The porch swing
Each visit I had with Henry, except for only once because it was raining, was outside on the porch swing that hung from an old oak tree in the backyard of the home he lived in for 65 years. He called it a porch swing, even though it hung from the tree. I asked why we didn't call it a tree swing, he told me that sounded funny. I left it alone.
He always told me to call before I arrived so he could meet me out there. When I would arrive, I was greeted by his long time caregiver Eva, who had started caring for Carmen, his wife, 15 years earlier until she died; she promised to stay with him until he died. She was family. She was always so pleasant and kind, offering sweet tea and cookies, which I stopped refusing many visits before. She would follow me out to the swing, carrying a tray of tea and cookies and wait until I was sitting comfortably next to Henry, and then hand me the cold glass and the tray of treats.
Our visits were very rarely about his declining health, and most usually about his life as a helicopter pilot, the adventures he went on and the people he met. He liked to talk and I liked to listen. We were a pretty good team. We would sit on the porch swing drinking tea and eating cookies and his eyes would twinkle when he told me about his life. His wife didn’t like it when he flew the helicopter but she always sat down when he got home to hear his stories. He was thankful for that and missed not being able to talk to her any more. Even in her very last few years when her ability to respond verbally lessened and she mostly just lay in the bed with a blank stare, he shared stories with her, holding her hand, waiting… hoping… for a response.
I never got the chance to meet her, but I felt like I had known her all my life because he talked about her often enough that I knew so much about her; the way she cared for everyone she knew, the way she cooked better than any well-known chef and loved to have people over so she could spoil them with something delicious. He loved her, with every ounce of his being and until she took her very last breath, he was at her side.
My visits with Henry filled my heart. Sometimes he would say things like, “you remind me of her when she was younger, your heart is kind like hers”. I would take that with me and knew what a true honor it was to be compared to her. He would hold my hand sometimes when we would sit on the porch swing; there was safety in his firm grip. He would tell me, “you deserve to have someone love you the way I loved my Carmen”. He said this often.
I saw him once a week until it turned into twice a week and I watched as he slowly declined. He was weaker, thinner, and he hunched over when he walked but he never complained about anything. Each visit he would say, “I’m dying soon you know” and I would say, “I know”.
A few months after I started seeing him, I called to say I was on my way. Eva answered the phone and said he hadn’t gotten out of bed yet and asked if it was okay that our visit be in his room. When I arrived and walked into his room, he turned his head towards me and held his hand up for me to take hold. Eva slid a chair close to the bed for me to sit down. I looked at him and I knew he would not be with us much longer and this might very well be the last time I would get to see him. I had to fight the tears that were trying hard to fall from my eyes. He said to me, “don’t cry, please don’t cry”. I told him I would miss him, he said he would miss me too. We sat in silence for several minutes. He said, “I’m dying”. I replied, “I know”. He squeezed my hand tightly and then told me he was tired and wanted to sleep. I stood up to go, I bent down, kissed him on his cheek and said goodbye… he whispered goodbye and slowly turned his head away from me.
That night Eva called me to let me know he had passed away. We both cried. I reminded her how wonderful she was to him and to Carmen. She invited me to come have tea one more time on the porch swing, so the next day I stopped by. She held the same familiar tray with two glasses of sweet tea and a plate of cookies. We both sat down on the porch swing. We talked about Henry, what a wonderful man he was and how thankful we were to have had time with him. As we sat there, a helicopter flew over, almost hovering above us. We both looked up and smiled. We knew he was checking in on us.
This was a few years ago. Every time I feel sadness or struggle I always think about Henry and our visits on the porch swing because it always makes me smile. The stories he shared with me, the way he was always telling me I deserved to find great love, and the reminder of what I do and why I do it. For us it wasn’t a nurse-patient visit; his illness brought us together but our visits made us friends. It was a friendship I will cherish for always. I am really grateful for the people I meet, the patients I care for, the families and friends I support and the lives that I am constantly touched by. Each one leaves a lasting memory for me to revisit any time I need to.
Today I took a walk outside, trying to shake off the weight I was feeling for the struggle our world is facing. I sometimes ask the universe and the sky to guide me, to give me the strength to get through the difficult times. Today I asked it to show me a sign that someone was listening, that someone heard me… that someone could tell me that everything was going to be okay. All of a sudden a helicopter flew over my head and hovered above me… I believe that Henry heard me, and that he was telling me everything was going to be okay. I believe that while we may come out of this with a few bruises and maybe some scars, we are going to be okay.
It’s been a few years since I sat on a porch swing with my friend Henry, but the memory always finds its way back to me reminding me that I am comforted and safe. I needed a visit from Henry today. Perhaps you would like to borrow some of the hope I am feeling right now...