by Elaine Fields Smith.
It was time. It had to be. The eighty-seven year old woman lay in her nursing home bed thinking the time to die was near. Something seemed to be keeping her body alive. Not medications or machines. Sarah had been off those for weeks. Hospice nurses came by to check her feet for discoloration or other signs of impending death, but they were always plump and pink, and Sarah kept breathing. The days of painting her toe and fingernails were long gone, but she remembered her feet in white sandals in summer and her fingers trailing in the water while canoeing with her husband, Albert. One side of her face moved in an effort to smile, however, the stroke suffered a few months before left her smile somewhat crooked. But the spirit inside her broken-down body felt uplifted from the pleasant memory.
Sarah often heard the staff whispers, “How does she keep hanging on?” or “Why is it taking so long?” Sarah’s mind held the same questions. The girls also gossiped about boyfriends and church politics in the small, West Texas town, and Sarah enjoyed listening. Once, when two girls were cleaning her room and one described a rather steamy romantic session with her current flame, Sarah eavesdropped most amusedly. Eager to hear the rest of the story, she followed them to keep listening. Only when she went inside her lifelong friend Loraine’s room and was unnoticed did she realize no one could see her.
She wondered, “Is this a dream? Am I a lost spirit?” Then the hospice nurse would again check the bottoms of her feet for signs of eminent death. The removal of the blanket caused Sarah’s toes to feel cold air from the vent above her bed. So Sarah knew she was still alive. Sadly, the truth was her body was worn out. Over her life, she conquered breast cancer, appendicitis, endured a knee replacement, yearly bouts of hay fever and, frankly, Sarah was tired.
The nurses’ station was one of Sarah’s favorite places to visit because the constant activity drew her there. People were moving around, nurses fussed at staff members, doctors fussed at nurses, and residents fussed at everyone. She often felt like the proverbial fly on the wall when doctors told family members their loved one had passed on. Sarah watched closely to observe the process of dying, but the mystery of death remained unsolved.
Sarah most enjoyed listening to Laverne Boudreaux, the head nurse of her wing. The woman from Southern Louisiana retained her strong Cajun accent among the folksy Texan drawl. Tales of crawdad fishing and alligator trapping were like stories from another world. The semi-arid area of West Texas seemed an odd place for a Cajun, but Laverne loved her job and her home. Sarah often heard her mention how dry the air felt compared to the swamps and bayous of Southern Louisiana. After not seeing Laverne for a few days, Sarah checked the calendar behind the nurse’s station on one of her nightly cruises down the hall and saw she was on vacation for a week.
Sarah, in ethereal form, usually went to the window of her room overlooking a small flowerbed and parking lot. Life went on outside that window. The sun was shining brightly, and a gust of wind swirled a mass of withered leaves from trees preparing for winter. She noticed a pickup truck backing up into a space near her window. A smile lit up the old woman’s face, and she brought her hand to her heart.
“Albert Adkins, you rascal,” she said happily. “Oh, my! There’s my Albert!”
A flood of feelings—love, peace, happiness—overwhelmed Sarah. Thoughts of the young man she married, their years together, and the laughter they shared rushed through her mind. She remembered the joy of hearing and seeing his pickup truck in the driveway when he came home from work each day. His blue eyes always lit up when he saw her, melting her heart every time. The memory of his love for her and hers for him was bittersweet. After sixty-five years of marriage, he passed away in his sleep.
“My sweet Albert. How I miss you, babe. Has it really been two years?”
The sound of her own voice broke the illusion, and Sarah was again in her own body, staring at the ceiling. Was it Albert? Or someone who drives a similar pickup? She remembered a detail about Albert’s pickup and made a mental note to check it should the vehicle show up in the parking lot again. Closing her eyes, Sarah drifted into sleep.
Several nights later, sounds of sirens awakened Sarah in the night. Hurried footsteps in the hall confirmed something was happening. Laverne stepped into the room and saw Sarah was awake.
“It’s all right, honey. Mr. Maynard had a seizure. We had to call 911. It’s procedure. But he passed right after they wheeled him out the door. You okay, Miss Sarah?”
Sarah raised her hand in a thumb’s up sign. Laverne moved toward the older woman and touched her weathered face gently. Sarah grasped Laverne’s hand and held it to her lips. The compassionate touch from another human being uplifted each woman’s spirit. With a smile, the nurse took her leave. Sarah looked toward the window. In the next moment she was looking through the double paned glass at the pickup parked outside. Looking closely, she saw someone was in the driver seat. More importantly, she noticed the small dent in the tailgate where she had backed into a gas meter. Her mischievous Albert had drawn a circle around the dent with a marker and wrote SA beside it to show the dent was Sarah’s.
Again, she brought her hand to her heart. Albert always said she was tenderhearted. She could feel his love. The comfort of that sensation caused her to again fall asleep. But before long, Laverne entered the room. She looked carefully at Sarah and was surprised to see a full smile on the old woman’s face. Wondering how the muscles and nerves had activated after the long months of inaction due to the stroke, Laverne walked to the window. A sliver of the moon was visible in the sky, but the lights in the parking lot prevented the stars she knew were shining from being seen. She remembered other patients who had rallied shortly before death.
Laverne looked back at Sarah, sleeping peacefully with that smile on her face, and then turned back to the window. A wispy movement outside the window caught her eye, but she was unable to identify it. Reaching toward the lock, she released the mechanism and raised the window about twelve inches. After listening for a moment, Laverne walked back to Sarah, touched the old woman’s arm gently, bent down to kiss the woman’s forehead and walked toward the door. Another nurse was standing at the doorway, apparently waiting for Laverne. They walked away toward the nurses’ station.
The next afternoon during the regular daily staff meeting, a review of the previous day was held. The nurse who saw Laverne in Sarah Adkins’ room prior to her death fidgeted in her chair, until curiosity caused her to speak.
“Laverne, why did you open the window? And what did you say to her?’
“Well, after Mr. Maynard passed right outside the door, I got to thinkin’ about somethin’. Seemed to me maybe some folks might not know how to leave. I mean… li’l Miss Sarah saw nothin’ but the inside of that room for weeks. She likely had no idea how to get out of here. So, I opened the window, went to her and said, ‘Ok, honey. I raised the window for you. You can go anytime you want.’ I swear she said the name Albert before I left. That was her husband, I believe. So I guess she found her way out through that open window. I’d be willin’ to bet ol’ Albert was waitin’ out there to greet her.”
Elaine Fields Smith is a published author living in Texas. Her website is www.blazingstarbooks.com.