This year seems to be ending with goodbyes.
First it was my childhood home(The Last Christmas in Nowhere. )And now it’s a good-bye to a dear friend, Reta.
I first met Reta almost twelve years ago when she was a mere seventy-six years old. She was a resident in the nursing home where I work. She had moved in not because she needed care, but because she refused to be separated from a husband who did. If he was moving in, she was too.
Years later however, her beloved Cecil passed away. Reta moved past her grief by continuing to do what came naturally to her–loving on and caring for others. It was difficult to do anything for her; she was so independent that you almost had to beg her to let you do the simplest of tasks for her. She certainly knew how to care for others, though. She was a constant comfort to her fellow residents; many of whom couldn’t speak English in this multicultural care community. She would merely hold their hand, nod at the right times and smile. This would be enough to make them feel validated and heard, and it was enough for the family members of these residents to come back to visit her, years after their loved ones had passed on. Reta definitely made a lasting impression.
Staff often found themselves being the ones cared for rather than the other way around. She was “Ma” to more than just her two children; she had adopted several of us as her surrogate children and grandchildren, and you were treated as such. Good days and bad days always received the same treatment–a genuine, bone-crushing hug. She was the keeper of secrets, the non-judgemental listener, and giver of hugs. She was proficient at dispensing this brand of medicine and everyone got the same prescription–she was no respecter of persons.
Reta was the type of person you wanted to go the extra mile for. She was the mother of two children, but with one living far away in the states, and another with health issues that made even local travel difficult, getting out for a change of scenery was next to impossible. The rules in Long Term Care forbid staff from taking a resident out of the facility without permission. Since Reta was her own Power of Attorney, coupled with my belief that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission (in some circumstances), an opportunity to sneak out merely required letting her kids know through a phone call that she was “busting out” for a while. Such subterfuge made way for the chance to go see the movie Heaven is For Real, a movie that intrigued her after having read the book. I still remember the three of us (her surrogate son, my co-worker, was also in on the AWOL adventure) having to crane our necks in the first row, the only place available to accommodate Reta’s wheelchair, while happily munching away on buttery popcorn. Sneaking a peek at Reta from time to time brought a smile to my face; she hadn’t been to a theatre in probably over fifty years, not since the days of her beloved Cecil courting her. This was followed by a trip to a Thai food restaurant where she laughed as she unsuccessfully tried her hand at using chop sticks. She was returned safe and sound with a wink as her accomplices silently and discreetly disappeared.
Reta was a great woman of faith, but hadn’t been able to attend a service in an actual church for years. So, another day, and another white lie later, she was sitting in a Christian church with the two of us again. My co-worker is Muslim, but he too, would do anything for her, including sitting through a Christian message.
As is often the story in long term care, Reta’s health began to deteriorate, but not her sharp mind and her ability to hug. With a sense of knowing, she implored her daughter to come visit before Christmas, which she happily obliged. While Reta did see one more Christmas, it was to be her last. Two days later, she was in the hospital where she would later pass. Her son wrote:
“She was there for my first breath, and I was there for her last.”
There is something satisfying about knowing where your loved ones will spend eternity and there is no doubt in my mind where Reta is. In a devotional in her room, she had underlined the following passage and written it out on a separate piece of paper as a bookmark,
“No one comes to the Father except through me..” (John 14:6)
This devotional found it’s way into the hand of my Muslim co-worker. Even on the other side, she is still loving, encouraging, and hugging–and now she has help.
Rest in peace, Ma.
Yes and amen.