November now. Her third month away from home and her husband of 63 years. Fall in Carolina was still warm and clothed in glory, but today I carried some of her long-sleeved shirts and sweaters in anticipation of the colder days coming.
With a big smile I appeared in her doorway. "Hi, Mom! Looks like lunch time!" Her tray, at a distance from her wheelchair, was loaded with food that showed only minor evidence of nibbling.
"Yeah, that's over," she said.
"This chicken looks so tender; should I cut up a bite or two more?" I asked.
"No, I've had enough."
"How about a bite of applesauce; that's your favorite."
"No, I'm done. If I could just get this off, I'd . . . I could get . . . ." She fumbled with the lap restraint.
I tried for reassurance. "I think that's for safety, Mom, you remember how you can get dizzy when you walk; we wouldn't want you to fall and get hurt."
The infirmities of aging had intruded into a vibrant life. Mom's dizzy spells, heart trouble, and then several small strokes had left her disoriented and beyond our ability to care for her at home. Now on any given day her perception of "now" might be a time from decades ago. Today, though, I perceived she was on the same calendar page I was. I called that a "good" day. But those were the days she was aware of being in a nursing home. Those were the days when all her sentences began with, "I used to . . .," "I can't . . .," and "I don't have . . . anymore." I reconsidered my judgment; the days that her mind chose connections to live in the past were actually the "good" days-for her.
I sought her approval of each clothing item before I hung it in the small closet. In her spacious closets and drawers at home, I'd felt like an intruder trying to select correctly.
For positive conversation I turned to flowers in a vase, a piece of fruit Dad had left to tempt her, a new greeting card. Then from down the hallway came melody-the thin singing of a harmonica. The music beckoned-I followed-and found Beulah.
Here with smiling eyes was a wheel-hair-bound lady, size large, holding a small harmonica.
"I heard you playing," I said. "Would you play for us if I wheeled you to my mother's room?"
"Oh, I'd be proud to, honey," she said, and once with us Beulah began to play a hymn, "In the Sweet By and By," blowing and pulling the melody phrase by phrase, while Mom, watching intently, softly filled in some of the lyrics.
Without pause, Beulah continued with "The Old Rugged Cross." Mom continued some singing, "So, I'll cherish the old rugged cross, til my trophies at last I lay down . . ." At the end Beulah paused.
"What's her name?" Beulah asked me, steadily watching Mom.
"Dorothy, my mom's name is Dorothy," I replied, "and I'm Penny." We exchanged the customary "making your acquaintance" questions.
Beulah Pope, a former farm wife with mostly ungrayed hair framing her round face, declared herself to be 94 years old. She explained that her daughter, a musician, had given her the harmonica when she first came to the nursing home and simply said, "Here, Mom, see if you can have some fun with this."
"My daughter died when she was 61," she said. "I taught myself to play. No, I never had music lessons in my life. Yes, I've been playing a long time now. Do you have a request?"
It seemed hymns were her specialty. I asked for "How Great Thou Art." Now Mom was singing most of the words, and she continued to watch Beulah closely. It seemed as if her soul had found a pillow to rest on.
Next Beulah offered "In the Garden" and concluded with "Jesus Loves Me." By the last song Mom's voice had become stronger and more sure.
And then Beulah was ready to leave; it was time for one of the activities, events I could not persuade Mom to attend.
I said, "Beulah, tell us, do you have a secret for your long life?"
Without hesitation, she recited, "If you don't get what you like, you have to like what you get." And she looked for our approval, which I heaped upon her, both for her wise words and her generously shared gift of music.
In the past weeks I had reached for the serenity to accept the hard realities of aging. Adjusting and accepting were the best that I could do. It was difficult to think of "liking" the circumstances that Mom, and Dad and I as well, were facing.
Yet, Mom liked what she heard that day. A few days later I found her on a "bad" day, feeling lonely and extraordinarily anxious. I took her for a ride up and down the halls for some distraction. She began to sing "Jesus loves me, this I know . . . " and kept singing it over and over as we strolled.
It was the last song she would sing.
When Horatio speaks to the dying Hamlet (in the final act of Shakespeare's play), he says, "Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Surely Beulah qualifies as one of those special angels.