RHETA JOHNSON: The kindness of strangers

RHETA JOHNSON

RHETA JOHNSON

I once believed that at the end of our lives, relatives and loved ones would take care of us, bring us comfort, break the monotony of long, last hours.

I’m now convinced most of us will end up depending on the kindness of strangers, the same strangers Blanche DuBois relied upon.

People who do not owe us, who only recently know us, will, in all probability, bathe us, shave us and save us from despair as we gasp our last. It may be in a hospital, nursing home or at home, but rudimentary needs will be met by kind strangers.

Our friends and kin – if we don’t outlive them – will mean well and stop by with cookies and smiles, but they won’t have the skills, time or gumption to cope with our diminishing hours. They will wring their hands, but not much more.

Ask me how I know.

My father’s best friends in the past few months have been women he never saw until a year ago. They have families of their own, all of them, but they have made room in their schedules and hearts for him. It goes beyond rendering a service for pay; it is much more than that.

Nickie, a nursing student, cooks the best grits he’s ever eaten, my father says, and he hails from a South Georgia farm where grits were both a staple and an art form. Nickie arrives early each day like sunshine in Amsterdam, listens to his stories and dries his tears when the dread becomes palpable.

Having nursed both her own mother and father through battles with fatal cancer, she is the Sacagawea we fledglings and long-distance non-nurses desperately need. The thorough and knowledgeable Nickie could organize a State Dinner or military coup.

Alisha, who has a day job with hospice, is never too tired in the evening to deal with the ordeal of meds, beds and sleeplessness. She catnaps on the double bed that used to be his, and my father rests in a narrow hospital bed beside her. All night long they wake to look and check on the other. In the morning Alisha doesn’t act grumpy or exhausted, but fresh and caring.

Tisha, who calls my father “Papa,” has a calming influence on him that I’ve certainly never had, and she knows his favorite side on which to sleep, which is news to me. She makes him laugh. She drives 43 miles one way to do so.

Moe, the newest bedside face, is as competent and kind as the others. How did he, we, get so lucky?

They fix him ice-cream cones and V8 Fusion. They know how to bend the straw and tip the glass. They bring birthday gifts and cards, and remind him which of his children is due on which day.

If you live long enough in this life, you inevitably feel disappointed in people. Someone for whom you’ve done countless favors refuses a small request. A friend betrays you with words. A relative loses touch. We’ve all been on the thoughtless end of that equation, too. It’s rare that friendship runs in an even line, or that justice is served tit-for-tat.

But, on the other hand, we get repaid for our own good work by someone who owes us nothing. They, in turn, will be helped by folks they didn’t see coming.

These women, once strangers, have become family, so maybe I was right all along.

Contact syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson at Iuka, Miss. 38852. She lives nearby. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.