At 11:30 am I was two and a half hours into a visit I thought would be no longer than 90 minutes. As a hospice volunteer, I made weekly visits to patients at a local assisted-living facility, seeing anywhere from two to five people each time. This week I had three people, and since it was rare to find everyone awake, I had thought 90 minutes would be plenty.
I entered the ALF with the Sunday paper from the day before, an assortment of magazines, and a deck of cards. I played Go Fish with Kasey, got caught up on NASCAR with Eddie, and ended my rounds by reading the Lifestyle section to Mary, an 86-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease.
I folded the paper and put it back in my flowered tote, thinking about the very long to-do list waiting for me once I finished my visit. “Well, Mary, I’m glad we had a little time to chat today. Is there anything I can get for you before I leave?”
She sighed loudly, plaintively, grabbing my hand. “Do you have to go so soon? You just got here, and I haven’t had a visitor for months!”
I had been visiting her once a week for the past five months, but my visits were quickly forgotten. I smiled at her and patted her hand. “I’ll be back next week, I promise. You’ll see me soon.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go . . . ” Her voice trailed off, and I found myself transported back to a hauntingly similar conversation a long, long time ago.
August 20, 1987. I was a travel nurse, leaving my parents’ home in Chicago for my next assignment in Stamford, CT. I had filled my car with everything I needed for the next 13 weeks, and was eager to get there and get started on my next adventure. I hugged my parents goodbye, popped my favorite cassette into the player, and hit the road ahead of the morning rush hour traffic.
Two hours later I took the exit for New Carlisle, Indiana. I was stopping for a quick visit with my grandmother, who lived in an assisted-living facility. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was thinking about the more than 750 miles I still had left to drive before my appointment at noon the following day.
I found Grandma in the lobby, sitting in her wheelchair and sipping on a cup of fruit punch. She smiled at me and I hugged her.
“It’s so nice to see you,” she said. “I rarely have visitors.”
“I was here last month, Gram,” I protested, still too young to understand how long a month feels to someone who’s lonely. “What would you like to do?”
“Let’s go outside. The flowers are beautiful.”
“Sounds good to me.” I refilled her cup in the parlor at the front of the building and got one for myself. Gram usually chose a cold drink because she didn’t think the water was hot enough for a decent cup of tea. Her daughter – my mom – agreed. As I left the parlor, I helped myself to a few cookies from the cookie jar. Gram chose the picnic table, and we sat in the sun, nibbling on cookies and drinking punch. We talked about the flowers that had been in her garden, and how these cookies could not compare to her famous Wheaties cookies, the ones she had taught me to make a few summers before.
After about 90 minutes, I felt my attention wandering. I was thinking about traffic, how much I needed to do once I got there, and how late I would be driving that evening. I wanted to get back on the road.
“Well, Gram, I think I need to get going. I have a long drive ahead of me.”
“But you just got here,” she frowned. “Aren’t you going to stay for lunch? We could play Rummikub, and visit in my room.”
“I have to get to Connecticut, Gram. It’s a really long drive.”
“Just a little while longer, then,” she said. “I rarely have visitors.”
I gave in. “Okay. A little while longer. I can’t stay for lunch, though. Besides, I’ll be back before you know it. I’ll be home before Christmas and can stop for a longer visit on my way back to Mom and Dad’s.”
I wheeled my grandmother back into the building, and we spent a few minutes in her room, looking at photo albums and making small talk. When the bell rang, indicating that lunch would be served in 10 minutes, I got up to leave.
“Would you like me to get you settled at your table, Gram? I can take you there on my way out.”
Gram frowned again. “What are a few minutes more for lunch? You really aren’t going to stay?”
“Not this time,” I answered. “I really need to get going.” I wheeled her down to the dining room, maneuvered the wheelchair into her spot, and hugged her tightly, whispering, “I love you.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go so soon.”
“Next time, Gram. I promise we will have a longer visit next time.”
I made it to Connecticut on time, and got started on my latest adventure. I sent cards to Gram, telling her about my new home and that I would see her soon.
Sadly, I never got the chance, because 48 days later, on October 7th, my grandmother died. Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to have lunch with her. It’s something I can’t fix, though, and something I will never forget.
Mary’s voice brought me back to the present, her hand squeezing mine. “Can’t you stay just a little while longer? I never have visitors.”
I smiled at her. My to-do list could wait a few minutes more. “One more story, Mary? Should we read the gardening questions?”
Mary’s face lit up, and she settled back in her bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. “That sounds nice. I have a beautiful garden in my backyard, you know.”
“I remember. Let’s see what should be planted before autumn comes.” I opened the pages and read the Q&A section aloud to Mary. By the time I finished, she was asleep. Ten extra minutes out of my day was all it took to let her go to sleep happy.
I gathered my things and slipped out of the room, taking care not to wake her. I like to think that Gram was looking down on me, nodding her head in approval. I had learned the last lesson she taught me.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Visit Colleen on her Facebook page.
Photo was taken by Karen Keller Capuciati.