Ornamental

                I brought it with me from Greenville.  Greenville, Texas.  East Texas.   Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime away from where I am now.

                There, the first one was held in an oddly beautiful circular chapel, with very little attendance.  I have learned since that even if only four people come, they are the four truly meant to be there.

                I call it The Memory Tree Service.

                The Holidays basically suck.  They especially suck during the first year following the death of a loved one.  Despite what Martha Stewart says, no one’s holidays are a Maxwell House commercial, yet each year we try, egged on unrelentingly by retail and the media, to turn our messy lives into a Hallmark Channel Holiday Movie of the Week.

                Add to this, the chaos that is grief and is it any wonder that many people just want to go to sleep on Halloween and not wake up until after New Year’s?

                My first year as a Grief Counsellor was full of personal loss, though, blessedly, none by death.  The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened.   Yet those holidays also found me faced with the task of helping patients make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet.

                How could I help anyone?

                So, I did what anyone in the 21st century would do.  I Googled.

                First I Googled “memorial services”.  Mistake.  Then I Googled “holiday services”.  Even bigger mistake.  I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music.  Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something that could be accessible by many, of any faith – including the faith of non-faith – of any culture, age or income.  How was I going to create an environment in which it was safe for people to grieve, to openly mourn, when all the world was screaming Ho! Ho! Ho! at them?

                The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.

                I am a huge believer in ritual.  Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level.  It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, through its connection to all other human animals in the world, it transforms us into Mankind.  But we, especially in the West, have done away with ritual.  We have pooh-pooh’d its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, stripping away his feathers and paint, her herbs and bones, and replacing them with Reason and Science and Technology.  The pros and cons of this exchange are for another essay,  but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”

                I was determined to give my wounded patients a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well.

                So was born The Memory Tree Service.

                It is a very simple service.  All it takes is a location (even one without walls), a tree (not necessarily a traditional Christmas Tree), music (absolutely vital), and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember.

                Yesterday, we had a first Memory Tree Service in a little town called Franklin.  Franklin sits in about the middle of the Texas Panhandle, a stereotypically flat land, south of the canyons, north of the trees.  Grassland, farm land, oil land, ranch land.  As with much of the Panhandle, Franklin’s population is largely over 75 years of age, its children and grandchildren having left their stark homeland for cities and towns less empty if also less full.

                This is our first year to take the Memory Tree Service to the small towns like Franklin that surround Amarillo.  Next week, Amarillo will have its fourth annual Memory Tree Service, in a big church with three trees and four years of ornaments.  There will be many people in attendance – first-timers as well as those who have returned with new ornaments for those lost long ago.  There will be doctors and administrators as well as family members and I will be on television a few days before to tell the story of the trees and to invite others to attend.  It will be a bigger service, a longer service, but no more powerful, no more resonate than what I witnessed yesterday.

                The chapel was small – tiny, in fact – no more than eight short pews surrounded by blue-stained glass windows.  Two huge chandeliers, more fitting in a St Petersburg ballroom, provided lighting.  Fortunately, more of their bulbs were burned out than burning, so that the little room glowed lavender, the day’s cloudy light filtering in through blue panes, warmed only slightly by the snaggletooth chandeliers.

                At the front of the chapel stood a six foot Christmas tree, pre-lit with clear, white lights.   From the back rose music.  Each year, certain of music’s significance in ritual, I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix.  I am very careful when choosing the music – knowing that the audience will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they most likely have never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory.  This year’s mix includes songs by Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua, O.A.R., Susan Boyle, The Chieftains, The Beatles, Christine Kane, Stephen Curtis Chapman, EmmyLou Harris and Cyndi Lauper.

                It’s a good mix.

                Also at the front of the chapel, five fat pillar candles stood amid a wreathe of pine and ivy.  The candles were unlit. 

                That’s all. 

                At about ten minutes to noon, people began to take their seats.  Yesterday, in Franklin, I believe we had as many staff as family members – which is a good thing.  Hospice staff lives with death, works with death, as no other medical professionals do.  We don’t fight death, neither do we surrender – we walk beside death, taking cues from our patients and their families, aware of, but unafraid of,   the familiar stranger that stands so near.  It is an honour to do what we do.  It is also more exhausting than anything I have ever done in my life.  So, the service of the trees is as much for the staff as it is for our patients’ families.

                From the back, near the music, I watched them enter.  Two RN Case Managers, a Certified Nursing Assistant, a Patient Care Secretary, all coming from work, returning to work, taking these brief few minutes they do not have in order to remember.  They filled the front pew, holding each other and the candles they will soon use.

                Behind them sat the members of two families – our only other attendees.  The first, a group in front of me, I didn’t recognize.  Franklin isn’t “mine”.  The Texas Panhandle is so large  (an area the size of the state of Connecticut),  so sprawling that we cover it with three teams – four including the In-Patient Unit located in Amarillo.  I am not part of the team that takes care of Franklin, so I barely know the staff, know almost nothing of the patients. 

                But, the second group, a group of three sitting just behind the row of staff, looked familiar.  Especially when one of them, an older woman in the centre, turned around to look at me.  I smiled.  She smiled, cocking her head just a bit to the side in a gesture I knew but could not place.  She turned back to the front, leaning into the young woman to her right, whispering and gesturing with her head toward me.  The young woman turned.  She wore a thin denim trench coat that I knew did little to block the Panhandle wind; indeed, she shivered as she smiled at me.  I returned the smile and as I did, I knew.  I knew who they were, and I felt tears rise in my eyes.

                It had been cold then too, though I couldn’t remember the exact date.  It was a Sunday.  I was on call. 

                “… evidently the wife has been in denial for weeks and now he’s Active and she’s there by herself. “

                “Alone?”

                “Yes, well, for a while at least.  Judy’s on her way, but she’s an hour out.”

                “No other family?”

                “No.  At least not there.  There’s a daughter – in Dallas – I think she’s on her way, but I don’t know for sure.  Can you go?”

                “Sure.  Yes.  Of course, I can go, but it’ll be at least two hours before I can get there.”

                “That’s what I told her, but she still wants someone out there.  I think he may die before you get halfway there.”

                I was still stuck back on the “denial” line as I hung up the phone.  I have a really hard time with the word “denial”.  Nurses who work with me on a regular basis know this all too well and avoid it – this on call nurse didn’t. 

                Denial, in the true sense of the word, is a coping mechanism.  It has become the ugly stepchild of Death, something to be avoided and anathematized.   In reality, denial is sometimes – quite often – the only way to continue to breathe in the presence of Death – especially Death in particularly trying circumstances.  And I believed that the death of a husband after sixty-four years of marriage qualified as a trying circumstance.

                When I walked in, she was no longer alone.  A tall, thin woman, Mrs Baker was bent crooked as a mesquite, she had large soft eyes made even larger by the oversized glasses through which she looked at me. 

                “Come in,” she said, opening the screen door and wiping her nose on an overused tissue. 

                I did.  The house, like so many in the Panhandle, was ranch-style, long and sprawling, with a sunken living room and furniture that had been new in 1985.  It had stopped then, in 1985 — the house had stopped growing, stopped changing, at about the time the only child, a daughter, Cheryl, had entered Franklin High.  Now it was a faded but clean reminder of those years, like the shoulder-padded jackets the woman still kept at the back of her closet, no longer wearing, but not quiet ready to give up.

                I introduced myself.  The woman blinked at the phrase “Grief Counsellor”, then said, “I’ve called our preacher.” 

                “Good,” I said, giving her my best non-threatening smile.  “If you don’t mind, I’ll just stay with you until he arrives.”

                Of course, she didn’t mind.  She was, after all, Southern.  What’s more, she was from the Texas Panhandle – we are hospitable even in the face of Death.

                Her cousin, a small woman with big hair and clammy hands, introduced herself and escorted me into the sunken room, where the three of us stood uncomfortably, Mrs Baker wringing her hands and the cousin, Marielle, saying something about the weather.

                “May I see him?”  I finally asked.  “May I see Mr Baker, please?”

                Mrs Baker looked from me to her cousin, uncertain how to answer.

                “I would just like him to know that I’m here for you,”  I explained.  “If that’s alright.”

                She nodded, wiping her nose again, the confused look on her face reminding me of a ferret or a gerbil – quick, quiet, and afraid.

                “Sure,” she said, stepping up into the hallway.  “He’s just down here.”

                I followed her down the narrow passage, past two closed doors to a wide, low-ceilinged room, much of it taken up by a king-sized bed.  The bed was empty, pushed against the far wall, the wall-side of it stacked with blankets and pillows and clothing, the other side empty, a sheet and thin quilt hurriedly pulled up over a single flat pillow.  Next to that side stood a hospital bed, an “electric bed”, we prefer to call them, attempting to take away the reminder of hospitals and all they stand for. 

                In that bed lay a man.  A very tall man.  Looking at him, I realized why the king bed took up so much of the room – it must have been one of those oversized kings, “California King”, I believe they call them.  I was amazed that he fit in the electric bed; he would not have, save for the collapse of his long body as he approached its end.

                As we entered the room, his wife began to cry.

                “He would hate for you to see him like this,” she said, gently touching his feet, straightening the covers over them.

                “He’s a proud man, I bet,” I said, sitting on the empty side of the king bed. 

                After a moment, Mrs Baker sat in the high-backed chair pulled close to the far side of the electric bed.   Marielle looked at me disapprovingly and remained standing at the end. 

                “Yes, he is,” Mrs Baker said, quietly crying, stroking the man’s large hand with the back of hers.  “Yes, he’s very proud.”

                I looked around the room.  The walls were covered in photographs, some of them very old.  I recognized a war-time one of Mr and Mrs Baker, yellowing umber at the edges.  The walls were noticeably devoid of children’s faces. 

                “You have just one child?”  I asked. 

                “Yes,” Mrs Baker nodded.  “Cheryl.”

                “And they almost didn’t have her,” Marielle interjected.

                “Oh?”  I said, looking at Mrs Baker.  Her head was down, eyes locked on her husband’s unmoving face.  She said nothing.

                “Yes,” Marielle answered.  “They’d given up on having any kids at all, then suddenly there was Cheryl!”  She laughed nervously, looking toward her cousin for affirmation.  There was none.  Mrs Baker opened her mouth as though to speak, then shook her head, tears dropping onto the soft blue bedclothes.

                “Mrs Baker?”  I asked.

                She looked at me across the prone body of her husband.

                “Have you eaten today?”

                “I…,” she tried, wet breath choking off her words.

                “I can answer that,” offered Marielle.  “She has not – not a bite – and it’s after two.  I’ve been trying ever since I got here to get her…”

                I stood up, stepped towards Marielle, silencing her with the unexpected movement.

                “Mrs Baker, I’d be happy to sit with your husband while you go eat something.”

                She looked up at me, grey eyes floating behind her glasses.

                “I… well, I’m not…”

                “I know,” I said, slipping past Marielle to Mrs Baker’s side of the bed.  I put my left hand on her arm, my right on her husband’s long, still leg.  “I know, but it might help Cheryl to know that you’re taking care of yourself.”

                She stared at me silently for a moment and I wondered if she had perhaps forgotten who Cheryl was.  Then she nodded.  “Ok,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.  “If you’re sure you don’t mind…”  She looked back to her husband.  “I just don’t want him left alone too long.”

                “Of course not,” I said, gently squeezing her arm.  “I’m honoured to sit here with him.  I promise to get you if there’s any change at all.”

                She nodded again, then slowly stood up.  Only then did I realize how tall she also was.  What a striking couple they must have been, both of them so tall, so strong, so long ago.

                “You can sit here,” she said, offering me her chair. 

                I moved aside to let her pass and nodded a silent Thank You.

                At the foot of the bed, she stopped, squeezed her husband’s foot and told him, “I won’t be long,” before following Marielle down the hall.

                This is my favourite time.  Alone with the dying.  There is peace, yes.  Usually.  But there is also anticipation and life, great life, and I am nothing if not a lover of paradox.

                The tall man lay on his side, half curled, one arm laid the length of the long torso, the other bent so that the hand was just under his chin.  Is this how he always slept?  I wondered, reminding myself to ask his wife when she returned.  The breath that came and went through his wide open mouth was deep, not laboured, but not restful.  Lungs work hard at death, like a woman cleaning frantically before a trip, believing it will make for an easier return.  Mine caught his rhythm and I breathed with him for a while, nothing more, just two human animals sustaining and releasing life.

                After a while, I took his hand.  He made no response.  Then I began to sing.  I don’t sing to all my patients.  But sometimes it feels as though a song is needed.  Not necessarily “music”, but a song, singing – the human voice chanting words melodically.  Sometimes I sing Gershwin, sometimes The Beatles.  Sometimes, particularly with the old, I sing Amazing Grace — the song I sang to my father as he lay dying, the song I sang to the dying rancher that Sunday.

                His breathing remained the same through the first verse and into the second, then I noticed the change.  The one that signals leaving.  I opened my eyes and stopped singing.

                “Mr Baker?”  I said, squeezing his hand.

                His breaths were short now, very short, his hand growing colder in mine.

                “Mr Baker!”  I stood to whisper loudly in his ear.  “Not yet – please – Cheryl’s on her way – just wait a while longer – Please, wait…”

                I whispered it over and over, rubbing his hand, torn between wanting him to slip away and knowing what it would do to his daughter if he did.

                He stopped breathing.  I sat down, trying to gather the words to tell his wife that I had not called her in time.  Then there was a sound I had never heard before – not a gasp so much as a gulp, as though the man was drinking his soul back into his body.  I looked up.

                His face was still blue, his skin still cold, but breath had returned, air was moving in and out of the rigidly open mouth.   I kissed his forehead.

                “Thank you,” I whispered against it.  “Thank you so much.”

                Before I could sit back down, I heard voices and movement down the hall.  Cheryl had arrived.  I gave the man’s hand a last squeeze, then stepped away from the bed as the others entered.  Mrs Baker, furtive and frightened, followed by a tall, slender younger woman I assumed was Cheryl, and Marielle, dragging two more chairs into the doorway.

                Cheryl, who looked to be about 35, had inherited her parents’ height and her mother’s round grey eyes.  She was pale with cold and grief, a paleness highlighted by a red nose and scarlet-rimmed eyes.  She nodded and smiled her way through the introductions and I, unable to get past them out of the room, retreated to the open side of the king bed.

                Easing her mother into the bedside chair, Cheryl knelt on the floor beside her.  I could see both parents in her as, trembling, she took her father’s hand. 

                “Daddy, it’s me – it’s Cheryl – I’m here… I’m here now.” 

                She was clutching her father’s hand, leaning hard against her mother’s legs.

                “Ken will be in tonight,” she said as though he had asked.  “He loves you – we both – we love you.” 

                Her head dropped to the bed; she sobbed. 

                Mrs Baker put her hand on her daughter’s back, looking across her to me.  Her eyes said all that words could not.  She was begging, pleading, for solace, for understanding, for comfort.

                “Has it been explained to you?” I asked.  “What is happening, I mean.  Did your nurse or social worker explain it to you?”

                Mrs Baker’s eyes darted from husband to daughter to Marielle and back to me.  “Explain what?” she asked in a voice that told me she did not want to know.

                “Has anyone explained what happens when we die?” 

                Marielle gasped and Cheryl lifted her head from the bed to stare at me incredulously.

                “Die?” Mrs Baker asked.

                “Yes,” I said.  “Mr Baker is dying.”

                No matter how often I say it, these words never come easily.

                “Dying?” Cheryl said.  “Now?  Dying?”  A little girl’s panic lay just underneath the thin veneer of a lawyer’s voice.  “How can you know he’s dying?”

                “No one can ever say for certain just how long, exactly when someone will die,” I said.  “But there are changes, biological, mental, emotional changes, that we can see that tell us when death is close.”

                The Baker women looked at me, their limpid grey eyes full of fear, both wanting and not wanting whatever information I might give them.  Marielle looked at me as though I had just grown horns and a tail.

                “Would you like me to tell you about the changes?”  I offered as gently as I could.

                The women continued to stare at me, saying nothing, then Cheryl looked at her father for a long while before turning back to me.

                “Yes,” she said.  “Yes, please,” in a voice hushed as a prayer.

                So, I told them.  I spoke in simple words, staying away from medical jargon.  Too often have I heard nurses, well-meaning nurses, rattle off physiological changes in terms foreign to all in the room but them; too often have I heard social workers speak in euphemisms that do more to confuse than to clarify.  I explained that Mr Baker’s laboured breathing was painful only to them, not to him.  I explained that the gurgling sound he made, the Death Rattle it’s sometimes called, was also painless, was the same as blowing air across the top of a full glass of water, caused by his body’s inability to process any remaining fluid, his inability to swallow hard or breathe deeply.  I explained that soon the silent spaces between his breaths would be longer than the breaths themselves and that they should continue to speak softly to him, to tell him anything they wanted him to know, as he would be able to hear them right up until the end.

                The women took it all in, Mrs Baker constantly blinking, constantly looking from me to her husband, looking for each sign I mentioned, Cheryl’s eyes never leaving my face, as though she was trying to memorize my words in lieu of taking written notes.  Only Marielle seemed determined not to listen, determined to keep Death at bay by the force of her ignorance.

                Cheryl asked a few questions.  Was her father in pain?  Did he know they were there?  Did I think he was afraid?  I answered them as best I could, only with the truth as I knew it, never offering speculation, refusing to patronize or condescend.  I believe that the dying know they are long before we do and I believe that knowledge, rather than causing fear, gives them peace; peace and oftentimes a sense of control they have lost long ago in the struggle against debilitating disease.  I believe what the dying want, far more than anything for themselves, is the assurance that their loved ones will be cared for, that they will not be abandoned, that they will be able to live full and happy lives no matter what.  This is what I encouraged Cheryl and her mother to give Mr Baker as he was dying.

                Cheryl, still holding her father with one hand, wiped her eyes with the other and said in a big-girl voice, “Daddy, I will miss you, we will all miss you, but I promise we’ll be ok.  Ken and I will take good care of Momma – you know that – We won’t let anything happen to her.”

                Mrs Baker looked at me, those saucer-eyes full of fear, asking permission.  I nodded to her and gave her a little smile.  “It’s alright, “ I said.  “You’re not telling him to die.  You’re telling him that you’ll be alright if he does.”

                She nodded, then leaned into her husband’s ear.  I don’t know what she said.  It was hers and it was his; it was the end of sixty-four years together and they chose to keep it Theirs.  After a moment, she sat back in her chair, her shoulders relaxing, her eyes less fearful.

                Almost immediately, the man’s breathing changed, the deep gasps transformed to the shorter, more shallow ones I had heard just before Cheryl arrived.  All three women looked at him, then at me, anxiety returning to their faces.

                “Is he…” Cheryl whispered, her face liquid with tears.

                “Yes,” I said softly, not moving.  “He’s dying.”

                At the word “dying”, Mrs Baker started, a rabbit shooed out of cover by the hated word.

                “Already?” she asked plaintively, as though the sixty-four years together were evaporating in her hands.   Which, of course, they were.

                I nodded.  “Yes,” I said, again.  “He’s dying,” repeating the word, not for emphasis but for clarity.  Death is an event that no one wants to witness or experience, an event that everyone needs to honour and remember.

                She choked back a sob, Cheryl grabbed her hand, Marielle disappeared even further into the chair at the foot of the bed. 

                As if on cue, Mr Baker gasped again, breaths coming only in tiny scoops, like puffs of froth on the tops of waves, disappearing before they reached his lungs.  After eternal moments, he took one last, deep gulp.  Then there was silence.

                That was the last time I had seen them – that Sunday almost a year ago.   Now they were here, in the tiny Franklin Chapel, Cheryl in her stylishly useless trench coat, her mother almost unrecognizable, her grey eyes made up and her lips painted pink.    They sat huddled together, two tall, lovely, bent women, shoulders touching, each clutching a large silver ornament in her hand.

                For that is the central part of The Memory Tree Service   – ornaments of remembrance. 

                The ritual is this:

                The first year, like this one in Franklin, is the only time the tree stands empty – lit with clear, white lights – but devoid of anything else.  Music plays as people enter then the Hospice Chaplain (who, by definition is non-denominational, but in the Panhandle is, of course Christian) offers a prayer and lights the central of the five pillar candles.  A Hospice representative welcomes everyone then introduces each of the Hospice disciplines:  nurses, home health aides, social workers, chaplains, administrative assistants, marketers, and volunteers.  The remaining four candles are lit by representatives of those disciplines while the narrator reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.

                Then comes the placing of the ornaments.

                Each family, staff member, and business partner in the community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one – or ones – they have lost in the past year.  It doesn’t matter whether or not the person was a Hospice patient.  What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants to remember them. 

The ornaments we get are amazing.  They are brought in and flown to us from out of state, out of country, hand made and incredibly expensive, personalized and anonymous, representing every aspect of life and love.  Last year we had our first pet ornament – a bone encased photograph of a beloved Chihuahua.  If you cannot afford to buy an ornament, or if you come to the service and find you want to remember others, we have simple ornaments available to personalize.

                We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your dead loved one.  After the first year, the tree is never again bare.  We begin the ritual with the tree already holding the ornaments from prior years.  This year in Amarillo, we will have three trees, four years worth of ornaments.   Simply decorating them before the service has become a ritual in itself.

                Following the placing of the ornaments, is the Litany of Remembrance.  An interactive piece that I adapted (with permission, of course) from a poem by Rabbi Roland B. Gittleshon:

Litany of Remembrance

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,

Response:  We Remember Them

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,

Response:  We Remember Them

In the opening of buds and the rebirth of spring,

Response:  We Remember Them

In the blueness of the sky and the warmth of summer,

Response:  We Remember Them

In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,

Response:  We Remember Them

When we are weary and in need of strength,

Response:  We Remember Them

When we are lost and sick at heart,

Response:  We Remember Them

When we have joys we yearn to share,

Response:  We Remember Them

So long as we live, they, too, shall live, for they are now a part of us.

Response:  We Remember Them

          After the Litany, comes the thank you, the closing prayer, and an invitation to join the staff for a small reception – tea and cookies and the chance to see again the team that was with you at the end of your loved one’s life.  This is where Cheryl and her mother caught me yesterday.

          We were in Franklin’s First Baptist Church.  Every town in the Panhandle has a First Baptist Church.  You can find it without an address – all you have to do is drive the central streets looking for the biggest building with a steeple. 

          We sat in the “small” reception hall, the one larger than many people’s homes.  I led Cheryl and her mother to a corner table where we sat, me across from Mrs. Baker and next to Cheryl, hoping to avoid others.  As soon as we sat down, Cheryl began to cry.  I took her hand, saying nothing.

          “I’m so glad you were here,” she said, squeezing my hand, trying to smile.

          “I knew you would be,” said her mother, reaching across the table to take my other hand.  “You were our angel that day.”

          “Yes,” Cheryl said.  “That’s what we call you – our angel, our angel sent by God.”

          Even after all these years I have never gotten used to being told things like this, never gotten comfortable with it, and I still never know what to say.  My gut response is to say, “No, no, no – I am no one’s angel!”, but I swallow that response, for fear of hurting them – they are always so sincere, always still in so much pain.  But, I’ve never found another with which I am truly comfortable.  I shake my head, an involuntary gesture over which I seem to have no control, and force myself to say Thank You, feeling the whole time like the worst sort of imposter.

          “How long are you here?”  I asked Cheryl, hoping to change the subject by re-focusing the conversation to the family.  This usually works.  Yesterday, it didn’t.

          “Only today,” she said.  “I flew in this morning just for this, hoping to see you.  I’m flying back to Dallas in a couple of hours.”

          She smiled at me, squeezed my hand again.  Her mother let go my other one to dab her eyes with a cookie-crumbed napkin.

          My face went hot.  I could not meet their eyes.  Both of them so open, so sad, so sincere.  I wanted desperately to run away, to hide, to disappear before they found out that I am no one’s angel, that I am only an incredibly flawed woman who has somehow managed to be lucky enough to be with families like theirs at the end of a life.  But these two would not let me go.

          “If you hadn’t been there,”  Mrs. Baker went on.  “If you hadn’t come, if they had sent someone else, I don’t know what we would’ve done.”

          “That’s right,” Cheryl said.  “I’ll never forget walking into the bedroom and seeing you there with Daddy.  I could tell right away, I knew right then, that I was seeing an angel.”

          “No, no, no,” I said, unable to stand anymore.  “No.”  I was shaking my head so hard that a tear flew onto Cheryl’s hand.   We both looked at it; a bubble of water floating on a vein.   

          “We’re embarrassing you,” she said, smiling.

          I said nothing, afraid to trust any words I might find.  I looked up.

          Mrs. Baker was smiling too, her grey eyes awash, no fear in them at all.  I smiled back then turned to Cheryl.

          “Thank you,” I finally managed.  “If you feel that I helped in any way, then I am so glad, so grateful.  It’s just that you honoured me so much simply by allowing me to be there with you, to be there then.  I am the one who thanks you – both of you – and Mr. Baker, for allowing a stranger to be with you at such a private and intimate time.”

          They both accepted this with quiet grace, with smiles that brooked any tension so that we were able to slip easily into conversation that took us beyond death, into life and laughter.  For an hour we sat, oblivious to anyone else, to all those talking, then leaving around us.   They told me of their trip to Italy – Mrs. Baker’s first time out of the country, of her involvement in the community, in volunteer projects and church groups, of Cheryl’s ability now to work from home instead of commuting in Dallas traffic.  We spoke of the upcoming holidays and they shared the ideas they had about continuing to make Mr. Baker a part of them.

          “I always hear you saying that only his body was leaving us,” Cheryl said.  “And that always makes me feel better.”

          “Yes,” her mother agreed.  “And I always talk to him – out loud – just like you told me to.  Even though it makes Marielle crazy.”

          We all laughed loudly at this, a trio of women, strangers, forever bound.

          “Cheryl,” Mrs. Baker said.  “We have to go – we’ve got just enough time to get you to the airport.”

         Cheryl looked at her watch.  “Wow, already.”

          I looked around.  The room was empty and the hall outside dark.  Someone had placed my coat and purse on a table near the door.  Everyone else was gone.  We stood up.

          “I can’t thank you enough for coming,” I said, taking Mrs. Baker’s hands in mine. 

          “We wouldn’t have missed it,” she said.

          “No,” Cheryl said, bending down to hug me.  “We couldn’t risk not seeing you again.”

          “You’ll always be our angel,”  Mrs. Baker said.

          We walked down the dark hall and out into the grey November afternoon.  Cheryl shivered in her trench coat. 

          “You’d think I didn’t grow up in the Panhandle,” she said, rubbing the arms of the thin material.

          I laughed.  “Some things we forget,” I said.

          “Yes,” she agreed, helping her mother into the car.  “And some things we don’t.”

          She smiled.  I nodded.  She got into the car and I stood still against the wind, silently watching as they drove away.

© s rogers 21 november 2010

2 thoughts on “Ornamental

  1. katley says:

    thanks so much, Kitty for sharing this touching and beautiful story. I love the idea of a memory tree. In our house we have a memory book, in which we keep mementos of people who have passed on. My aunt and a good friend passed on this year. I talk about them and play music that they liked. Oftentimes I feel their presence when I do this, and it’s very comforting.

  2. CatGem says:

    thank you for reading Katley — and thank you, especially for sharing your traditions — am very sure you feel their presence because they are most definitely there 🙂

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