A meeting between two lives leaves one happy and one with a puzzle from the grave.
| I first saw her as she was walking with a limp down the side of the street around dusk, It was snowing, not enough for the street plows, but enough where my windshield wipers were keeping rhythmic time. She was carrying a folded blanket as if it were a newborn cradled in her arms and was rubbing it as if to soothe the child. She did not look down at her bundle; her eyes stared unfocused as she walked. What struck me as the most-odd was that although it was mid-January, she only had on a light pink nightdress, faded from continued use, which reached just below her bare knees. She only wore a single slipper on her left foot and a sock like bootie on her right foot, encrusted with snow and ice; the slipper's mate had apparently been lost somewhere during her journey.
I pulled over and stopped my car, got out, and opened the front passenger side door gesturing for her to get in where it was warm. I had to do my best to reassure her I meant no harm before she walked toward the car. We smiled as I helped her in. She pulled the blanket to the opposite side I was standing as if I were going to take it from her. It was then that I noticed the blanket was a a hand-made quilt, a collage of fabrics and material. There were worn denim patches, soft blue and pink cotton prints, several types of flannel patches, some black wool strips, and many, many other pieces I couldn't identify. Though the colors and shapes were all different, they bonded as though brought together for a purpose.
Sensing her fear, I covered her with a spare blanket I kept in the car. Her legs were very cold, and had a tint of a blue-gray color and were shaking from the bitter cold weather. Her hands, wrinkled with age and dotted with liver spots, felt a little warmer from holding the quilt, but not much. However, if she were in any pain, her face was not reflecting it. She had a distant, vacant look. I shut her door, went around to my door, got back in, and began to drive to Mercy West, the nearest hospital.
Remnants of holiday decorations could be seen in and around the houses and businesses we drove by. The soft glow of red, green, amber, and blue lights, the rhythmic swiping of the wiper blade and the warmth of the car must have relaxed her enough to talk. I looked at her with concern and smiled, she smiled back. Her smile lacked strength, but was genuine.
While she spoke, I saw her point to different areas on her colorful quilt. A special memory attached to each square, and each square had its own story. Every story was a change of expression - in her eyes, her gestures, and her body language. Her hands would linger a few places as if she were feeling for a particular memory from that special piece of fabric. Her hands came to rest on a man's name sewn with golden yellow thread on to a black cotton background. The fabric reminded me of my grandpa's old suit worn only to church on Sundays and finally the day he was buried. The piece had two dates sewn into it, the last fifteen years ago.
Another piece, a faded white, silk square, carefully embroidered in black stated "Baby Ethel" followed by a single hand-stitched date.
As I drove, she slowly began to open the quilt to expose more. The center of the quilt had what appeared to be a patchwork tree. The trunk of the tree had two names within squares at the bottom. One name was of the man who died fifteen years ago, the other square was still unfinished; one date and the name.}.
My passenger now seemingly had a name.
The trunk of the patchwork tree went upwards and formed three branches. Two of the three branches had smaller pieces with sewn names and dates. From what I could see, the branches had only one or two names. Through the intermittent flashes of streetlights, it appeared all had two dates on each, but I could not be certain. The third branch ended in the one marked as "Baby Ethel".
Her story was interrupted by what appeared to be fits of coughing that would last for several minutes. When she was through coughing, she began her story as if nothing had happened.
As Sophia spoke, her hand traced each branch, following it to the end. She would pass her hand gently over each name and date. Her hand lingered on each branch, as if each person could be felt through the fabric.
Throughout our ride, the street lights allowed me glimpses of Sophia's face and expressions as she spoke. Her preoccupied expression was interrupted with small smiles. I felt she was not aware I was with her; as if she was with the people within the quilt. While her eyes were a sharp, light blue, they were also distant and vague.
As we pulled up to the hospital emergency entrance, I noticed Sophia began to sense more of her surroundings and she clutched the quilt again in a panic, as if someone were going to take it away from her. In her eyes, there was a sudden look of anxiety and distress. Out of impulse, I placed my hand on hers, gave it a gentle squeeze, and a re-assuring smile. For the first time that evening, her eyes came into clear focus and she gave me a look of gratitude.
When I went to her door to help her out of the car, I knew she would not be able to walk or even stand. As I turned to get assistance, I was startled by an orderly who stood behind me with a wheelchair waiting. I backed away so he could help her. When he removed my blanket, he stopped and called someone on his radio, and then he gently assisted her into the wheel-chair. He reached for her quilt, but before he could remove it, she embraced the quilt to her chest protectively and closed her eyes. I grabbed my blanket and covered her lap, legs and feet, and tucked it under her arms. She grabbed and held on to my hand weakly as we walked through the sliding doors and into the bright corridor.
We quickly walked past the admitting desk and into the corridor of examining room doors. We passed many empty rooms until we came to the last room at the end of the hall. The bright fluorescent light flickered on as we entered, as though it waited just for us. The cold, sterile room had a smell of antiseptic cleaner and rubbing alcohol; however, there was a subdued tang of mustiness.
As they began to prepare Sophia, I was led out of the room, down the hallway, and into a small room with a desk, computer, and a telephone. A young woman chewing gum wearing a name tag, Stephanie, motioned for me to sit down in front of her desk. I did so, not knowing what else to do. I imagine she was going to want information regarding the patient. I attempted several times to let Stephanie know I appreciated her willingness to assist me; however, we needed an interpreter. After several seconds of awkward smiles, she finally understood and made a phone call. She let me know it would be about ten minutes. I decided to walk around to release my nervous energy.
When I returned to the hallway, I could see into the room where Sophia was lying. By now, there were doctors and nurses by her bedside, walking into and out of view. I could see a nurse speaking with her, nodding and smiling, while others around her were not. On Sophia's stomach, still being clutched, was the quilt.
I went to get a cup of coffee from the vending machine down the hall. My first attempt had the cup landing at an angle and the coffee going half in the cup and half on the floor. The second time, I paid more attention and made sure the cup landed correctly and the in line for the dispenser.
When I returned, her door was closed. I pulled a chair up from the waiting room and sat across from her door and waited. I noticed people walking down the hallway toward her door. Maybe they were friends or family members. They would, however, enter other rooms to visit other patients. This helped me decide I would wait until I could see Sophia before I left. Feeling isolated is something no one should experience.
When the door opened abruptly, I stood up. Two young doctors came out, stopped in front of me, looked back at the room, looked back at me, and walked away. The door was left partially open. I tried looking into the room, but the curtain was drawn, blocking my view. I was going to sit down again and wait; however, a nurse came out, handed me the quilt, spoke words of solace, and walked away.
A person I never met before tonight died less than ten feet from me. I felt her death as heavily as I felt my own grandmother's.
I sat outside the room I felt I still needed to be there with Sophia. As I sat in the hall, I became aware that my hand was resting on Sophia's name on the quilt. About five minutes later, Sophia's body was removed from the room and taken away. I don't remember when I started to cry, only that I did.
I am uncertain how long I sat there, but Stephanie came with the interpreter and we went back to her desk and I began giving whatever information I could to Stephanie. While I spoke, the quilt sat in my lap and when I listened, my hands rested on top. I could tell Stephanie was uncomfortable talking with me and overcompensated in our discussion.
Sophia had been a resident in a nursing home for four years and was in the Alzheimer's Unit for two. The people from the nursing home were uncertain how she wandered the three miles to where I found her. Â When they checked her bed, her lost slipper was under her pillow. Sophia had no visitors within the last three years and had no living family members. Sophia had severe pneumonia prior to leaving the nursing home and walking in the cold had weakened her. The remainder of the information, Stephanie said, was confidential.
I never discovered her last name that night. From Sophia's quilt, I learned her husband's name, and the names of her children on the ride to the hospital. I noticed how Sophia hung onto the quilt as fiercely as she was hanging on to life. Without being there, I know when she passed; the last thing she felt was the quilt's presence, the memories taking her home.
When I arrived home, I had to do a lot of digging through storage boxes and drawers of knick-knacks, but I did finally locate what I was looking for. It took me the better part of forty-five minutes, but I managed to sew the last date on to the quilt. After I finished, I placed the quilt in my walnut chest, and closed and locked the lid.
I sat on the bed beside the chest and wondered for the first time that evening if Sophia realized I am deaf.
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