"Help. Help! Help!!" Like fingernails on a chalkboard his cry unnerves me. It's unrelenting, insistent, demanding. It requires a response but I don't know what that response should be. From the desk where I answer phones and direct resident traffic I can see that he is warm and dry, as comfortable as possible.
"Mac*, it's all right," I soothe pushing back my chair and walking toward the parlor where he is sitting. He hates being alone, hates it when it is time to go to bed at night. He prefers the controlled chaos surrounding the front desk. From his chair he can see and hear the gentle banter of his friends and it is a comfort to him.
"Mac, listen, you have to stop yelling for help."
Why?? I consider lots of reasons not the least is that it's wearing on my nerves, and the residents are starting to look and whisper among themselves. I swallow the urge to scold and settle on a simple, "You just do!"
He looks at me as though considering his options, takes another breath and starts all over again, "Help. Help! Help!!"
Most of the residents have finished their evening meal though a few lounge comfortably in the dining room talking over an evening cup of coffee. The phone is quiet. There isn't anyone for me to ask, "Is it okay if I . . .?" So, I just follow my heart.
I pull a chair up next to his and he quiets. In that moment I know that I will sit with him for as long as he needs me. He's not just a face among many, he's my friend. Sometime in the previous weeks he found a Mac shaped hole in my heart and filled it with himself. I reach for his hand and settle in. Even though he is a large man, he is frail. I wish with everything in me that I could spare him the journey he is on. I know and I'm sure he knows that he is walking his final mile.
Mac is dying. He grows weaker every day. Helpless, we wait and watch silently willing him to keep on going, to fight a little harder, to hold onto life. Reaching for the remote control for the television, I push the "off" button. Except for the distant sound of dishes clanging and voices speaking in the dining room, it is quiet.
I offer a silent prayer, an urgent plea for help. I lean close and begin to softly sing songs I've crooned to my own babies on restless nights, "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so . . ." Max calms as one song becomes two, becomes seven becomes ten. "Safe am I. Safe am I. In the hollow of His hand." Singing gives me perspective.
I remember another song from years gone by.
If I close my eyes I can picture the moment as if it were yesterday. Diana and I are standing side-by-side, mother and daughter, microphone in hand. It's the first (and only) time we are the featured duet at the annual May banquet honoring mothers. She's lovely, fit and fine. I'm working on my one-day-to-be-a-grandma shape - soft and round with a little bit of frump thrown in. Her blonde, shoulder length hair sparkles with health; mine is tempered with a smattering of gray peeking through the curls. Diana sings like a song-bird, I sing like a crow but together we're not bad. She smoothes out my warbles and I'm so rusty, I make her shine.
At the introduction, the ladies seated before us cease their chatter and settle contentedly in their chairs the dainty delicacies having left them feeling comfortably full. It's been fun to be together. With the first words of the lilting melody I can see that the song** we've chosen conjures up sweet visuals for them: "They tied our shoes, took us to school, patched our worn-out jeans. They soothed our tears and calmed our fears, and listened to our dreams. Somewhere along their golden years, their hair has lost its sheen, the notes to hymn one hundred ten crackle when they sing. And now they are alone, no children's voices fill their empty homes.
"We must love them while we can. We must love them while we can. For time just seems to hurry by, and the days slip into years and the moments that we have will disappear so love them while we can."
Here and there I see a woman press a tissue to her eye to catch a sudden tear. Others wear a far away look as they venture down memory lane. I love the song; I love the sentiment.
Now it's many years later. Diana is a momma now. I'm a grandma using my soft-roundness-with-just-a-touch-of-frump to rock my grandbabies to sleep. I've a smidgen more gray, and some days it takes longer then others to get the old engine started. I find myself saying, "Huh?" way too often. The only pants I patch anymore are my husband Rob's. No more trips to school. No more rush for sporting events. No more reminders to, "Tie your shoes." How quickly the years go by.
It's the second verse of that song that stirs me deeply, "The folks that taught us our first words still have much to say. The silver secrets of the world lie beneath those crowns of gray. As they approach the end, we change our role from children to best friend. "We must love them while we can. We must love them while we can. For time just seems to hurry by, and the days slip into years and the moments that we have will disappear so love them while we can."
My singing ends with Mac calling for his deceased wife as if she is standing near by.
"I'm here, honey," I soothe. What does it matter if she is not visibly present to me? Mac can see her. My voice becomes hers in his mind and he is calmed by it.
There are things more important than paperwork and sorting mail. They'll be there in the morning but Mac might not be. For this night, this moment, I choose. I choose to remember, I choose to care, I choose to love him while I can.
*not his real name
**Love Them While You Can by Steve and Annie Chapman