From the day I first met him, Hank had my heart.
A tall, gracious man, he fairly filled a room with his presence. He was a man of few words and eyes that twinkled when he smiled. Physically he had his good days, and he had his bad days hence his need for Assisted Living. On the days when he felt good, he carried a daily activity sheet in hand and participated in every event that struck his fancy.
I look up just as the gurney carrying Hank’s* covered body is quietly pushed past my open office door. A few steps behind, Jenny* keeps pace her head bowed low beneath her heavy load of grief. She’s chosen to be his friend in his final weeks at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst. I do not doubt for a moment that she did so knowing full well the cost involved.
He hadn’t been at Pinehurst long when he and sweet Jenny formed a friendship. Where you saw one, the other was close by. She took his good-natured teasing in stride; he let her dote over him with motherly concern. Neither said a great deal, seemingly content just to be together.
As their friendship grew, so did the glow on her beautiful face. She fairly radiated like a teenager in love for the very first time. I found them one day sitting contentedly in the theater side-by-side and suspected they’d turned a corner of sorts, easing gingerly beyond casual friendship. The day I saw her hand snuggled safely in his, I knew Hank had won her heart.
I love Jenny. She’s funny, serious, lovely, simple, easy going, deep. She’s short in stature with just enough roundness to make her soft and cushy. More often then not she makes an appearance in the morning with her sweater on upside down, her blouse backwards, or her jacket inside out. She tolerates my doting as I discretely right her garment more for my comfort then hers. She marches to her own rhythm and doesn’t care if her outfit is “just right” or not! Sometimes while I’m busy with my doting, she laughs and tells me about the day she and her caregiver tried to discreetly fix her blouse within the privacy of the elevator. They weren’t quick enough, and, much to her chagrin and the surprise of waiting residents, the door opened before it was back in place.
Jenny often regales me with the stories of her life. She and her husband, Raymond, experienced a full life and deep love. Being a wife, mother and grandmother was her high calling and she embraced it with passion and delight. Her heart was happiest when it beat for others. I loved hearing her tell about a phone call from her tiny great-granddaughter asking her to please come over as she was in sore need of being rocked by Grandma.
Jenny came to Pinehurst when her grief was fresh and her heart raw. When Raymond died her family, wanting her nearby, moved her from the mountain town where she and Ray had lived to the city. She honored me with her pain one evening as we sat across from one another and she told me of a legendary love that ended long before she was ready with the passing of her darling husband. She cried and I handed her tissues until her tears were spent. Its been said, “You share your joys with acquaintances, your sorrows with a friend.” We were officially friends.
Hank became ill and it was soon apparent that he was going to die. Jenny proved the depth of her love and height of her character during those difficult days. Never one to intrude, she would wait until his family left for the day, then she would push her walker to his room on the back hallway, gently knock on the door, and quietly sit by his side. I suspected, and she one day confirmed, that she kept vigil at his bedside so he wouldn’t be alone.”You share your joys with acquaintances, your sorrows with a friend.”
She had lots of time to think as she sat there. I’m sure there were moments when she thought of Raymond. Knowing full well that Hank would die, I sometimes wondered why she chose to willing walk through grief again. She could have walked away. She could have guarded her heart. She could have refused to enter his pain. But she did not, could not, would not. She believed their friendship to be her responsibility to the very end.
Jenny cared for Hank, and when you care for someone you’re there whether it’s comfortable of not. She offered him a sip of water when he was thirsty, encouraged him to eat, “Just a little. There you go. Now one more bite, okay?” They talked about life and I’m sure they talked about death. She listened to his words and she heard his heart. However long the journey she determined he would not make it alone. Sometimes, when words were spent, she simply sat at his side, his hand snuggled safely in hers. Other then to check on their needs from time to time, Hank’s caregiver left them alone.
So, it is really no surprise to see Jenny following the gurney to the van that will take Hank’s body to the mortuary. I hesitate for a moment wondering if she might prefer to be alone, then slip from behind my desk – we are friends and she needs me. The Hospice nurse and Hank’s faithful caregiver are already standing at her side when I step from the foyer, through the front door and out into the sunshine. I wrap Jenny in my arms and tenderly pull her close, “I’m so sorry, Jenny. You were a wonderful friend.”
Somehow, it seems right that she was there to escort him from the building one last time. We watch as Hank’s body is loaded and the door firmly closed. I turn once more toward Jenny; she is doing her best not to cry. A tear then two rolls quietly down her cheek. Someone says, “Group Hug” and the three of us pull her close and hold her tight.
I hand Jenny a tissue for her tears. She smiles as she bends to open the carryall bag on her walker. Inside she has at least a hundred tissues waiting to be used. She chose to be his friend when he most needed a friend. Loving Hank came at great cost. I caught a glimpse of love today and it was beautiful.