‘Hello Mr Smith,’ I say. ‘How are you today?’
Eyes bright and his face aglow. ‘My son came to visit me today,’ he says. ‘Everything’s arranged.’
Holding his lunch I walk into his room to place the food tray on the trolley next to his bed.
‘And matron said it was okay for my family to cater. You know, to make it special. To celebrate my big day. No need to bring me lunch that day.’
‘I’ll pop by anyway just to wish you a very happy birthday. So next Wednesday’s the big day?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I’m going to be ninety-five.’
Grinning like a Cheshire cat, he says ‘Oh get away with you.’
The following week…
I could hear the joyful cacophony of noisy chatter spilling out of Mr Smith’s room. Ascending the flight of steps to the first floor, I walk along the corridor to about half the length of the building before passing his room.
I sneak a peek. His son, daughter-in-law and the grandchildren were there. Each wearing paper party hats and making a fuss over the guest of honour who looked fit to burst with familial pride and happiness.
One week later…
‘Hello Mr Smith,’ I say. ‘It’s time for lunch.’
Wearing the air of a different man, he sits slumped in his big, comfy armchair. As I place the food tray on the trolley on the other side of his bed, he looks at where I’m standing, but without recognizing me. His blue eyes once clear and bright now have an opaque film over them.
‘I’ve got nothing left to live for,’ he says. ‘I’ve had my party. Now what?’
Not knowing what to say, I say nothing. Feeling powerless to help I quietly leave his room. Back in the kitchen I say to Cook, ‘I’m worried about Mr Smith. He doesn’t look good.’
A firm believer of the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, Cook was a gruff woman with steel-grey hair. ‘Tsk! You can’t be worrying about the patients! You know exactly where each one is headed when their time is up.’
I nod. Next to the staff room is the laundry and next to that, the morgue.
‘So forget about this place when you’re not here, you hear?’
Working part-time while studying, it is four days before I once more park my motor scooter in my allocated space at the back of the nursing home. I head for the large, well-equipped kitchen. No-one there. I try the staff room.
‘Hi ya!’ I say to the cook. ‘Any news?’
Cook is sitting at one end of the long rectangular table. She takes out a cloth handkerchief from her uniform pocket to polish her glasses. I sense she is stalling.
Cook uses the handkerchief to wipe her eyes.
‘Mr Smith passed away,’ she says.
‘Oh!’ I feel the sting of tears flooding my eyes.
‘What did I tell you about becoming too attached to the patients?’
‘I know,’ I say. ‘But Mr Smith is different. Such a lovely man. Warm and charming.’
‘That he was.’ Cook looks down at her wristwatch. I hear a sniffing sound. ‘Time to start work,’ she says.
Without looking at me, Cook gets up from her seat. Silently, I follow her into the kitchen.
I act on Cook’s advice.
Reluctantly matron agrees to my transfer request. And not longer after my discussion with her, I begin work in the laundry, a job that entails minimal contact with the patients.
But forget Mr Smith? Not likely.
From him I learnt the importance of maintaining forward-momentum. Of keeping one eye on the future while living in the present. My recollection of Mr Smith never stronger than when I heard my dad echo Mr Smith’s words: ‘What have I got left to live for now?’
Quelling the urge to panic I look into my dad’s eyes. Yes, I see grief, but his eyes are clear. Curious. A genuine wanting to know what to do next for his soul mate, my mum, had just passed away.
I take my dad’s hands and hold them in my own. I feel the years of hard, physical labour making the skin rough and calloused to touch. But there is strength in those hands.
I find in my dad what I did not see in Mr Smith on that Wednesday so long ago. Though temporarily at a loss, my dad still had the will to keep going. And thanks to Mr Smith, I know what to say.
‘Find the joy in living.’
Copyright Jo 2013