by T.S. Gibbs
“Good morning Janet. I suppose you’re buying for two again?”
“But of course I am. It’s every bit of 40 below out there chile. It ain’t fit for man or beast, especially if you without. Now ring me up and pass me two more of them creams for this coffee. I need to hurry and get back to my station before Dr. Nichols starts to asking.”
Janet gathered her change, collected the two Styrofoam boxes, and headed for the elevator to take her to the 12th floor where she worked in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit of Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital. When she arrived, the doors opened and she scurried in the direction of the nurse’s station.
“Good morning Janet. What you got there?”
“Something I have every time you see me - breakfast.”
“Two boxes from the cafeteria?”
“And you know this maaaaan!”
Patti laughed at Janet’s impression of Chris Tucker, their favorite comedian.
“You getn’ ready to take one of them breakfast boxes to that homeless man up on Pratt ain’t you?”
“You know I am. Why you asking?” reaching for her coat.
“Cuz, I’m smelling them home fries from here and a sister’s stomach is talking ‘bout feeeed me Seymooour.” Once again, there was laughter. The two were the biggest bunch of giggle boxes at Mercy and everyone knew it. It could be aggravating at times, but anyone associated with them on the seven o’clock shift could rest assured no matter what kind of day they were having, as long as Janet and Patti were around, sunshine was just around the corner.
“C’mon Patti, you know I do this everyday. That poor man is out there in the cold freezing and there’s no telling when’s the last time he ate.”
“Lie. I do know. It was lunchtime yesterday when you went up there like you always do er’day.”
“Gimme a break Patti! That was lunchtime! What about dinner?
“I know, I know. You go ahead. A sister will just have to make do I guess.”
Attempting to work a guilt trip, Patti sullenly looked up at Janet and put on the best puppy dog face she could muster. She’d missed breakfast earlier in the morning rushing her two kids out for school and the aroma she was catching from the breakfast box had her stomach speaking in tongues. That, coupled with the whimpering sounds she was making, was enough to bring the SPCA running.
“Now you know you wrong for that, but go ahead. If you that hungry you can have my home fries. Dang!”
Without hesitation Patti reached for the breakfast box.
“Thank ya gurlfriend, I knew you’d look out for me. That’s why you my best friend in the whole wide world.”
“Whateva.” Janet had five fingers open in Patti’s direction. “I gots to go. Just make sure to cover for me if Dr. Nichols comes a looking.”
Patti’s mouth full of home fries muttered “I will gurl! You know I got you.”
* * * *
Outside it was noisy with the hustle and bustle of the morning’s traffic. People busily hurried off in every direction making their way to wherever their footsteps were taking them. Through the maze of people Janet navigated her way down a block or so until she reached 6th and Pratt St. Venturing up a few feet she saw who she was looking for. The man recognized her almost immediately and smiled approvingly. Even in his condition, layer-after-filthy layer of worn-out clothing, littered with the unspeakable, and fingernails as black as soot, he rose to make himself presentable. Janet admired that about him. How he could maintain his existence from one miserable day to the next, and was never too proud to show it.
“Good morning friend.”
The disheveled man reciprocated Janet’s greeting with a chapped lipped smile, white in discoloration.
“I brought you some breakfast. Today we’re having the #2 special, country home fries, a western-style omelet, and of course,” enthusiastically raising a cup to the air, “hot coffee.”
The man clasped his hands and pulled them close to his chest. Janet wondered what he might have said had he been able to actually speak, but it wasn’t until about a week after their initial get together did she realize he was mute. As unfortunate as that circumstance seemed, Patti didn’t need a translator to tell her that the man was delighted with the breakfast box she had brought. The yellow tainted grin passing between weather beaten lips was more than enough.
Placing the breakfast box on one of the few gathered crates, Janet started arranging some hospital napkins much like a tablecloth. It wasn’t home, but it was the least she could do. Although the wind caught hold of a few, she always remembered to bring extra. With a little assistance from her homeless friend she was able to place the napkins just right and gather a couple of rocks to steady the ends.
“Voila!,” she exclaimed.
Janet motioned for the man to come sit down. She then laid one of the flimsy white napkins across his lap and peeled the utensils from their plastic sheathing using her teeth. After pouring two creams and stirring the coffee vigorously she announced, “Bon-a-petite!”
Generally, Janet would have left at this point to get back in time for the start of her morning shift, but she had made the mistake of doing that once before the man had actually wanted her to go. Initially, he grabbed her hand and startled her, but when she looked into his face and saw where he calmly bowed his head and started to close his eyes, she knew immediately what he was trying to convey. They were doing that now, giving thanks as they so often did whenever Janet brought food, but on this particular occasion prayer was lingering a little bit longer than usual. In the process, Janet began to notice the grip the man was holding on her left hand was becoming progressively tighter. She also heard what she thought were the sounds of soft and suppressed whimpering. Janet peeked out from beneath one of her closed eyelids and immediately broke her clasp to kneel down beside her friend.
“What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
There was no answer. Just the silence Janet had come to expect, but had felt compelled to ask anyway. From as much as she could gather, she figured the man must have become overwhelmed with some since of grief. She dipped into her pocket for a napkin to dry away his tears.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, but I want you to know that I feel your pain. I just wish there was more I could do.”
The man went unmoved. Instead, he turned away from Janet’s consoling efforts, and preceded to burry his head deep within his arms. He then pointed in the direction that Janet had come. It was obvious that he had wanted her to leave and be left alone with whatever was grieving him. As difficult as it seemed to be leaving him, in obvious need of consoling, Janet respected the man’s wishes and picked herself up and began to head back for the hospital. Halfway down the street she couldn’t help but look back to let him know she’d be back.
“I’ll see you at lunch! They’re having grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup this afternoon! Hopefully, you’ll be feeling better by then!”
The man never looked up. His face still buried in his arms beneath dingy layers of tattered blankets and a hodgepodge of varying coats.
* * * *
When the elevator doors opened to SICU there was an uneasiness written all over Janet’s face. She didn’t like the fact she had left her homeless friend in such a sad case of affairs. Not in that condition. Something was wrong and she could feel it. As she proceeded down the hallway she made a mental note to make sure to see Dr. Price about volunteering her time to teach her how to sign. Something she’d also seek to pursue with her friend. She couldn’t help but think what kind of questions might have been answered had they both been able to communicate with each other.
As Janet approached her station Patti called out to her. “Janet! Oh my goodness, I was hoping you’d get back here faster.”
Janet’s first thoughts were that Patti had run out of convenient excuses to cover for her while she was out during shift change, but the out of breath tone she was carrying seemed to tell a different story.
“I’m so sorry girl! Not long after you left I got a call from Tameka in ER. She called asking for you, but I told her you had stepped out. She wanted to know if I knew your mother’s name. I told her Mattie - why?”
At the mentioning of Janet’s mother’s name Janet’s eyes became ever more focused on what Patti was saying.
“Tameka said that a Mattie Johnson had just arrived in ER suffering from multiple head wounds as a result of a hit and run! I got down there as soon as I could to make sure it wasn’t your mama, but it was Janet! Your mama is down in the operating room with Dr. Nichols as we speak!”
Patti, realizing the gravity of the words she had just spoken, fully clasped her mouth as if to shut off any remaining words that might spill from her lips. Unfortunately, no more words were needed to have fully submersed Janet’s attention in a well of fear an apparent shock.
“Oh Lord, Jeezus,” Janet shouted. “Not my mama! Please Lord, not my mama!”
Janet ran for the elevator and began smacking the buttons frantically. She never saw Patti slide down a nearby wall into a pool of masked tears behind two tightly clinched fists. All she heard were the repeated “no, no, no’s,” coming from her friend as she spoke into her knees in saddened disbelief.
Unwilling to wait for the elevator any longer, Janet took off for the stairwell and proceeded down the steps as fast she could. When she arrived at the operating room, a few of the staff recognized her immediately and met her with constricting arms. She tried breaking through, but found that she couldn’t. With everything she could muster Janet cried out, “MAMA! MAMA!” It was all she could do against the restraint of the staff and it wasn’t long before the voices around her began to fade into something rather distant. What she saw last she saw through outstretched hands in the direction of a pair of double doors that lead into the operating room where her mother lay. Not long after everything went black as consciousness became unconsciousness, and all accounts of an emotional filled moment became instantly removed.
* * * *
The operation on Janet’s mother lasted nearly 12 hours. In the waiting room Dr. Nichols politely explained to Janet, in a hushed consoling voice, that there was less than a 50% chance at recovery for her mother. Due to the massive amount of head trauma she suffered during the accident, there was an excessive amount of blood and swelling that remained on her brain. Under the circumstances, given her frail and weakened condition, he didn’t see where she would last beyond a few more days. Dr. Nichols went on to suggest that Janet make ready for what in all likelihood would be an unfortunate outcome. He then hugged her gently and told her he wished there was more he could have done before showing himself out.
At this point Janet understood it was going to take nothing short of a miracle to bring her mother out of her present condition. There was nothing left to do beyond be there for her mother, at her bedside, and pray for her recovery. She rationalized that as long as she stayed vigilante in providing attention, patience, and prayer, the good Lord would make a way and everything would be alright.
Three days passed and Janet’s mother lay motionless while Janet lay only a few feet away from her on a vinyl sofa. She slept peaceably as the subtle beeps of the heart monitor kept her company and the therapeutic sound they provided offered her blessed assurance her mother was still alive. Not once did she leave her mother’s bedside since being admitted and as a result, in her seriously fatigued condition, she never heard the door leading into her mother’s room open. She consequently never heard the soft footsteps that made there way across the cold linoleum floor in the direction of where her mother lay tucked between neatly prepared white sheets and blankets. What she felt however, was the sensation that somebody’s eyes were upon her. The uneasiness of the gaze caused her to stir and she awoke cautiously. Through clouded eyes, shrouded in sleep, and mixed with dry tears, Janet focused in on a stranger that stood curiously by her mother’s bedside.
“Oh, my goodness!,” Janet said in dazed astonishment. “It’s you,” clearing her eyes and sitting up.
The stranger Janet was addressing was the homeless man she had been faithfully serving food to off of Pratt Street. In attempting to analyze just how he had found her, she surmised he must have followed her without her knowing one day and discovered where she worked.
Apologetically, Janet spoke. “You must think the worse of me. I haven’t seen you in 2 days and I didn’t offer you any reason as to my sudden disappearance. Please forgive me.”
The man’s attention shifted away from where Janet was seated and settled back on her mother laying motionless on the hospital bed. The gesture seemed to tell her that there was more to be worrying about in the hospital room than to be worried about his well being.
“They say she’s not going to make it and I don’t know how to quite deal with that. She’s all I’ve got.” Janet felt the presence of another bout with tears beginning to make their presence felt, but she managed to regain her composure and hold them back.
“You see, everything I have is resting on that hospital bed. My parents were never able to conceive so they adopted me as a child. Poppa passed away ‘bout 5 years ago and because he was in the service, we never stayed anywhere long to make many friends. I have no brothers or sisters and have no idea of the whereabouts of any next to kin. My mama is all I have and if she leaves me now, I don’t know what I’ll do. It has so much to do with why I was so attracted to you. I know what it’s like to be left alone. As I child I remember being led from one foster home to the next, abandoned by the ones who were supposed to love you, and looked over by the one’s who had no interest in you. Nobody should be made to be live that way - know one. I vowed if ever a family would adopt me, I’d see to it to pay the price of company to someone else as long as I lived. It hurts to not have family, something I don’t want to ever go back to. I’m so frightened and confused right now I don’t know what to do.”
The man put his finger to his lips and motioned for Janet’s silence. She didn’t know why she had felt so compelled to share as much as she did, but imagined her grief had something to do with it. Making his way toward her the man placed his hands atop her head. Janet welcomed his touch and fell to the middle of his chest. The level of comfort she had felt in his arms was unexplainable. There just seemed to be a release of energy that soothed her spirit and assured her everything would be alright. He did this only for a minute before starting back in the direction of her unconscious mother. When he arrived at her bedside he began to survey all the intricate equipment that surrounded her. He looked puzzlingly at the life support systems as though they were foreign to him. He then placed his hand beside her and gently ran his fingers along the outside of her body, barely touching the blankets that gently covered her ebony skin. Studying his actions inquisitively, Janet wondered, “What is he doing?”
The man gently placed his hand over Janet’s mother’s forehead; he started to rock in an eerily erythematic fashion. A low moan of sorts began to flow freely from his mouth and without hesitation Janet made her way over to where the man was standing. She was confused with all of this and wanted to observe more closely as to what he was doing. She noticed where the man’s right hand was shuddering rapidly and out of control over her mother’s chest region. To her it appeared as though his hand was convulsing, but it was moving much faster than anything humanly possible. It was as if an unspeakable force had control over his hand and was trying to either collect or emit something from its palms. Then, with both hands coming together in a loud clap, the shuttering stopped. The man stepped away and what happened next caused Janet’s knees to buckle.
“Janet. Janet…is that you?” came the faint whisper. “Are you there chile?”
Completely overcome, the tears in Janet’s eyes began streaming down her face. What she had fought so hard to hold back a minute ago, she couldn’t any longer. She was overcome with emotion at the sound of her mother’s voice and with a crackling voice she answered.
“Yes mama, it’s me - Janet. I’m here with you.”
“Where am I baby girl? What’s going on?”
Janet looked over her shoulder at the homeless man searching for an answer to the obvious question. A question she knew was beyond the scope of what she was witnessing and impossible to yield any logical response. Knowing there was no real response, at least none that would make any sense, Janet simply spoke from the heart.
“Mama, you’ve been involved in a car accident. You’re in the hospital. The doctors say you’re not going to make it, but I know you will. The only way to do it mama is you have to fight! Understand? You have to fight it with everything you’ve got! You have to call on God to release you from this bed and put you on your feet!”
With each plea, Janet’s asking intensified. Her spirit was defiant in accepting no other course of action. What she failed to realize is that there were other spirits moving in an opposite direction.
“Baby girl, I’m too tired and weak to be fighting anything right at this moment. I’m just not feeling it. What I needs is some rest.”
“No mama!” Janet authoritatively asserted taking hold of her mother’s hand as she spoke. “You have to fight! If you don’t, Ima lose you. I don’t want that! You can’t give into the suffering. Do you hear me!? I need you here with me!”
In the midst of Janet’s efforts to invigorate her mother nothing seemed to be working. With every implored endeavor Janet’s mother never convincingly showed any signs of listening to what Janet was saying. Instead, she lay unmoved as though Janet’s exhortations were falling on deaf ears.
“Baby girl, do you know who I dreamed about while I was sleeping?”
Janet responded discouragingly, “No mama, who?”
“Your daddy chile. I saw him at the end of this bright light standing there in his military dress uniform all a glow waiting to welcome me into his arms. You would have sworn he had been kissed by sunshine they he stood there shining so brightly. I remember him looking just like that the day he returned home from basic training camp? My goodness how young we both were then. Oh, how I loved that man so. Did you know he asked me to marry him that day baby girl?”
Janet clutched the blankets tightly and began to openly weep. She wept miserably as she spoke into the linen sheets. Her selfishness realized, she understood that in wanting to keep her mother here on earth, she was delaying the paradise that awaited her on the other side. This meant only one thing, Janet would have to be the one to give into the suffering. The exact same suffering she had hoped to shield her mother against.
“Yes mama, I remember daddy telling me that story. He used to tell it to me as a child before tucking me into bed at night. He never knew the prince charming he painted in my mind was the same one I wanted to marry one day. You know what mama, you go to poppa now. You go to him as fast as you can and tell him his baby girl misses him very much. Tell him I’ll miss you both and that I will always love what the two of you did for me. You go to him and tell him that for me okay. You go to him now as fast as you can.”
“I think I will chile,” smiling as she spoke. He’d like to hear that. It felt so good to see him again even if it was a dream. Hopefully, I can make it back to him before he forgets about me. Wake me before those greens get finished though, I don’t want to overcook them, alright?”
Grinning ever so slightly Janet responded, “Yes mama. I will. I’ll be sure to set a plate for you both just in case your meet runs over. Just hurry before you miss him.”
“Okay chile, I’m going.”
After a few minutes only the somber sound of Janet’s weeping could be heard over the flat-line that registered on the heart monitor. A couple of nurses rushed inside, but Janet halted them abruptly at the door. She knew what they had come for and she didn’t wish for them to disturb the peace her mother was now experiencing with their attempts at trying to revitalize her. She was an RN and knew perfectly well how to wrap things up. The nurses were about to leave when one of them noticed the homeless man off to himself in a corner of the room.
“Excuse me sir,” the nurse said suspiciously, “no visitors are allowed after hours. May I ask how you gained entry? This is a restricted area.”
Looking in Janet’s direction the nurse searched for an explanation in Janet’s eyes. She had been stationed just outside the room and hadn’t admitted anyone access since her being on duty and was certain no one had registered prior to. Her gaze was self examining of Janet as she looked for any sign that the visitation was welcomed or not. Feeling her glances Janet cleared her eyelids with a tissue and motioned with her hands that everything was alright and that the nurses could leave. Janet waited until both nurses exited before she excused herself and stepped into the bathroom.
As the cool water ran over Janet’s face she knew no matter how much she tried to rationalize the events that had just taken place, she’d never be able to fully comprehend there happening. It would remain as blank a mystery as the stare she was now casting in the bathroom mirror just above the sink. As she dried herself off and emerged from the bathroom, her emotions now stabilized, she approached her homeless friend who sat patiently on the sofa awaiting her return. Janet walked gingerly toward him and curiously asked, “Who are you?”
The man remained quiet, pondering the question put before him. He knew Janet’s desire for understanding was reasonable and she deserved some kind of explanation given all she had endured. Unable to verbally communicate his thoughts, the man stood up and moved toward the nightstand beside the hospital bed. He opened the drawer, reached inside, and pulled from its shallow opening a single vinyl-covered bible. He did this with the preciseness of knowing exactly where the bible was located as though he had placed it there himself. It was almost as if his actions were rehearsed as she watched him thumb through the pages until finally stopping exactly where he wanted to be. He then turned the bible around, and handed it to her. Janet read quietly aloud the chapter and verse the man had pointed to before making his way to the door.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Janet’s heart jumped and dropped the bible after reading the scripture. Her mouth hung a gasp. The revelation of the reading and the events that had unfolded started to all come together. She spun around quickly to catch her friend before he exited, but as she did so, was met with a blinding flash that caused her to immediately turn away. When her vision cleared she stood alone and motionless at the hospital bedside. She didn’t attempt to pursue the man into the hallway knowing fully what awaited her. Instead, Janet looked upward toward the ceiling, closed her eyes and ever so gently whispered, “Thank you Lord for your blessing. I know now while you hold my mama close, you have revealed to me the assurance that neither have I ever, or will ever, be left all alone.”