Ms. Verla had a stroke on Monday.
Things didn’t look good for her.
She kept pulling at that tube that fed fiber up her nose and down into her stomach somewhere.
I asked her if she was comfortable.
She didn’t say nothing.
“Are you hungry?”
‘Got it,’ I thought to myself, ‘uh-huh means yes, awkward silence means no.’
“Have your sons come to see you?”
“How long have you been here?”
…More awkward silence. Oh wait, that wasn’t a yes or no question.
Well what was I supposed to ask a woman born 56 years before me, whom I had seen walking past my parents’ home my whole life pushing her grocery cart full of cans and glass, to make time pass more meaningfully for her?
I knew her name cause I gave her a ride to the recycling yard once.
Only took me about 27 years to get that close to her.
But Monday I was glad I hadn’t forgotten it.
How else could I have found her room at the hospital?
Strange… I thought at least one of her sons would have been there with her.
Later I asked my dad about it and he said the cops were chasing her sons down in the East-side.
Aside from age and socioeconomic differences, Ms. Verla is Black.
Gosh I hope the cops didn’t shoot her sons down, now that I think about it.
But that night at the hospital, when things didn’t look too good for her, the nurse came in and reprimanded her for pulling her tube five inches out.
Then some guys in the hallway radioed the technician responsible for putting tubes up noses for help.
As it turned out, her sons had requested she be taken off life support.
“Just leave her and see what happens,” said the radio call.
I stared out the door with my eyes wide open.
Ms. Verla couldn’t see me.
She ain’t seen nothing for about four months on account of her diabetes.
But her eyes looked pretty wide open also.
The elderly are always more conscience than we think they are.
The food lady came rolling in a food tray for her.
“This is for him.”
“For her,” I said, consternated that her oddly-shaped, languid bulk of a body should be confused with that of the opposite sex.
“Hang in there,” I told her before leaving so the nurse could change out her linens.
…Next night, I expected the worst, but she looked much better.
The tubes had been doing her wrong.
“Hi Baby,” she said cheerfully when I told her it was me in the room.
That was what she always called me, long as I can remember.
“The doctors in the hall are really handsome, you’d like to see them,” I told her.
We both laughed.
“You’re not doing so bad anymore.”
I stood there for a while watching the clock.
Her sons weren’t there again.
Must be terribly boring lying in bed all day all by yourself unable to move or anything.
Or maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be in order to recover.
“You want me to read you the Bible?” I asked.
OK! no more awkward silences.
“You want to hear Amazing Grace?”
Took forever to load on the phone but once it started I could see the look of relief on her face.
Half way through it she held her hand out to me.
Did she want me to stop it?
“Do you want me to stop it?”
She held her hand out again.
Oh. Right. Hold hands.
I told her I’d be back in a couple days to see how she kept up.
When I came to the hospital, the young man at the reception desk told me she had been discharged.
“Do you know where to? I mean, I know you can’t tell me, it’s confidential, but I’ve known her my whole life, and I have no idea where they took her.”
“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely, “I don’t even have access to that information, and if I did, I would not be able to tell you.”
So just like that, Ms. Verla’s gone.
I always imagined myself writing her biography, interviewing her about the way life was in the deep south before civil rights and all that.
I guess it’s common to have regrets left over when long relationships draw to a close.
I’m glad, though, that she was our neighbor all those years, I’m glad she was a part of my life, and I’m so glad I went with her as far down the road as I could.