She was as elderly as I had ever seen, and as kind. Her sweet smile and quiet voice must have made her a favorite grammar school teacher for generations of children. She spoke slowly, and with such dignity. The fact that we did not have the same skin color was totally irrelevant…to both of us.
After a bed bath and the whole lotion, talcum powder, and toothpaste routine, I helped braid her long hair. She chuckled as she told me stories about the styles she or her daughters had been victim to over the years.
Whether or not she believed tales that had been passed down through her grandmother, at least it put a twinkle in her eyes when she shared them with me. She knew wonderfully obscure rules for planting and harvesting, courting, marrying, and having babies, and how to concoct potions for just about every malady.
“Now, honey…” she gently lectured, “I can tell you exactly how to grow out your hair faster. It has to be trimmed on the ends, but only in a specific phase of the moon.”
I was completely mesmerized by this native wisdom. Was it a cultural thing, I wondered, or just something my own grandmother had failed to share? I listened to every word as if she were the smartest person on earth.
To my delight, Miss Emma was my assigned patient as long as she was in the hospital. Taking care of her was like finding an oasis of peace in the middle of a desert of sick folks. She always had a welcoming smile and a bit of insight my nineteen years of living hadn’t provided me just yet. No one ever came to see her, but she didn’t complain. Perhaps she had outlived all her loved ones.
She became noticeably weaker and talked less each bath time. She seemed to slip in and out of another dimension, but always smiling as if she had a great secret.
Sometimes she would sing a hymn, or hum when singing was too strenuous. At first, I assumed she was chatting to herself until I figured out she must be praying. She was always completely coherent if I asked a question.
There was something almost effervescent about her face when she spoke of heaven and how happy she would be to see her long ago deceased husband and her parents. That kind of conversation did not frighten me. In fact, I wanted her to talk more.
It’s as if she had some God-connection I had never witnessed in the few terminal patients on whom I had been privileged to practice my fledgling nursing skills. The woman was so obviously full of true joy, and more than ready for her sweet spirit to leave her worn out body. She was an unforgettable witness to the natural drama of dying.
It wasn’t long before that lovely vision of leaving this world for the next was replaced with a new reality for me. A thirty-something man, built like a football player and looking as healthy as they come, ranted and raved in the room at the end of the hall. He was newly diagnosed with an extremely rare form of leukemia for which there was little treatment back then (that has changed now). When he was told he could die in a few weeks, his anger spewed out red-hot and ugly. I called the hospital chaplain to assist in calming him down. That only enraged him more.
His parents and wife tried to speak words of encouragement, but he would have none of it. The profanity and out-of-control rage were at the opposite end of the genteel behavior I had observed with Miss Emma. Joe refused to be consoled or even listen to doctors, social workers, nurses, family, or ministers. I guess he thought cussing at God was of some benefit…though it seems the dumbest person on earth should know better than that.
Joe did not spend his last days singing or humming or smiling…or praying to reconcile his sins with his creator. He went out blaspheming and cursing the illness that dared to cut his life short. A lot of good that did.
The difference in a human’s journey from the last step here to the first step into eternity is poignantly exemplified in beautiful Miss Emma and poor ol’ Joe. When I think of him, something in me cringes. When I think of her, even after so many years, I always smile.
*Names and a few details changed
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