like “honor your mother and father,” “why, Wendy?”, or “just be happy…”, but most of what I said wouldn’t have made sense to anyone. Wendy had always been a private person.
When I finally stood up, everyone else took turns saying their peace. They followed me to her house and we ate leftovers Wendy had frozen in neatly labeled and containers only a week before. It was classic Cajun food, and we somehow found ways to laugh and talk about good food and the beauty of Saint Francisville and all of the things we loved about Louisiana.
We arranged for Wendy’s possessions to be auctioned and donated to the West Feliciana humane society, and I packed my bag and prepared to fly home. Just before leaving, I glanced around and wondered if I should bring anything back to San Diego. Everything from my Louisiana family was there: three generations of memories. I was the only one born in America, and the last one alive. I wondered if anything could represent what I had experienced with them, and what I hoped to remember.
I choose Granny’s gold retirement watch. It was a gold Seiko, engraved with her name, Joyce Rothdram, and it thanked her for 25 years of service. Granny had been tiny, and her watch was so small that it would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. But she had been proud of it, and had willed it to Wendy 30 years before, the year I left Louisiana.
Granny had died at age 61, a year before being eligible to collect her first retirement check. Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob had both died around the same time, and both had been under 64. All had been alcoholics. Wendy had inherited all of their retirement accounts. She died at 63, less than a year after receiving her first retirement check.
When I arrived in San Diego, an eight year old girl hugged me and told me she missed me and was sorry my mommie had died. I said I missed her too, and showed her Granny’s watch. It fit her perfectly. I said it was hers, and she beamed excitedly and forgot that she was sad and asked how it worked. I showed her how to set it to the current time, 2:20pm, and when I asked her to look at and tell me what time it was, she said, “It’s time to play!” and I said she was right, and we went out side and played.
Four months later, I was walking home from Sunday’s farmers market with handfuls of bags filled with fruits and vegetables. As I passed a bus stop across from a 7-11 convenience store, I saw an old man in a wheelchair sitting in the bright sun.
He was shaking as if he had Parkinson’s disease or something similar. He had thin, gray hair, and I noticed that his scalp was freshly sunburned.
His mouth was circled by small red bumps and a few open sores. He hand’t shaved in several days, and food was caked in his whiskers. He only had one eye open, and the other was squinted tightly.
His wheelchair was issued from a Veterans Hospital, though the nearest one was a dozen miles away. I glanced at the hospital ID bracelet on his wrist and saw that he had recently been admitted to Scripps Mercy Charity Hospital, a mile away from the Sunday farmer’s market. The other ID bracelets on his wrists were too faded to read, and I assumed he had been in and out of a few hospitals for several weeks.
I saw people like him often in downtown San Diego, my neighborhood. By American law, no one can be denied emergency care, and if police suspect mental illness they can take that person to a hospital to be treated for three days. In California, the police code for that is a 5150. In San Diego, police usually take 5150’s to Scripps Hospital, two miles from my home.
The doctors and nurses at Scripps do their best, but, by law, must release patients after three days. No one pays their bills, and when the 5150 reimbursement ends, nurses reluctantly push them out the front door and onto the street.
Many patients are disoriented when they’re asked to leave, and they wander past the bus stop or through Balboa Park on their way to downtown homeless shelters. Some have family who eventually find them. Others become our neighbors and live out their lives on our streets. There were too many homeless neighbors to know them all by name, and most people ignore them.
The man in the wheelchair had dirty clothes, and he smelled of body odor. Two 7-11 hot dogs sat on his lap, untouched but covered in flies. He held a super-sized soft drink in his shaking hand, and it splashed bright red sugary liquid onto his pants. Flies crawled over his legs to sip from the red stains, but he didn’t seem to notice.
I asked if he needed help, or would like his wheelchair pushed under the bus stop shade. He mumbled “no,” and stared at me with his eye.
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, so I knelt by his side and listened more closely. As I leaned in, I saw that he was missing his front teeth, so I assumed other people had bought the 7-11 hotdogs for him. They were only 99 cents each, the same as his super-sized drink, but he wouldn’t have bought them, even if he had money, because he had no front teeth to bite them.
His heartbeat was obvious in his bulging neck arteries – probably due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease from smoking or exposure to harsh chemicals – and his breathing was forced and wheezing. Out of habit, I rested my left hand on his wheelchair, by his head, so that I could see the second hand of my watch move as I looked him in the eye. I counted his breath and pulse rate; there was nothing unexpected, and no immediate concern.
I introduced myself as Jason, and he said in an offhand manner, “Dan, or Danny, or Daniel.” He said it didn’t matter what I called him, and brushed his hand through the air as if moving aside what was unimportant.
I offered him my LSU baseball cap, and he smiled broadly as he put it on with surprising deftness. His hands shook, but that’s not why he took time to adjust his new hat. He seemed to enjoy the process. He adjusted it this way and that, and bent the bill a few times until it fit precisely as he intended. He pulled the bill low over his eyes and looked up at me and smiled and said it was a duck bill fold, like he wore in the army.
I had worn a cap like that once, too. It wasn’t regulation, and only special ops or undisciplined units wore it like that. I looked at him looking at me and shuddered. In my cap, he looked like me. Maybe in 20 years. Or ten. I shuddered again.
Danny seemed interested in having an audience, and he began telling stories. As he spoke, his lips flapped in and out of his mouth, unencumbered by teeth, and I felt spittle splatter on my face. I adjusted my distance without seeming rude, and tried to listen.
He spoke of strange things that I didn’t understand. He told a story of a one-legged table (how could we all eat on it!) and a giant plant with a single tap root circling the Earth (what happens when we cut it!) and how aliens can hear us; this was important to him, and he leaned forward and pointed his finger at me to emphasize words.
“They can hear your thoughts,” he said, and paused pointed at my chest once for every word that followed:
He withdrew his finger and leaned back, satisfied that he had shared something so important, and smiled and adjusted his baseball cap. He looked at me with his good eye, and asked how I’d describe a duck to an alien. But he didn’t wait for an answer.
“Quack!” he exclaimed. “Ha! that’d be funny! How could you describe a duck to someone who has never seen one!”
He laughed so hard that spittle flew past me, then he stopped laughing, leaned forward, and said, “Just like it’s hard for God to describe love to us.”
He pointed a finger towards heaven and aliens, but kept his eye on me, and allowed me time to ponder how God would describe love. Then he relaxed and leaned back into his wheelchair and took a breath to speak again.
He told more stories, but I was distracted and not completely focused on him, because in my peripheral vision I was watching people pass us.
Dozens of people walking from the farmer’s market passed us without glancing. Some even walked out of their way to avoid us. Car drivers stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop, but turned up the volume of their radios or looked at their phones. It was like we were in an invisible field, someone else’s problem, and not worth their time.
I live in America’s Finest City, with perfect weather and 78 miles of beaches and daily farmer’s markets. When I met Danny, I was on my way through Balboa Park, an oasis of trees and playgrounds within the city limits, and home to hundreds of homeless people. In the city, more than 6,800 homeless people live in the parks and alleys of celebrities, surfers, millionaires, and soldiers.
We have have America’s largest marine base, a navy shipyard, an airbase, and many private defense companies. 250,000 people in San Diego are employed by the military. And because San Diego has been a military out-processing center since World War II, our homeless population is disproportionately comprised of veterans who returned from war and stayed in San Diego because they had no where else to go.
A homeless person in San Diego is 4 times more likely to be a veteran than elsewhere, and 4 times more likely to commit suicide. No one listens to their stories any more.
“People are too busy,” Danny said, “Writing about this and that…” he trailed off and waved a hand to dismiss what people did with their time.
“You think a story about an IRA is funny?” He demanded suddenly, shocking me so much that I must have shown my surprise. He smiled, and waited for me to process what he asked.
I looked at Danny more closely. I was confused by what he had asked.
After my mom’s death, I had been writing a book about my grandmother’s IRA, her Individual Retirement Account that she began after immigrating to Louisiana. She died before using it, and Wendy had inherited it and used the money to build her dream home before dying, too. I had hoped to write a book that would tell their story and teach practical things to other single mothers trying to survive in America. I wanted to use their story to help other people.
But Danny was right, a story about an IRA didn’t sound funny, and I was shocked by the coincidence of him saying that. Not many people put thought into their IRA’s or the future, especially old veterans with faded 5150 bracelets.
“Tell them about a war veteran who got sick after being given experimental medications! Tell them how he fell asleep waiting in the Las Angeles Veterans Hospital! Ha! Vets have funny stories! Ha! Tell them about a friend who starts to annoy you, plays pranks on you, and rubs dog shit under your car door handle! Hahaha!” He laughed out loud, and more spittle flew from his lips.
He began telling stories again. I listened to the words but didn’t understand the metaphors, and after about 30 minutes I stood up and said I had to leave.
“Wait! Wait! I was talking too much,” he pleaded, more audibly than before. “I’m an old man. Please sit and tell me about yourself.” He gestured towards the bus stop bench, but I said that I should go, and that maybe I’d see him again soon. I smiled, and was about to leave, but he opened both eyes and stared at me intently. I stopped moving, and stared back into his bright blue eyes.
He was looking up at me, peering from under his duck bill, and smiling. He was no longer shaking. I’m not easily unnerved, but I was confused by his transformation and didn’t know what to say. I waited for him to speak again.
“What happens if we cut the root?” He asked, and pointed at me. I contemplated the metaphor, still too surprised to speak, but I didn’t take my eyes or attention off of Danny this time.
He waited patiently, then asked, “What happened when they cut the umbilical chord?” He pointed at my belly, staring into my eyes intently but no longer smiling. I thought of Wendy, and I shuddered again.
“Touch your belly button,” he instructed, mimicking the action. I was mesmerized by the coincidences of Danny’s words, and I touched my belly button. Perhaps part of me hoped Danny had words that would ease the sadness I still felt from loosing my mother.
“Now point up, and look at the sky,” he said, keeping both eyes on me but pointing towards Heaven and aliens. I pointed, too, and kept my eyes locked on Danny’s.
“Ask yourself, is it wind that moves the clouds?” At first, I mistakenly heard ‘Wendy,’ my mom’s name, and though I realized what he said, I still wondered if she were in the clouds.
I kept looking at Danny, and kneeled back down to listen to more stories. He kept both eyes open, but returned to mumbling and shaking. About 30 minutes later, I stood up to go again, but Danny kept telling stories. I tried to interrupt politely.
“Danny… Danny… Danny…” I waited for him to pause and look at me, then I said, “I have to go now. May I move your chair under the shade?”
He said yes, so I pushed him under the bus stop. I threw away his spoiled hot dogs, and asked if he wanted water. He did not, he still had his partially filled drink in his hand.
I offered him strawberries from the farmer’s market. His eyes lit up and he smiled and said yes! I gave him a box, placing it on his leg where the hot dogs used to be, and he popped one in his mouth, pushing it towards his back teeth and making content sounds as he chewed happily. He looked good in his hat, waiting for the bus without a worry in the world.
I looked at my watch and said goodbye and picked up my bags and began walking towards home, across Balboa Park.
I didn’t say hello to other neighbors along the way. I thought about what Danny said, and wondered if I would be like him one day, an old disabled veteran with stories to tell but no one to listen. I was lost in thought as I walked home.
But I didn’t think about it too much more that day, because it was almost 2:20pm, and I had a play date with an eight year old girl.
The night, I decided to stop working on the book about my grandmother’s IRA. Danny was right. It wouldn’t have been funny.
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