My mother’s last winter was one that was extra long, extra cold, and had too much snow. She was in a rapid decline after nearly 87 healthy years. The previous summer, she was still able to swim and to drive – freedoms she always appreciated. For more than 30 years, she visited the elderly in several nursing homes. She started out going once a week but as she met more and more people it evolved into several 8-9 hour days each week. She never liked to go empty-handed, she brought home-baked goods for those allowed to have sweets, fruit for those who weren’t. In summer, she brought them flowers from her garden. She had a big basket decorated for the season. Many of the people had terrible dementia and were not able to remember her name so a few started calling her The Banana Lady and it caught on, even with the nurses.
Right after my last year of high school, when I was still living at home, my parents went on a 3 month trip to Alaska. My mother asked me to please go to the nursing home at least once a week and gave me a list of people I needed to visit and try to give them as much time as I could spare. I remember some of the people but only one name. Peggy – she was a woman in her 40s, crippled by MS, unable to walk or talk. She just liked to hear news of the outside world and I could tell her about where my mom was on her extended trip. Others had various interests – one elderly lady liked to talk baseball (of which I knew nothing, I just listened), another who wanted me to read to her from trashy romance novels. Some were fine just sitting in silence and holding my hand. After I made the rounds, I would go downstairs to the common room and play the piano for an hour or two for anyone who wanted to sit and listen. I was never a great pianist, mediocre at best. But I played a variety of classical, jazz and old show tunes. I made mistakes but no one cared. I was glad to do this for both my mother and for those people there but I came home so tired and depressed. I cannot believe she did that for 30 years. Even when my mother traveled, she sent many of those residents postcards along the way with pretty scenery and signed them all “The Banana Lady” except for the people she knew still had good memories and would recognize her name.
I’ve gotten all of course from what I was trying to say, that last winter was hard, not being able to get out on her own. I know she worried about all those people who probably missed her visits. A hospice nurse who was an elderly nun, and nearly as old as my mother, came once a week to make sure she was okay and that her oxygen machine was in order. The nun knew my mother because they often had crossed paths at the various nursing homes. She also knew that my mother was a lifelong atheist and felt the need to apologize if the words “bless you” slipped out or she said anything with religious connotations. My mother laughed at her and said that there was no need to apologize, she didn’t take offense. She said to the nun, “But you must promise that you will never pray for me!” They both had a good laugh over that. Whenever the nun came back again, she told my mother that she had specifically not prayed for her but that she considered her to be more of a Christian than those who claimed the title.
My mother and I spoke once a week on the phone for several hours. I wanted to call more often, especially when I knew she couldn’t get out much but she said to wait until we both had something to say. She did say several times that winter – I just want to see another spring. She did, just barely. She died when the tulips, lilacs, and lily of the valley were in full bloom.