A new chapter in our lives began six years ago when Mama went to live at Parkview Retirement Village in Sanford, our hometown. That day when we three sisters took Mama and faced the reality that we could no longer keep her safely in her home, was one of the most difficult days of my life. But God gave me the hope I needed when I spotted a verse of Scripture tacked to the bulletin board, Jeremiah 29:11(NIV):
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
At the time, I was surprised by the verse being posted in a residence for elderly people with health problems, a place where they’d spend their last days. How could there be hope or a future in that place of decline?
Over those first months, Mama adapted to her new community. Always enjoying the company of others, she reached her hand out to touch fellow residents in greeting when she passed in her wheelchair. She offered some of her food to the women sitting next to her at meals. Staff loved Mama’s sweet smile and how she often laughed after saying something that wasn’t understandable to others, but seemed to be humorous—a tale she would have told back when her words were more intelligible.
I came to realize that six fellow classmates from my high school, were all experiencing this same phase of life with their mothers. We’d see each other, sometimes bringing in fresh laundry, or in the dining room coaxing them to eat, or pushing them in their wheelchairs. We jokingly said we could have a high school reunion at Parkview.
Mama and I got to know most of their mothers. We’d stop our stroll down the hall and visit in their rooms. I learned that Beth’s mother had been a math teacher and Darrell’s had been in a canasta group in her neighborhood. Visits with Sue’s mom, Joanne were always entertaining as she told us about raising and training dogs. She had a special love for Golden Retrievers, and while Joanne couldn’t remember many things, she could list the names of the five Goldens’ she’d had over the years. When my Madison was living, it was a special joy to take her to visit Joanne who asked me once to let her keep Madison, saying, “You know I’d take good care of her.”
My classmate, Randall, visited his mother on the locked Memory Unit of Parkview then went by to visit his best friend, and our classmate, Bragg’s mother, Pauline.
Back when we were growing up, I would have called her Mrs. Cox. But since meeting her as an adult, befriending her at this point in life, Mama and I know her as Pauline. What I didn’t realize until our visits, was that Pauline and my father were in the same first grade class, in the same school as Bragg and me. I remember the first time she told me about knowing Daddy.
“In our first-grade class he sat in a row to the side of mine. He was nice looking and quiet,” she said. I could imagine our classroom in that school building with the high ceilings and creaky wooden floors, the clanking of the radiators in the winter.
Pauline and Daddy were born in 1920, and now as she approaches her 98thbirthday, I’m amazed at how well she’s doing, at her memory of past and recent events. Pauline’s very kind towards Mama and listens when she tries to add to the conversation.
On one occasion, we happened to visit Pauline when Bragg was there. How good it was to see him, the first time since our thirty-fifth high school reunion. He hadn’t changed much since we were teens, appearing healthy and doing well.
Back in May when Mama and I went to see Pauline, she was disappointed that Bragg couldn’t visit her for Mother’s Day because he wasn’t feeling well.
Then on a Saturday in mid-June, she told us she had bad news.
“Bragg has thyroid cancer. They took him immediately to surgery and have started chemo,” she said. “It makes him really sick.”
We sat there in her room, quiet, Mama watching Pauline as she sat in her chair in shock and disbelief.
“I wanted to go see him but he says he’s too sick. He wants me to wait until he’s feeling and looking better.”
I could only imagine how hard it was for her to not be able to see her son, her mother urge to comfort her boy being thwarted. She said Randall had researched thyroid cancer and it seemed to be very treatable.
“Bragg has always taken such good care of himself. He thinks he’ll be better in a few weeks,” she said, “And he probably will. I just have to wait.”
She talked about him as a child, how they’d always been close, planting the garden together, playing games when he was home from school on sick days. She remembered he’d worn a fashionable-for-the-seventies, plaid tuxedo jacket to our prom. I was amazed that Pauline could still recall the name of the girl who was his date.
The next time we visited her, we joined Randall, and Pauline’s daughter and son-in-law.
“Come on in,” Pauline greeted us, seeing my hesitance to interrupt. “I always love seeing y’all.”
After we settled in, positioning Mama in the wheelchair so she was part of the circle, I sat on the side of Pauline’s bed next to Randall, and he told us that they’d just been getting an update on Bragg.
“He says he wants to go to hospice now, Connie. They’ve done all they can do,” Pauline said, then shook her head and continued. “Sometimes we just have to hope and pray.”
We sat together and tried to rally our hope, commenting that his physicians at Duke did amazing work, that Bragg was getting the best care possible. It was a difficult conversation, but we were all together in that place, providing a community of tenderness at a tough time.
The next week I made a point of inviting another classmate, Donna, to join us for our visit with Pauline. Donna had been Bragg’s girlfriend from first until fifth grade. Pauline had often mentioned she’d like to see Donna. For a short while, Pauline was distracted from her worry by talking about Bragg and Donna’s elementary courtship. Randall joined us that night for our visit and for a little while we got to escape the sadness of Bragg’s illness and tell funny stories of childhood.
The next day, Randall called me to tell me Bragg had gone into a coma. Soon after that, Bragg died. It was hard to believe our classmate was gone.
I felt badly for Pauline’s pain. While it was wonderful that at ninety-seven she had an amazing mental ability, the down side of that was she was fully aware of losing her son. When Mama’s brother had died a year ago, she was spared the suffering of that, the only bright spot of dementia.
The next time we visited Pauline, after we hugged she said, “I just can’t believe it. The doctor said there are three types of thyroid cancer and he had the bad kind.”
She talked about the one visit they had while he was at the hospice facility, when he appeared to be improving. But soon, she returned to her better memories.
“I just have to remember all the good times. He was a wonderful son.”
I think back to the Jeremiah verse and the memories of the past six years since bringing Mama to Parkview. Her future and our future since that time has been filled with lots of interactions in her new community. It has helped me to know my classmates through getting to know their mothers, as we’ve shared this phase of life while we’ve become seniors ourselves.
We have had a ‘high school reunion’ while we’ve provided each other support and dealt with the realities of aging, of losses, expected and unexpected.
How about You?
How have you helped to provide hope for someone in your community?
How has that experience impacted your life?