The Anniversary Party

I walk around the corner and push open the door of Wildrose Manor’s recreation/social room. Its small TV is mounted on one side of the long, rectangular space; two rows of overstuffed chairs face its dark screen.

On the other side of the room, several card tables flank the ‘entertainment center‘ and bookshelves line the far wall, filled with an assortment of reading material and games.

A bulletin board, announcing this week‘s activities, is displayed just inside the door;

Bingo: 2pm – 4pm Tuesday
Friday Night Movie: 6pm – ‘Guess Whose Coming to Dinner’
Sunday Family Luncheon: 11am – 2pm (Baked Chicken)

The room looks empty, but my eyes quickly settle on the elderly woman, nearly invisible in her wheelchair, facing one of the four big bay windows that look out onto the Manor’s gardens.

When I decided to wait in the rec room, until Rhonda completed her rounds, I didn’t expect to find anyone using the room. 90% of Wildrose’s patients are very elderly.

With a large staff and 24-hour medical attention, they live out their final days in their room or this rec room, with occasional walks in the garden (weather permitting).

Schedules are very strict. At this late hour, all of the other residents have been asleep for quite some time. So I am alarmed that this woman was left alone in this room and I immediately hurry to her side. ‘Are you alright ma’am? Can I help you to your room?’

The woman turns to face me and I cannot honestly tell you her age. Somewhere close to time-forgotten – between the sun and wind weathered features of a long-time sea fisherman and the stiff, colorless mask of an Egyptian mummy.

‘Is it Saturday?’ The old woman inquires, her sharp eyes pleading with me to give her the right answer.

‘I’m sorry, it’s only Wednesday.’ I reply, looking down at the gnarled hands gripping the arms of her wheelchair…. anywhere but at the pained disappointment in her face. Why I said I was sorry it wasn’t Saturday… still escapes me.

‘My husband is coming on Saturday.’ She announces, turning back to the window and the colorless night, before continuing; ‘Saturday is our anniversary. Raymond promised we would have a party and all our friends are coming too.’

At the mention of Raymond’s name, the woman’s face grows wistful and then a wide smile stretches across her drawn cheeks.

‘We were married in Door County. And you know, there’s no place like the Northwood’s in October’s autumn bloom. The bright, fall colors cover the entire peninsula with their spectacular canopy. It’s like an enchanted forest, raining gold pedals down upon your head.’

I have visited Door County during its fall splendor and I have to admit its peaceful serenity is captivating. Looking out the darken window, I can imagine the Door County of years past.. before the resorts and the tourist shops, restaurants and sidewalk sales. **sigh**

‘We are going back there.. on Saturday.. for the party.’

I’m a little concerned and taken a back, by this sudden announcement. ‘Is that ok with your doctor?’ Although I don’t know the whole circumstances, the woman appears extremely frail. A 4-hour car ride AND a party seems a bit much for one day.

‘Oh, yes… it’s fine. Raymond took care of everything. He’s coming for me on Saturday and we are going to Door County for the party.’

The woman appears quite convinced and it isn’t my place to argue… besides, I should have helped her find her room a long time ago; ‘Well then, I know you are going to have a wonderful time. Congratulations and happy anniversary. I’m so happy that you and Raymond can spend it together.’

Moving behind her wheelchair, I catch the reflection of her eyes in the dark window before continuing; ‘Why don’t we get you back to your room. Saturday is only a few days away and you are gonna need all the rest you can get.’

Lowering her eyes, the old woman nods, her small body shrinking further into the large chair.

The hall is quiet, the lights dimmed. We are nearly all the way down the main corridor, before we finally run into my sister, Rhonda.

A wonderfully caring and patient woman, Rhonda is a dedicated RN with a 15-year career in elder care. However, in an ironic twist of Jackal/Hyde, this gentle nurse is quite the severe taskmaster and runs a tight ship as Wildrose Manor’s night shift supervisor.

‘Betty Johnson, how did you get out here? I put you in bed over two hours ago.’ The old woman giggles at Rhonda’s tender admonishment before replying; ‘I know… I know. It was wicked of me. I wanted to see the garden’s fall colors. But I forgot it was already too dark.’

Pressing her lips together, Rhonda refrains from uttering her next remark… and instead moves behind the woman’s wheelchair, turning it toward her room as Betty lets out another low chuckle.

A 15-year resident, the old woman gave this patient nurse a thoroughly tough time when Rhonda started at Wildrose Manor 10 years ago. But whatever Betty dished out, the sassy, younger woman would just give it right back. This seesaw looked like it might be nonstop… until it quickly came to an end, just two days later.

Wheeling herself down the main corridor to the rec room, Betty is passing an open door when she is stopped by hurried noises from within. Five staff members are gingerly lifting Doug from his bed, as Rhonda tenderly administers to his bedsores.

Doug Rowls is a 35-year old paraplegic. He has been a resident of the manor for two years. His daily schedule is strictly attended to. At 8am every morning, aides serve breakfast and Doug is cleaned, then transferred to his wheelchair to spend the day in the rec room. At 7pm every night, different aides serve dinner and Doug is put to bed.

In all the time he has been here, Betty has not seen any of the staff take a particular interest in Doug’s condition, so she is surprised at the thunderous look in the young RN’s face… so contradictory to her tender handling.

Moving closer to the door, she overhears Rhonda barking orders at two of the aides; ‘Mr. Rowls’ new schedule is on his chart. You will give him a bath every night after dinner. I want him rotated twice nightly. For now, I will see to all his needs on this shift, but in a couple of days, I am turning this daily responsibility over to you two. Do you understand?’

Betty smiles at the last part of Rhonda’s speech. Immediately deciding she liked this spunky and equally nurturing woman, she pushes her wheelchair into Doug’s room and grins at the two embarrassed aides. ‘I’m sure they understand perfectly, my dear. You are their boss, after all.. and I bet you miss very little. And I think maybe I’ll start having my dinner here as well.. if that‘s ok with you Doug?‘

The young man grins at the old woman, ‘Don’t forget the cards and your money. I intend to win back that $50 bucks.’ Nodding to Rhonda, Betty calls her truce and exchanges an affectionate look with the younger woman, before snorting at Doug; ‘Hah! Be careful you don’t lose another $50. I’ll ask Harry to join us.. we’ll make it a little party.’ That settled.. she expertly turned her chair and wheeled herself out of the room.

On that day, the two women came to an understanding; one that has grown and flourished over the years. Although Betty sometimes rails on about her limitations, she has never doubted Rhonda’s considerate attentions and soothing, loving care.

It’s my turn to host the football party, Rhonda and her family arrive just before kickoff. I instantly notice her blue mood and hesitantly ask her what’s up. ‘A manor patient died yesterday.’ she grimly responds, taking the cover off her potato salad and adding a spoon.

I have heard this pronouncement many times before. It’s not like it is unexpected, but when it finally does come, it’s still a shock. And each time it’s hard for me to imagine, what it must be like for Rhonda. ‘I’m so sorry, honey. Was he there long?’

I can see Rhonda is on the verge of tears. Understanding it must have been a long-term resident, I pull her in close and let the flood gates pour out. ‘It was Betty Johnson!’ she cries. ’I know Betty was 103 years old, but she was pushing herself around in that blasted wheelchair just the day before.’

It takes a few moments for the name to register; ‘You mean the old woman I found in the rec room last week?’ Reaching for a napkin to wipe her face, Rhonda nods slightly and now I am very alarmed. ‘How did it happen?’ I knew the long drive and a party would be too much. Lawd…. why didn’t I say something sooner?

‘She died peacefully in her sleep around 1am Saturday morning. I checked in with her just an hour before and thought she was awake. She asked me if it was Saturday and I told her not yet. Then she asked if the fall colors had turned in Door County and I told her I didn’t know. The next time I stopped in, it was obvious she had quietly passed.’

‘Oh Rhonda, that’s really sad. Poor Mrs. Johnson.’ I was crushed that the woman didn’t get to attend her party and felt equally bad for her husband. He must have been heart-broken to arrive at the manor and have to be told his wife passed away on their anniversary. ‘How is Raymond taking this?’

My sister‘s head snaps back sharply, as she gives me the most peculiar look. ‘Who?’

I quickly recount the conversation I had with Betty in the rec room. ‘She told me her husband Raymond was picking her up on Saturday and that they were going to Door County for an Anniversary Party with all of their friends. I was worried because she looked so frail and I wasn’t sure she would survive the trip. I guess Raymond took care of everything… except God’s plan.’

At first, Rhonda does not respond, then a slow, serene smile breaks her solemn features. ‘Raymond passed over 15 years ago. That’s when Betty moved into Wildrose Manor. I had forgotten that Saturday was their anniversary, I’m glad to hear that Raymond did not.’

Quite unexpectedly, I find myself smiling at death… and the thought of Raymond waiting patiently for his wife join him. As if such a long anticipated celebration, could be called anything less than a Party.

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