May 8, 2008

Time To Say Goodbye

The pea gravel gave way noisily, slipping and sliding beneath their feet, sounding, to her, like the snap crackle pop of a mouthful of fresh Rice Krispies. Her husband was just behind her as she strode to the front sidewalk, stepping carefully over the curb that her Grandma had once slipped on, past the painted block of wood one of the kids from the old youth group had made for her dad and to the front door, the front door of her childhood, youth and growing up years. "We're here!" she announced, as she opened the door and stepped into the warm front room. Their living room had changed little over the course of the almost 40 years her family had lived in the little house. Sure, the carpet had been upgraded and the furniture was different, but the basic living room was just as it had been when she had first set foot inside this house as a three year old toddler. The knotty pine paneling gave off a cabin-like feel to the little house, while the entire front wall of floor to ceiling picture windows provided the necessary light; a light, right now, that was a soft, late afternoon glow. To the right was the hallway that led to the den, Mom and Dad's bedroom and the bathroom. To the left was the threshold to the dining room, the kitchen and the back bedroom, which was now known as 'Mom's Room.' It didn't matter if she'd last visited 2 weeks ago or a year ago. It was always the same. One step inside this house and she was Home. "Hello? Mom?"

"I'm in here!" a voice called out from the back of the house. Ah, that would be Mom, back in the kitchen cooking something, or maybe in her room, working on projects. They went in and found her sorting out things in her room. "How was the drive?" Mom asked after she'd given both of them a big hug and, I might add, told the husband how handsome he looked and asked how things were at work and if he had enough time off so that he was able to relax at home.

"Good," she said, "only took three and a half hours." This was a special trip that was going to be beneficial in a couple of ways. They were down to attend the anniversary party that was going to be held that night for his parents. Twenty-five years looked very good on them. She was pleased that he'd been able to get the time off work to go. Vacations, even very short ones, were sometimes difficult to manage with his work schedule. There was another reason for this trip and she was going to take care of that first. "I'll be right back. I need to go see Jen." Her husband looked at her with an obvious "I don't know what you are doing or where you are going" look and she walked out the door.

Across the street, in Mr. Hannebaum's old house, lived a young couple. Well, they'd been young when they moved in with their toddler daughter, but she supposed one would not necessarily call them a "young couple" any more. The toddler was now in her early twenties and it was she who was now the object of the visit. She walked across the street and up the driveway to the house hoping that the young woman had been able to help her. It didn't appear that anyone was home and that was somewhat concerning, but she continued on. An envelope was taped to the front door. She opened it up and inside was a note and a very small amount of dried green plant. She opened the note and read, "For a friend in need."

She had never dreamed that she would be going to the neighbor's to buy pot. More than that, though, she had never dreamed that she would need to do that in order to help her Aunt Madelynne. She hadn't known Aunt Madelynne to ever be sick. This was the woman who went white-water rafting for her most recent birthday, her 75th! The closest she ever came to being sick, she remembered, was when Aunt Madelynne was attacked by a dog on one of her morning runs when she was almost sixty years old! This was much worse, though. For six months now they had been getting used to the news. Stage 4 cancer and, the doctors were guessing, she had a year or two left on this earth. Placing the envelope in her pocket, she crossed the street back to the house. "I'm going on over there now. I'll be back in just a bit."

Ten short minutes later she was strolling along the walkways to the little apartment Aunt Madelynne had called home for the last couple of years. She was thinking back over the last few months worth of visits. She'd been trying to get down every couple of weeks or so. Her boss, the principal of the middle school where she worked, had even given her an indefinite leave of absence so that she had time to be with her aunt. Because of that, she was able to visit more often, most often driving down in the mornings, staying for a couple of hours, and then driving back home. It made for a long day but it was worth it.

The last visit, a week or two earlier, had been particularly poignant. "You keep that, Mel. You're helping me go through this stuff and you can have that. I don't think anyone will care. I used to wear it to football games." They were going through her big trunk and Aunt Madelynne was telling her what she wanted done with all of her most important possessions. Or, at least, oldest possessions. "Oh, this is a purse I used to take with me to dances. You can have it, too." She handed over a small needlepoint clutch and it was received graciously. They went through the trunk, item by item, making a list of everything inside and putting names next to each item. "Now, this is done. I have some other boxes in the closet I'd like to go through, too. Is that ok?" Of course it was. It had been a good visit. They'd finished going through everything important enough to write down and felt a sense of accomplishment. Aunt Madelynne had even given her all of her get well cards and asked her to put them in an album for her so she could easily look through them. Of course she would. She would be happy to. She didn't say it, but most of all she felt honored to be asked. It was something to do, some small way to help.

Back in the present, she walked up to the door and knocked. "Aunt Madelynne?" she called through the door. There was no answer so she opened it and stepped in. "Aunt Madelynne?" she called out again. Alarmed, she heard groans coming from the hallway by the bedroom and bathroom. "Aunt Madelynne." This time it was a statement. An announcement that someone was there to help. She moved quickly to the bathroom and the sight she saw chilled her. Her aunt lay on the floor, wedged beneath and between the sink, toilet and tub. She knelt next to her and gently pulled her from where she was wedged. She sat on the ground with her legs in front of her and, leaning against the tub, pulled her aunt to her, resting her so that the older woman could lean back on the younger one. They sat this way for a while, calmly talking, while she tried to figure out a plan to get both she and her aunt up and back into the living room.

She sat there with her for what seemed like an eternity, but which was probably only half or quarter of an hour. "We're going to get you into the living room, Aunt Madelynne, so you can sit down where it's comfortable. Ok?" Her aunt was all too happy to get up off the cold floor and into her nice, comfortable wing chair. She gently pushed her aunt into a sitting position and looked down at her own front. There was a large bloodstain where her aunt's head had rested. Wriggling out from beneath her aunt, she stood up and helped the older woman to her feet shakily. Supporting her, she walked her into the living room and sat her down. "You have a little cut on the back of your head, Aunt Madelynne. I'm going to get you some ice." Fortunately her aunt didn't notice the bloodstain on the front of her niece's denim overalls and crisp white blouse. She got the ice and the towel and gingerly placed it on her aunt's head all the while thinking about how to call her parents and husband back at the house.

It was here, for the one and only time she could ever remember, that her aunt spoke sharply to her. She knew that she didn't mean it and that it wasn't really her aunt speaking, but, for a moment, her feelings were hurt. She knew she needed to be more cautious. She very gently and carefully repositioned the ice pack and her aunt was back to being herself.

Once she settled her aunt comfortably, she called the house and talked to them once, twice, thrice? She lost count. The last time she talked for a while with her husband, answering his questions. "No, I don't know if she lost consciousness. She doesn't know how long, if at all, she was out. She says she was just in the bathroom and then, next thing she knew, she was on the floor. No, she doesn't know how long she was on the floor. It's a good-sized cut. I can't see it very well. It's probably quarter or half dollar sized. Yes, I think someone needs to come over. I think she needs to go to the ER. Uh-huh. Ok. Good. Bye." "Mom and Dad are coming right over, Aunt Madelynne" she said to her aunt as she hung up the phone. "They're leaving now."

Both of them, relieved, now sat and stood, waiting, watching television. The scene then was one she knew she would never forget for as long as she lived. There she was, blood on the front of her overalls, standing behind the wing chair, her aunt seated upon it, holding an ice-filled towel to her aunt's head, watching Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman sing "Time To Say Goodbye" on a television special performance. Was it a divine message or a cruel joke?

More when I'm finished . . .
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