Posts Tagged ‘Elders’

Her Still, Perfect Form (part 3-fin)

March 10, 2013


Part 1 here:

Part 2 here:

Part 3

Emma was in the bed by the door, oxygen tubing in her nose, an IV attached to her bruised arm. Her eyes were closed.

“Oh my God, what happened?” Jack asked. “Was she in some sort of an accident? Emma, Sweetheart, can you hear me?”

Emma opened her eyes and gave a faint smile. “Hello Jack,” she said in a whisper.

“Do you know who this is?” Jack asked.

“Of course I know who you are Jack,” she said, before closing her eyes again.

He took her hand in his. “It’s cold as ice,” he said, rubbing it between his two. Then, he bowed his head and said to no one in particular, “Oh God, what happened to my baby?”

The driver put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and said, “Emma fell last week, and broke her hip.”

“Oh my poor baby,” he said. “I know how that feels. I fell on a rail in the coal mines one time and dislocated my hip. It was so painful. Do you think she’s in pain? Emma, are you in pain, Sweetheart?” he asked.

Emma opened her eyes again and said, “Everything hurts.”

“I’m going to the desk to find the nurse, Jack,” the driver said. “You sit here with Emma. I’ll be right back.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jack said.

In a few minutes the nurse came into the room with a syringe.

Jack looked up. “I’m Jack Arthur, Emma’s husband. What happened to her?” he asked.

“She had surgery on her hip,” the nurse said.

“What?” Jack asked.

In a louder voice, the nurse re-stated, “She fell and broke her hip. She had surgery on Saturday.”

“Oh my poor Emma,” Jack said. “Why didn’t someone tell me she fell? When did this happen? I could have been here with her.”

Jack turned back to Emma and took her hand. He rubbed and patted it, watching her face. She opened her eyes and tried to smile at him.

The nurse looked at Jack and then at the driver. “I’m so sorry,” she said, shaking her head.

The nurse injected the syringe of medicine into the IV and left the room.

“The nurse gave her some pain medication, Jack,” the driver said. “She’ll probably sleep now. I think we should let her rest.”

Jack pushed up from the wheelchair with effort. His legs shook, barely holding his weight as he leaned over Emma’s frail body. He stroked her cheek with bent fingers. Putting his face very close to hers, he asked again, “Do you know who this is?”

Emma looked so small and fragile there in the bed with tubes running from her arm and to her nose with oxygen. Her usually neat, coiffed hair was in a tangle on her head and her face was so pale it blended with the white of the pillow case. She looked up at Jack and said again, “Of course I know who you are Jack.”

He had turned his good ear to her mouth after he asked the question. “Of course you know who I am,” he said. “I’m the man who beats you within an inch of your life every day.”

Emma smiled. They both chuckled at the long running joke between them. Jack moved his hand to Emma’s shoulder. It was bare where the faded blue and white hospital gown had slipped off. Her shoulder was thin and fit in Jack’s palm. He rubbed her skin before pulling the gown back up. He moved in close again, right over Emma’s face and said, “I need you to get better and come back to me. I miss you.”

Emma closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again. She lifted her hand with effort to Jack’s head and smoothed his white hair. She put on a weak smile again and whispered, “I miss you too.”

As he had done every night since they were married, Jack kissed her forehead, then, each of her eyelids, and finally, moved to her mouth. Emma lifted her lips to his and they kissed each other three times in succession, gently, with only a breath of sound. “I’m going now so you can rest,” Jack said. “You behave, no running after good looking doctors.”

Emma closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling again at her Jack. “You can always make me laugh Jack, even when I don’t think it’s in me,” she said.

Emma came back to the nursing home a few days later, back to room 242, back to Jack, but with a new diagnosis of bone cancer. Surgery to repair the hip was unsuccessful. Morphine kept her comfortable. She slept most of the time with Jack by her side, holding her hand. His worry was etched in the lines on his forehead. Emma awakened sometimes when he kissed her forehead. She reassured him with her smile.

Emma had no appetite and her disinterest in food carried over to Jack. Staff members encouraged him, telling him he needed to keep his strength up for Emma. That afternoon, Jack finally accepted a bowl of his favorite soup. He bowed his head over the bowl and sent up a prayer for his Emma.

As he brought the spoon to his mouth, soup spilled onto the front of his starched white shirt. He looked down at the stain, and frowned. As he unbuttoned his shirt, his hands began to shake and tears welled in his eyes. He finished stripping the shirt off and wiped his eyes with it, then threw it to the floor. He wheeled to the closet, pulled out a fresh one, struggled into it, and fastened the buttons. He pushed the wheeled table with the bowl of soup on it out to the hallway and closed the door.

Jack hadn’t taken his colored pencils out since Emma fell. His worry had filled him, and his inspiration had slipped away.

That evening, Emma opened her eyes when Jack leaned in to kiss her.

She lifted her hand to his cheek with effort. “You need a shave handsome,” she whispered, smiling.

Jack reached up and put his hand over hers, pulled her palm to his mouth and kissed it. They held each other’s gaze until Emma’s eyes closed.

A little while later, he wheeled over to the night stand and gathered his sketchpad. Going back over to Emma’s bedside, he took out his pencil and began drawing her still, perfect form.

Her Still, Perfect Form (part 1)

February 24, 2013


They liked to sleep in. Emma’s breathing was not the best, and it took her a while to gather energy. Jack just liked to laze in bed. Emma was usually the first one up, walking barefoot in her long flannel nightgown to the sink to wash her face and brush her teeth. She looked in the mirror, patted her hair into place and pinched her cheeks for color. Then, padding over to Jack’s bed, she leaned down and kissed him awake.

Opening his eyes, he reached up, touched her face and said, “there’s my morning sun.”

“Oh stop that foolishness Jack and get yourself up. Breakfast is coming,” she said.

They ate all three meals together in their room at the nursing home. The dining room was just too crowded and they would have to share a table with other people. Somehow, in their sixty-two years of marriage, they stayed selfish enough to be an exclusive pair. They didn’t plan to be childless, but when no babies came, it was alright.

Emma knew how to arrange a dining experience; she had lots of practice. Forty-three years before, she and Jack met at the cafeteria in town. She set tables.

“I knew she was the one for me the minute I looked at that sweet face,” Jack told everyone who met them. “Just look at her. Could you have resisted?”

“Don’t you believe his stories,” Emma said, smiling. “He didn’t really know until the second date.” Then, they both laughed.

Emma pushed their over-the-bed hospital tables together in the center of the room, covered them with a white linen cloth, and placed the vase with a silk rose in the middle. Jack had given her the flower for her birthday. When the stainless steel cart brought their meal trays down the hall, Emma assumed the role of waitress, placing the plates, glasses and utensils in perfect order on the couple’s make-shift dining table. She unfolded the napkin and tucked it under Jack’s chin. His button-up shirts never had a stain.

Jack didn’t have nice shirts until retirement. He was a hard worker, did manual labor, got his hands and clothes dirty. He and Emma lived in West Virginia. He dug coal from the age of ten. Emma had the education. She could read, Jack couldn’t.

The couple enjoyed a small mountain cabin with a garden spot out back. Electricity and running water came later on. Family was close by, and their church was just down the road. They lived in the same small town, in the same house, until Jack retired. That year, their minister died. His widow gave Jack all of the pastor’s clothes because the two men were the same size. Emma liked seeing Jack dressed up, so did Jack. Wearing those clothes made him feel a little closer to God. When he and Emma moved into the nursing home, Emma only packed Jack’s “preacher clothes.”

In the afternoon, when Emma napped, Jack drew. He used colored pencils, and though his artwork was not learned by formal training, he showed natural talent. “My Mama used to ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ over my pictures when I was a boy,” Jack said. “She would take me outside with my paper and pencils and point to trees, flowers, mountain ranges, creeks and animals for me to draw, then she’d tack the pictures up on the wall at home. She’d show them off to anyone who visited. Weren’t for her, it never would have amounted to much. Heck, didn’t really amount to much anyway, but people from as far away as town came up to the house for me to draw them. I even made a little money sometimes.”

Several of Jack’s pictures were framed and hung on the wall in his and Emma’s room. The one of Popeye was his favorite. “I always loved ‘ol Popeye. He’d pick up that can of spinach and get so strong, nothing could beat him or take his girl away,” Jack said.

Some of Jack’s projects took days, some only hours. He drew cars, trains, mountains, birds and houses. Sometimes he sketched staff members’ faces to give away as a thank you for being kind. A nursing assistant asked him once, “Where are your drawings of Emma, Jack?”

“I never drew Emma,” Jack said. “Oh I tried. Just couldn’t do her justice. Look at her. Only God could draw something so beautiful, so I drew love birds instead. That one’s her and this one’s me,” he said pointing to the pair of framed birds on the wall.

When people came to visit, Jack looked over to Emma for all the answers. His hearing was not so good anymore, and of the two, he considered her the smartest. He always had. She smiled graciously, and carried the conversation, while he smiled and nodded. Emma’s steadfastness reassured Jack.

One Saturday afternoon Jack came out of the room looking for Emma. He wandered the long hallways, knocking on doors, peering inside to see if she was there. That night, his usual sound sleep was interrupted. He got himself up in the wheelchair to check her bed. She was gone. He wondered where she was, what had happened to her. It wasn’t like her to be out after dark, gone in the middle of the night. He wheeled to the door of the room and asked a nursing assistant passing by if she had seen his wife.

Part 2 here:

Working Thanksgiving

November 26, 2011

Nursing homes never close.   Weekends and holidays are included in the work schedule.  The most popular holidays to have off are Christmas and Thanksgiving.  New Year’s Day is special to those who party the night before.

I worked Thanksgiving last year. It was my turn. We planned our meal at home around my absence. I was annoyed. Holidays are family time and I hate missing my routine, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in my flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers, spending most of the day in the kitchen, basting the turkey, mixing batter for pumpkin bars, smacking the boys’ hands as they dip a finger for a taste, peeling ten pounds of potatoes, listening to Johnny Mathis croon Christmas tunes, and later, after the feast and dishes, football games.  Next year, I thought with a sigh.

Oh well, I reasoned, go in early, leave early, dinner with in-laws by four o’clock, help with dishes at their house, and finally football at home. The day won’t be a total wash, but not what I love.  I hit the time clock by the nursing home kitchen door at seven twenty-six, making Thanksgiving a work day.

The halls were quiet, not like a usual nine to five day.  I got the daily newsletter printed and delivered. As I visited room to room, my elder friends greeted me with “Happy Thanksgiving, It’s so nice to see you here today.”  

Most every room’s television displayed marching bands, floats with popular singers, and giant helium balloons coming around the corner onto Sixth Avenue from Broadway in New York City.  Mary and I watched  Kermit the Frog wave to the crowd. Down the hall and around the corner Olive and I laughed at Ronald McDonald as he looked to be running to catch up to his fellow helium-filled buddies.  I sat on Earl’s bed while we watched a marching band move into formations while keeping tune. Earl kept time with his right foot tapping on the linoleum floor tile.

I dropped by the kitchen to see how the holiday dinner was coming along.  Three, golden brown twenty pound turkeys lay side by side in baking pans, Raymond, the chef, kept an eye on the candied yams, green bean casserole, oyster dressing, and glazed carrots.  He was chopping cranberries for the relish and had a pot boiling on the stove for ‘real’ mashed potatoes. Yeast rolls rose in the warming tray and gravy bubbled in a pot.  Twenty-five homemade pies cooled on the rack. In my thirty years, I’d never seen such a feast. I smiled with anticipation for the elders and went back upstairs to transcribe the list of “things we’re thankful for” residents had turned in the week before.

Robert, the maintenance assistant walked into the Activity Room for his break, and put on a pot of coffee.  He was working Thanksgiving day too. As the smell of brewed coffee filled the room, Robert pulled up on the computer and drooled over several John Deere four-wheel drive machines with enclosed cabs.  Robert’s a farmer at heart, keeping up with a small cattle farm single-handedly in addition to his forty hour work week at the nursing home. 

The elders love Robert.  They’ve adopted him as their son.  His daily rounds include a tool box filled with wrenches, hammers,  hugs, cups of coffee,  and often, just five minutes of time to listen to stories. 

“What are you doing at noon?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, probably checking the tags on fire extinguishers, why?”

“Can you carve the turkeys in the dining room?”

“Sure,” he said. “Where’s the knife?”

We searched the cabinets and finally came up with a fairly large, straight edged knife.

“Can’t cut hot butter with this thing,” Robert said, running his thumb across the dull edge. “Let me go find a file.”  Suddenly, he was in his element, finding an implement he could sharpen, like a blade on his hay mowing machine.

Robert and I met upstairs at 12:00 sharp. There are sixteen tables in the dining room. Sixty-four people, dressed in their finest, bowed their heads as Nannie gave thanks.  “We gather today to count our many blessings,” she said. “Thank you Lord for everyone here, for the hands that prepared this meal, and for another year of life. Please help us remember to appreciate each day we are given and to love those around us. Amen.”

Robert carved, and the rest of the staff members served the feast.

The large, flat screen television over the fireplace is perfect for football. Dallas and New Orleans faced off and old men stared intently at the action. One shook his fist at an Umpire’s call. Several cheered when their team scored, and a few on the losing side cursed. It was just like home, only with wheelchairs.

I brought the craft materials into the dining room where several ladies helped me glue the Thanksgiving quotes onto a tri-fold poster board. Earlier in the week, each elder had been given a strip of paper. “Think about what you’re thankful for,“  I said.  We’ll post them on Thanksgiving day for everyone to read.”

“I’m thankful for my health.” –Albert

“My children.” –Jim

“The staff here.” –Mary

“Science Club” –Sonny

“To have won the battle against Cancer.”—Hazel

“Friends” –Anne

“I wasn’t born a woman.” –Robert

“Having enough food to eat, and a roof over my head.” –Patty

We unfolded strip after strip of paper, transcribed with so many blessings in shaky handwriting, by nursing home residents who still felt thankful.

“You write one,” Constance said to me.

I took one of the strips and wrote in bold letters:

Spending Thanksgiving Day with my Friends here.

The Importance of Apples

November 20, 2011

Margaret-Dawn Thacker

Usually, when corporate executives visit the nursing home, the experience raises everyone’s blood pressure. Their expectations seem so unrealistic. After all, they sit in some office somewhere and make policy. We are busy taking care of basic needs and attempting to add a little light into old, frail lives.

This week, the biggest of the corporate folks arrived in force. The company has re-organized due to cuts in the Medicare program. The new directors are moving across country, visiting all the homes, offering assistance, best practices they’ve seen on their travels. They’re asking us questions. They’re encouraging us to share our best practices with them. They’re listening.  Our blood pressure has leveled off, maybe even decreased.

Prior to their visit, sometime over the weekend, someone dropped off a bushel of apples from a local orchard. They were on my doorstep at work Monday morning. I was excited. Here was an unlimited variety of meaningful activity for my elders, a week’s worth of fun, pies, apple butter, applesauce, dried apples, sliced raw apples, juice running off whiskered chins, wrinkled hands peeling, shared recipes, stories of orchards, harvests, and senses enhanced by cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and real butter.

“You cannot use those apples,” someone said. “They haven’t been FDA approved.”

Something stopped me from getting rid of them. I left the basket of apples on the counter. When staff asked about them, I said I had a plan for them. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, but I knew there was one.

The corporate wheels rolled into the parking lot at varying times on Tuesday afternoon.  They converged in the conference room as our staff whispered, and wondered, and wrung their hands in anticipation. The surface of the place shined, the halls smelled of aerosol orange essence.

There were a whole lot of us, so we met in the activity room. It’s the place where residents feel most at home. There’s a green Formica-top kitchen table with chrome legs, a distressed white-washed kitchen cabinet housing mixing bowls, spices, a flour sifter, a Rumford baking powder cookbook and a china tea set.  Against one wall, a wooden workbench sits under a pegboard with tools attached, a hammer, wrench, oil can, spark plug, fan belt, garden hose sprayer, carpenter’s level and a screwdriver. The piano sits against the other wall with music books. Spider plants and terrariums enjoy the sun from stands in front of the windows. A couch, love seat, and glider rocker sit in a group encouraging rest or reading of the books and magazines on the shelves. It’s a place I’d want to go to find refuge if I lived in the nursing home.

 The VP had us sit in a circle. He introduced himself and asked each of us to do the same and tell everyone how long we’ve worked here. There are five of us who have been working here over thirty years. We are considered the elders of the staff. The VP was in awe of our longevity. He shouldn’t have been. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. These elders are our hearts.

When the meeting disbanded, when we understood the goal, the company director of dining services walked over to my basket of apples.

“You planning some apple activities this week?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“And you changed your mind?” she asked.

“They’re not FDA approved,” I said.

“Let’s see,” she said taking one from the basket, washing it thoroughly with soap and water and biting into it. “Seem like perfectly good Granny Smith apples to me, great for cooking and eating. They’d make wonderful pies. Just wash them well,” she said, turning toward the door.

Celia and I peeled a colander full of the crisp green apples this afternoon. She had her own knife, the one she keeps locked in my desk drawer. We tried to outdo each other in making the longest spiral of peel. She beat me hands down. I cored and sliced the juicy quarters into one-eighth inch slivers.

Betty gave up her mother’s apple pie recipe. It took very little coaxing and brought a warm smile to her face.

Robert, a former chef, explained the difference between nutmeg and cinnamon and how much to sprinkle over the pie because Betty’s mother didn’t measure, she just sprinkled.

Elise, whose fingers don’t work like they used to, sugared the apples, and Tessa fussed over the crust.

Ethel tasted the fruit, extolling its tartness and declared it “a good cookin’ apple.”

Laura, who has difficulty finding the words for her sentences, read each step of the recipe with her glasses perched on the end of her nose.

And Sonny, who’d never baked anything in his life, measured out the butter because he didn’t think it was fair to eat a piece of the pie if he didn’t do something to help.

With the oven preheated to 350, two apple pies slid inside and onto its metal rack. We waited the hour of baking, telling more stories of pies from the past, of other mother’s recipes, of days in kitchens from years ago. The scent of cinnamon and nutmeg, butter and sugar filled the room and drifted out into the hallway. Staff members drifted back to us to see what smelled so good. They wanted us to start a bakery. They complimented the group on a job well done.

The only thing better than warm apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream is the feeling of accomplishment in making the pastries from scratch. If you don’t believe it, just ask Celia, Betty, Robert, Elise, Tessa, Ethel, Laura and Sonny.

The Couple

June 1, 2010



Gillian saw darkness, felt it pressing on her chest. She heard voices calling for IV’s and stretchers, backboards and help. Above the blare of sirens someone said, “Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?”

Gillian felt arms reach under her, lifting her onto something hard and flat. A man’s voice, very close to her ear, said, “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask – to help you breathe.”

A radio crackled with medical terms and Gillian drifted back. She was lying in a moving vehicle and couldn’t understand why. Gillian continued to fade in and out of consciousness until the ride ended. Then she heard the doors open and felt the stretcher being lifted and unfolded. Her chest hurt. The automatic doors of the ER slid open and bright lights blurred overhead. Gillian was in a hallway. Her glasses were gone.

“Patient name?” someone asked.

“ID says Gillian Hill,” answered another.

“Anything else?” asked the first voice.

“Several pill bottles found in her purse – Digoxin, Elavil, Lipitor, Toprol.”

“Bag that. Right now she’s critical. Surgery two, stat,” ordered the first voice.

Gillian could tell people were hovering over her, pulling equipment, lifting her onto a table.

She felt her shoes slide off, then her socks. The cold metal of scissors slid along her leg as someone cut through her pants. Then she felt John’s sweater lift. Someone was cutting John’s sweater from her body. She wanted to scream “No!” but couldn’t. She wanted to tell them they couldn’t take it. She needed his sweater. Then it was gone. John’s warmth was gone and Gillian felt colder than she ever had.


Gillian fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. Their thick lenses magnified her faded blue eyes. She pushed the covers off and lowered her stiff legs over the edge of the mattress. Her knees creaked. John was standing there, with a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. Gillian reached out and her fingers covered his before she took it. 

“Mmm,” she said, “smells just like heaven.” The warmth of the ceramic eased the arthritic ache in her hands.

“Yep, good and strong, too.” John leaned down and kissed her softly.

She tasted the coffee on his mouth and smiled. He was tousled. His sparse, silver hair stuck up in all directions and his eyebrows needed a trim. He hadn’t put his teeth in yet and his thin face looked all the more gaunt. The treatments had taken their toll, though his blue eyes still twinkled – the same eyes that drew her to him fifty years ago. Their wedding picture on the nightstand was black and white, but Gillian remembered the colors.

“I’m going for a shower.  What time is your appointment again?” he asked.

“At 11:00 , but they want us there a little early to fill out more forms. You go ahead and turn on the water. Let it get warm and I’ll get us a refill. Be there in a few minutes.”

“All right,” he said.  “I could go for some –”

“Oatmeal? That would be good,” she answered.

“Good, I think we have –” he started again.

“Raisins, yes we do. I saw them yesterday when I was looking for your ginger ale.”

John shook his head and smiled. “Always amazes me how do you do that,” he said.

“Do what?” she asked.

“Never mind, here’s your robe,” he said, holding it up for her to put her arms in. She tied the sash and reached for her cane before shuffling out of the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. She heard his slippers scuffing on the floor behind her as he made his way to the bathroom.

Gillian followed John’s path of discarded clothes. For someone so organized, he never picked up an article of his clothing. It was harder and harder for Gillian to bend down and scoop up his underwear and socks. She had a good mind to leave them until he ran out of clean ones. “Raisins,” she reminded herself.

John was already in the shower, washing, when she returned. Steam fogged her glasses and she set the mug down on the vanity and slid open the shower door. John handed her a washcloth. He had already soaped it. She felt the hills and valleys of vertebrae along his spine as she rubbed him with it. She remembered when the muscles of his back were strong and supple under her hand. She remembered when her fingers were long and straight. Time had changed their bodies, but not their touch. She scrubbed the right side of his back, just under his shoulder blade.

“Ah, that’s it. You’ve got the spot.”

He turned, rinsed, and stepped out of the shower and into the towel Gillian wrapped around his middle. She hugged him tight, then slipped off her robe.  When she turned to face him, he waggled his bushy eyebrows and smiled a lecherous grin, growling low in his throat.

“I’m glad you put in your teeth,” she said. “A toothless tiger is not very sexy.”

“It’s not my teeth you like, Jilly.”

Gillian made a sneer, but John took her hands and held her close. For a full minute they embraced, standing in the bathroom, the shower running and the fan spinning. “We’ll always be together, Jilly, I promise.”

“Here,” she said, handing him the mug of coffee. “This will have to quench your thirst. We don’t have time for anything else this morning – and you have to eat your fancy breakfast.” 

She flashed a smile then stepped into the shower, soaped the washcloth and handed it to him before turning. He chuckled as he washed her back. It seemed he knew just the right spots on her, too.

Gillian dressed in a comfortable pair of pants and button-up shirt. Her gray hair was straight, cut short, in a bob that would have been a cute style, except this morning she pulled her bangs severely to the side and anchored them with a pin. Her thick ankle length socks were visible through the buckled sandals she wore.  The socks were loose from years of wear. Before she and John left the house, Gillian asked for the third time, “Did you turn off all the lights?”

“If it isn’t the coffee maker, it’s the stove, or the fan in the bathroom. Yes Jilly, I turned off the lights.” John sighed deeply, holding the front door open for her.

“Don’t forget to lock the door,” she said.

The appointment with Dr. Stevens was a referral from Dr. Davis. One day, not too long after John’s treatments started for the lung cancer, Gillian experienced a shortness of breath that was unusual for her. Small exertions winded her to the point that she’d have to sit down and rest before finishing a simple task like washing dishes or making the bed. John was concerned about her heart. 

“You are going to the doctor, Gillian. I’m worried.”

“I’m just a little winded, John.  It’ll pass.” 

But the condition continued, and John made the appointment.

Tests revealed no conclusive reason for Gillian’s difficulty breathing. Her heart was strong and her lungs were clear. She had no wheezing that would suggest asthma, and no signs of bronchitis.

During the check up, however, Dr. Davis noticed a spot on Gillian’s forehead.

“How long has this been here?”

“What?” she was puzzled.

“This spot on your forehead.”

“I haven’t noticed a spot. Where?” 

Dr. Davis pointed to the area in question.

“Oh, that. I’ve had it awhile. Just an age spot. I have them all over me. I tell John they’re my beauty marks. I should be gorgeous by now.”

“This spot concerns me, Gillian. I think it might be an issue. I want to send you to a dermatologist who can tell us some more. I’d like her to look at it.  I believe it needs to be removed.”

The biopsy was done three days later. Gillian received the call from Dr. Stevens’ office a week after that.

“The lesion is malignant. We need to schedule you for surgery to remove it.”

Gillian couldn’t speak. She handed the phone to John, and sank down into her rocker. She had cancer. She had been strong for John. Now, she felt her own strength start to slip away. She heard John say, “Okay Dr. Stevens, we’ll be there. Thank you.”

Today’s appointment was for the surgery. Here they were, facing another threat, and another worry.

At the parking lot, John circled, looking for a vacant space close to the front of the office building. All the handicapped spots were taken. 

“I know all those people can walk,” John complained.

“Just  park, John.  I don’t want to be late and you going around and around is wasting time.” 

This happened every time they went somewhere.  He had to search for the closest space. Male pride and territory, she thought.

“Look, there’s someone pulling out of a space, right there, in front,” he announced, whipping the car to the right.  Gillian braced herself, holding onto the door handle as the car careened, sliding her over toward John.  Words came up, but she bit her tongue to keep them from spilling out. 

They walked up to a metal and glass door marked “Dermatology/Surgery.” The entrance was tall, reaching almost to the second floor and wide enough for two couples to pass. They stood side by side, looking at the sign.

“Not the place for us, they must treat giants here,” John said. He grasped the handle and pulled, using his cane for leverage. His breathing was labored due to the tumor and his weakened condition. The exertion taxed him, but he held the door for Gillian.

The waiting room was almost full, and the only young people in the office were staff. They worked behind a glass partition, like the barrier protected them from age, or the skin cancer that dotted the assembly of ex-sun worshippers on the other side.  Staff busied themselves, not looking at each other. They seemed like drones in a beehive, scurrying. The waiting area was a contrast, people sat silently, staring straight ahead, or thumbing through old magazines, not really reading. They flipped time away until they were called for a prognosis. John and Gillian stood just inside the entrance and surveyed the room. It felt like they were on a precipice, waiting to fall into a world of worry.

John spotted the only two chairs available side by side and pointed them out to his wife. Eyes turned to the couple as they walked into the waiting room. Gillian was taller than most women of her generation. She was thin and had taken on the square look that comes to a woman as she moves into later decades. She had pilfered John’s dark cable knit sweater from his closet earlier in the fall. She wore it all the time now – since his diagnosis – and it hung on her frame. The sweater was too big, but cozy, and it made her feel like she was wrapped in John’s warmth.

John was also slim and not much taller than his wife. He wore a denim button down shirt, tucked into faded Chinos. His black belt was thin. His hair was silver, combed back from his forehead and neatly trimmed, but sparse from the chemo treatments. John wore socks like his wife’s and the same kind of leather buckle sandals, only his were heavier, dark and wide. Along with his cane, he carried an attaché case with handles and the round imprint of an insurance company’s logo.

The couple was a matching pair, like a set in Gillian’s salt and pepper shaker collection. People had commented for years that John and Gillian looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife. When Gillian looked back at their early photos as a couple, they didn’t resemble each other. Funny, how almost fifty years together could mold two people into one shape. Yet that seemed to be the extent of their likeness. John was the logical one. He balanced the checkbook to the penny, kept his tools organized on peg boards, and put up with her intuition but didn’t understand anything about it.

Gillian was the emotional one, an artist, disorganized and flighty. John often said, “I got caught up in the whirlwind of Jilly and ran behind her picking up pieces to save in my pockets until she needed them again.” He carried his cane in his right hand, she carried hers in her left.

The pair walked to the seats and John helped his wife settle into one. A minute later, he came back with a clip board. She took his cane and leaned it against hers.

“There are four pages here,” he said.

“Did you bring your glasses?”

He patted his front shirt pocket. 

“I must have left them on the kitchen table.”

“Here,” she said, taking hers off and handing them to him. He put them on and began to fill out the papers.

Midway through the first page, he reached for his case, opened it, and pulled out a flat wallet. He slid out several small cards, and copied information onto the forms. Every once in a while he would turn and study her, as if looking would help him remember the answers, then he went back to writing.

“Did you bring the medicine bottles?” he asked.

“Here they are,” she said, taking them from her purse. He looked at the four brown bottles one at a time and copied their names onto the form, calling them out so she could tell him what they were for, “Heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, depression.” 

He limped the clipboard back to the receptionist and returned.

“Jan called this morning while you were finishing in the shower,” he said. “She wanted to know if we needed a ride. She rattled off about twenty things she had to get done before the kids got home from school. I told her we’d be fine.”

“Those kids and that husband of hers are going to kill her,” Gillian said.  “It’s no wonder she’s so thin and doesn’t sleep at night. She worries too much. Why did you tell her we were even coming for this today?”

“Well, I think she needs to know. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“Of course I would, but you know how she worries and frets. I just hate to add one more thing to her plate. She’s worried about Jim’s job. They’re downsizing, and Sam is failing something he has to pass to graduate. Ellie’s running around with that boy who’s too old for her with tattoos on his body and earrings all over his face, and that damned dog of theirs just had puppies. You just shouldn’t have told her, that’s all.”

The nurse approached and motioned for them to come to the examination room. John stood, took his cane and slipped his hand under Gillian’s arm.  She pushed up from the chair and rocked forward a couple of times before gaining enough momentum to get up. He steadied her and then slid his case under his arm and placed his free hand on the small of her back.

“Hello, Mrs. Hill. Good to see you again.” said Dr. Stevens, a young woman.

 “Hi, Dr. Stevens,” John said. “Thank you for scheduling the surgery so quickly. Gillian’s worried herself silly since you called.”

“It’s melanoma,” the doctor said. “It’s the most dangerous of the skin cancers. The cells that produce skin pigment start growing aggressively. We see melanoma more in fair skinned people with blue eyes, like you Gillian. This lesion is fairly large. I would say it’s been here awhile. Is that right?”

“Yes, but I just thought it was an age spot,” Gillian said quietly.

“The most important thing is that you are here. We can remove the lesion and treat the area,” said Dr. Stevens. The surgery shouldn’t take too long. Sit here Gillian, and let’s take a look.”

Dr. Stevens adjusted her glasses and snapped on rubber gloves.  She pressed on Gillian’s forehead and bent close to examine.  Gillian could smell mint on Dr. Steven’s breath. It was fresh, but reminded her of a medical office.

“What’s going to happen?” John asked.

“We’ll remove the lesion, freeze it and slice it into small sections, looking at the cells under a microscope for any malignancy. Hopefully, when we reach the bottom slice we see no more of the bad cells. If we do, though, we’ll remove more tissue and repeat the process. We only need to use local anesthetic, Gillian, you’ll be awake the whole time.”

“What happens after the lesion is gone?” asked Gillian.

“Well, depending on the depth of the tumor, we may need to follow up with treatment, radiation or chemotherapy, sometimes both.”

“Oh,” said Gillian, her eyes downcast.  She had seen the effects of the chemo on John and couldn’t fathom how they would manage treatments at the same time. She felt like the chemicals were killing John slowly, right before her eyes. He was brave and put up a good front, but his thin, bent body told the truth. Gillian wasn’t afraid of dying. She worried about not being able to care for John. She looked at him, tears welling in her eyes. He reached out, squeezed her hand and gave a smile. Gillian took a deep breath.

Dr. Stevens patted her shoulder and said, “Let’s get started, alright? 

“Can I stay with her?” John asked, not letting go of Gillian’s hand.

“Of course,” said Dr. Stevens.

When they left the examination room two hours later, a large bandage graced the middle of Gillian’s forehead.

“Do you have some aspirin with you?” John asked her as they approached the elevator. “My head is killing me.”

She opened her purse and rummaged around until she found the small white bottle. She opened it and spilled two tablets into his open hand. He threw them back and drank from the fountain by the elevator.

John pushed the button and they waited.

“You call Jan when we get home and tell her,” Gillian said.

“Okay,” he replied.

They walked out of the medical office and turned left onto the sidewalk. Gillian reached out with her free hand and grasped John’s. Their fingers tightened. Together, they walked slowly to their car, an older Chevy, its blue paint, faded like her eyes and his pants.

John opened the passenger door. Gillian put her cane and his case inside. Then shestraightened up and turned around to face him, backing herself up until she felt the edge of the seat behind her. She stopped and looked up at John. He rested his cane against the open door and lifted his thin hands to frame his wife’s face. He leaned close and kissed the bandage on her forehead.

“We’ll get through this together, Jilly, I promise. We always do,” he reassured her, gazing into her eyes. He helped her into the seat and closed the door, then walked around the vehicle and got in. “How about a cup of coffee?”

“Sounds like just what we need. We’ll share one.”

John pulled up to the intersection. He put on the left blinker and accelerated, proceeding through the turn that would take them to their favorite coffee shop. He glanced to Gillian, she was still smiling, even with the silly bandage.  He didn’t see the tractor-trailer coming. John’s light was green.


One second Gillian was smiling at John and the next she saw the square glass headlights and silver grill of the truck.  Her mouth opened as she lifted her hand to point. John turned to look just before it hit them. Gillian screamed.

Darkness. Darkness and then chaos. Sirens wailed and men yelled. The smell of gas so strong it burned her nose and throat. Heavy footsteps ran on the pavement. No focus. Blurry figures bending close. The sound of metal wrenching. She thought she heard John say, “Gillian.” But his voice sounded weak and then it was gone. Big yellow boots. Flashing lights. Gillian closed her eyes, trying to make sense of it. Where was she? What happened? Where was John? He always steadied her when things were confusing or chaotic.  His voice soothed her and his touch calmed her. Where did he go?

“He’s not breathing, his heart’s stopped. Give me those paddles,” Gillian heard a man say. “We’re losing him. Clear –”

Then a jolt. Pain in her chest stole her breath and Gillian knew. John was dead. She felt it. She didn’t need to open her eyes and see. 

Gillian could feel John’s spirit rising from his body and pulling hers with it.  “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.”


He heard Gillian and she was mad. “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.” He could hear her, but he couldn’t see her. If he got to her quickly enough, told her a joke, kissed her, he wouldn’t get the cold shoulder tonight. She’d forgive him.

This dream was like one of those new 3D movies where things and people floated out of the screen and over the audience. John was up, not in the sky, but above everything going on.  The colors below him were bright, but the sound was brighter. John couldn’t remember the last time he could hear this well. Sirens wailed and rescue people called out.

“Hurry, there’s a woman in the passenger side, on the floor,” came a voice from under a scuffed yellow fireman’s hat.

 “He’s gone,” another said, in a defeated tone. John looked over to the rescue worker and saw the man pushing himself up from the side of a body covered in blood.

The smell of the gas spilling on the asphalt assailed John’s nostrils, but didn’t burn his nose and eyes. A firefighter in heavy bright yellow pants was spraying foam under and around the car and truck. Others were working feverishly to get the passenger side door open.

“Get that door off, there’s gas all over the place,” said a deeper voice.

“Use the Jaws,” yelled another.

A firefighter came running with a large metal tool. He and another squad member wrestled with it at the passenger side of a car. John could see clearly, every color, every shape, even the tiny pieces of gray gravel scattered on the pavement. The painted white and yellow lines on the road were bright and clear. The truck was pitched to the side yawning over a mashed car. The car was a faded blue, 70’s model Chevy, just like his. The car even had a dent on the right front fender. Then it dawned on him.

“It’s my car. Oh No!  Not my baby.”

Forty years ago, John had saved every extra dollar he could find in a Dutch Masters cigar box to buy that car. He’d walked onto the lot and handed the salesman a wad of cash, leaving the man open-mouthed. John smiled thinking back to that moment. Those keys in his hand, that motor under his command was almost as good as –

“There, got it,” the man’s voice interrupted John’s thoughts. The sound of metal wrenching made him want to cover his ears. He looked at his car, his baby, ruined. He washed and polished the Nova every week, vacuumed the interior religiously and changed the oil more often than the owner’s manual instructed. His car was under the wheels of that huge truck. No one ever drove that car but John. Who had stolen his car?

He noticed that the rescue worker covered the bloody body he had been working on with a blanket.  John’s first  thought was, “Served him right, for stealing my car,” Then he admonished himself. No car is worth a man’s life. “Grab that backboard. Be easy, watch her neck,” another cautioned,

“Get me an IV.”

“Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?” asked another.

John wanted to move to see who the worker was referring to. He was interested in seeing this “she” who was with the man who stole his car. He kept trying to move, but this dream had him suspended in one spot.

The rescue squad workers pulled the stretcher and a backboard from the van and hurried over. Gently, they lifted the woman from the wreckage and onto the backboard. As they moved the body, John’s body moved in tandem.  The woman’s feet came into view. Her sandals looked like Gillian’s.

A squad member bent over the woman with an oxygen mask. “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask, to help you breathe,” John heard the young man say.

John yelled, “Get out of the way so I can see,” but no one seemed to pay attention. The man with the oxygen stood up and John recognized his own cardigan sweater, the one Gillian had been wearing lately.

“Oh my God, it’s Gillian on that backboard, under that oxygen mask. She was in the car.” John wanted to wake up. “Wake up, Dammit!” he yelled to himself. He pinched himself, slapped his own face. Nothing worked. “Gillian!” he called loudly.  She didn’t open her eyes, no one looked up. He continued to hover over his wife, helpless.

It was as if he were an invisible helium balloon attached to Gillian by an invisible thread. They loaded her into the ambulance and John floated in the ceiling of the van right over her. They rode to the hospital together as the squad members inserted an IV and applied a neck collar to his wife. The workers talked back and forth, never noticing John suspended there right above them.

“Hey, you with the red hair, that’s my wife. Be careful. Hey, you with the needle, she hates needles. I need to hold her hand when you do that. Wait a second, I can’t reach.”

No one paid any attention to his directions. John heard everything clearly. No one heard him.

He hovered over her as she was taken from the ambulance, wheeled through the hallway, as they sliced off her clothes. They cut away his sweater from her body. She was cold; he could feel it and he couldn’t warm her. His heat had risen.

Teens Give-A Program for At Risk Youth

April 18, 2010

       Jack is fifteen years old. He’s a freshman in high school.  His increased height and deeper voice have pushed him beyond the curse words of his childhood, the small ones no one in his house noticed. He has moved onto “GD” and “MF,” the words of the men he sees on his street.   These words bring ire from adults and respect from his peers.  He is still a boy , but wants to be an adult. Grownups get to make the rules.

     He wants to be a man. His mother reminds him that he’s the “man of the house” even though he has no idea what one of those is supposed to look or act like.  His father, the man who impregnated his mother, has never shown up for any family activity or event, neither have the fathers of his siblings.  Jack’s mother makes minimum wage and has four children to support.  She works long hours.

     She tells Jack, “Man up, boy.  You need to take some responsibility around here, look after your brother and sisters, make sure they’re fed at dinner time, keep them out of trouble.” She wants him to take charge until she comes home at night to sleep. That’s what she does, works and sleeps.  In the morning, the drudgery of her life starts all over again. 

     Jack has a hard time staying at home, keeping his siblings from fighting, keeping them fed. They yell at him, “You’re not my Daddy. You can’t tell me what to do. Only Mama can tell me what to do.”

      His little brother and sisters really do need a father, and he isn’t one. They are his mother’s problem, not his.  He slams out of the house, leaving them to scoop their own peanut butter and jelly on stale bread, to turn the tv to channels they shouldn’t watch and play in the street, avoiding cars as best they can.

     Jack leaves the house to hang out with his friends, Tony, Mike and RJ.  These boys have things in common, they have mothers, but no fathers, they have poor grades, truancy, and baggy clothing.  They wear their hats sideways and don’t tie their shoes.  People passing by, don’t make eye contact and shake their heads, wondering if these boys were ever taught how to tie their shoes. The four friends stand together on the street corner, laughing and talking.

      In a report on a bureaucrat’s  desk in City Hall, these boys have a label– “at risk youth.”  Something has to be done about them and their kind, but funding cuts are making that much more difficult.  These children haven’t gotten in trouble…yet.  Trouble will find them though, if they don’t find it first.  These boys have an increased chance of dropping out of school, getting involved in gang activity, drug use and distribution, and crime.  The city has one year to try to make a difference in the lives of these fifteen year olds.  They can drop out of school at sixteen.

    Funding cuts are all around us, locally, statewide and nationally. The economy tanked and when that happened, people started saving, stopped spending and philanthropists began scoping out their list of charities more closely. Funding sources from state and government have dried up or gone to other, more important projects. The less affluent of those in our community suffered more than most, and still do. 

     For twenty one years, Teens Give has affected positive change in Charlottesville. The program does this by giving at-risk youth a constructive outlet for their energies.  Teens Give teaches pre-vocational and employment skills to young people who might otherwise be involved in negative activity.  These youth would be last in line for jobs without the training they receive through Teens Give. Not only do these children receive skill building services, they are able to positively influence change in their community through volunteering. 

     Teens Give volunteers provide service in daycare centers, the SPCA, after school programs, Parks and Recreation, and nursing homes.  Teens Give has provided volunteers for our nursing home for twenty one years.  At 100 hours monthly, that’s over 24,000 hours of community service.  In real dollar amounts at minimum wage, Teens Give volunteers have contributed $123,600 worth of service to our elders in those twenty one years.

     Many nursing home residents suffer from an epidemic of loneliness, helplessness and boredom.  If we examine the lives of our at-risk youth, many suffer from the same plagues.  Elders need to feel that they are making a difference, giving something worthwhile to their community, sharing wisdom with someone who cares to hear it.  Add children who need mentors, someone to assist with activities, and boredom is alleviated for both groups. Elders teach, youngsters learn, it’s a win/win situation. 

     Teens Give has been receiving their major funding from the VJCCCA—the Virginia Community Crime Control Act.  $75,000 has been taken from Teens Give as a result of funding cuts.  This in itself seems a crime, a theft of services taken from one of our communities’ most vulnerable populations. Imagine for a moment how it affects Jack. He’s not offered a program and is most likely still standing on that street corner, hanging out, maybe planning to venture toward a gang family.  In less than five years, the community is possibly looking at paying $25,000 or more per year to house Jack in prison. 

      Now, let’s imagine that Jack has been referred to the Teens Give program.  Part of his educational curriculum is a half day of English, Math, and History, the credits of which, along with his community service hours,  will give him a general high school diploma.  The other half of his day is spent in the Teens Give service learning program.

      Jack’s training begins at the Teens Give offices.  He and his peers undergo an  orientation that involves learning basic interpersonal skills, how to shake someone’s hand, make eye contact, smile, engage in pleasant conversation.  They learn anger management and constructive ways to problem solve.  Staff on site recognize difficulties and refer children in the program for tutoring, mentoring, life skills training, counseling and other support services.

     Jack expresses to the Teens Give staff an interest in working with elders.  He and his grandmother were close.  She died last year and he misses her.  Jack is assigned to volunteer at our nursing home.

     Jack and a staff member take on the project of the facility snack cart.  They organize and count inventory, stock the cart, list needs, take the cart room to room and Jack learns how to interact with elders, make change during transactions in buying and selling.  Residents smile at Jack and he smiles back.       

      Over time, relationships develop, residents look forward to seeing the young man and as he takes the cart around.  Jack doesn’t miss stopping by certain rooms like 103.

     “How are you Mrs. Smith?” Jack inquires.

     “Pretty good, the hip’s getting better. I walked a few steps with therapy today.”

     “That’s great.  Has your daughter been by lately. I know you were saying you hadn’t seen her in a while.”

     “She live in Northern Virginia, only gets here about once a month. I miss her.”

     Jack sits down in the empty chair in Mrs. Smith’s room and they chat.  Mrs. Smith is a little less lonely and Jack has brightened her day.  He knows that his presence makes a difference, affects someone’s quality of life.  He feels like a grandson.  He hasn’t felt that since his grandmother passed away.

     Jack has a history project due the next week.  He doesn’t know much about World War II.  Anyone in his family who might have remembered isn’t around anymore and Jack doesn’t have a computer at home to do research.  He’s never been to the public library.  His Teens Give counselor calls the nursing home to see if there’s a resident there who could talk with Jack about the war.

      Mr. Jones was in the Normandy Invasion during World War II.  It’s his favorite topic of conversation.   He’s ninety-four years old and doesn’t remember where he lives or what day it is.  He doesn’t know the current President or anything about the war in Iraq.  He does know his World War II history though and has volumes of stories to tell.

“We were scared, you know,” Mr. Jones tells Jack.  “We were young, not much older than you, and we knew some of us wouldn’t come home again.”

“Did you lose friends?” Jack asks.

“Son, I lost more friends than I could count.  Boys didn’t die by the ones or twos, they died by the twenty-fives and thirties.  I was one of the few lucky ones. I didn’t get a scratch.”

“I bet you were glad.” Jack says.

“Naw, son, I felt really bad for a long time.  I didn’t know why God decided that I should live and all those other boys should die.  It made me think, you know?”

“Made you think?” Jack repeats, not quite understanding.

“Made me think that what I have to do here must be important,  that my life needed to have a purpose, so that all those other boys didn’t lose their lives for no reason.  That make sense?”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Jack says.

Mr. Jones goes on to talk about the landing craft, the types of guns they used, battle tactics and strategy.  He gives Jack a true firsthand account of the event.  There’s an “A” under Jack’s belt for History class.  He leaves the facility knowing more about the history of his country and that he’s listened to someone’s own story of the event.  He’s made another positive difference in someone’s life.  He returns to Teens Give for their weekly reflection activity.  He talks about his experience to his counselors and peers.  He’s recognized for his contribution and offers support to a peer who’s having difficulty connecting with someone at his service site.

This is one example of how Teens Give affects the lives of members of the Charlottesville community.  There are countless other stories similar to this one. Stories of how this program puts teens on the right track to be productive members of their community. 

     What do we want for Jack?  Where do we want to find him in five years?  Take a drive through our city and notice how many of our youth are standing on street corners, on the cusp of leaning in the wrong direction.  Gangs seek them out, find them, and put them to work on a path of violence and eventually prison.  Is that where we want our future?  Is that what we want for Jack and other children like him?  Without Teens Give we will lose many and the cost will far surpass the amount of funding needed to keep this program running.

     We are asking for your help in keeping this vital community program alive in Charlottesville.  Obviously it works. It has for twenty one years.  Many of the Teens Give volunteers have gone on to win local, state and even national awards for their service.  Their futures have held high school diplomas, college, jobs, functional family lives and many have returned to mentor others. 

     Community Attention is the umbrella agency under which Teens Give exists. Heather Kellums is the Teens Give Coordinator in Charlottesville. Please contact her for more information and to learn about supporting this vital program in our area.