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One Last Time

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She lay there in her hospital bed, pale and still. Family and friends had been notified that it was time to say our last good-byes, and we had arrived before anyone else. The doctors said that Linda had been unresponsive for some time and may not regain consciousness. But when we spoke her name, she opened her eyes and smiled in recognition one final time.

The hours passed slowly as little by little, the relatives and acquaintances that knew her best trickled in. At times the room was crowded and filled with the sounds of tears, whispers and soft laughter as someone would recall and describe a fond memory of a time when Linda was healthy. Then there would be a lull in the flow of visitors and that small hospital room seemed vast and empty and hopeless. I kept to myself, a short distance from the others. I had not known her very long and felt a bit out of place, but I was there at the families' request and intended to be there for support if nothing else.

As I observed the people coming and going, my thoughts returned to the moments I had spent with Linda myself. We grew the closest during the times I was cutting her hair. When we first met, the cancer had already taken its toll numerous times over a period of years, and she was in the process of growing her hair again after the latest treatment had caused it to fall out. She complained about it being thin and stringy and told me to do some magic to make her pretty again. Although there really wasn’t much to work with, I trimmed and snipped and shaped what I could, and she was tickled with the results.

Over the next months I had the opportunity to cut and style her several more times, and each session was an education for me. She told me the secrets to her favorite recipes, her perspective on how men think, the beauty she found in simple things like sunflowers and butterflies, and how much she wanted for her grandson’s future. With each snip of the shears or sweep of the brush, she imparted wisdom to me. And I marveled at the fact that aside from her occasional admitting, “I’m tired today”, I never heard her complain.

And now, as I watched the cancer take what was left of her strength, it struck me that she was not just any client. She had become my friend. I wanted to thank her for the things she had taught me, for the quiet encouragement she had been to me even in the midst of her own suffering. But I didn’t know the words to say. “And besides,” I thought to myself. “There are too many people in here right now.” So, of course it was at that moment that a group concluded their visit and the rest of them decided to take a break for some coffee downstairs in the cafeteria. I was invited to join them but declined, recognizing that my moment had been provided for me.

Pulling a chair along side her bed, I took Linda’s hand in mine. It seemed so tiny and weightless. Words didn’t want to come, so I hummed a gentle tune instead. It was a lullaby about peace that my mother had sung to me as a child. As the notes of the song filled the silence of the room, I watched her face. Tired, worn with pain, hair bedraggled and sticking up from perspiration. It was then that I suddenly knew how to say my final “thank you”.

Reaching for my purse, I dug through it looking for a comb or brush but there was none to be found. And then at the bottom of my bag I saw a tiny, brand new travel toothbrush. Tipping a few drops of water from the pitcher by her bed onto the soft bristles, I began to use the make shift styling tool to smooth the tendrils around her face. Carefully parting her hair, I brushed the thin strands into a soft wave and tucked the fragile hairs gently behind her ears. “There,” I whispered. “What do you think about that, lady? I got to do your hair for you one last time.” And I leaned down to kiss her on the forehead.

Linda passed away a couple of hours later surrounded by people who loved her and with her daughters at her side. She never did open her eyes again that final day, but I believe she knew who was there and she waited until everyone had been given a chance to say what they needed to say to her. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to tell her goodbye in the same way that we had bonded back at the very beginning.

Copyright L.J. Douglas

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