Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Broad Wing Of Time

Anna and I pose for a picture on her 70th birthday
Jean Paul Richter, a German art historian in the 1800s, said that "birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time". I interpret that to mean that each annual commemoration adds value to our imaginary limbs of flight; it gives sustenance to our memories and deeper meaning to the lives we have led. To have earned 70 feathers is to be rich in experience; indeed, to have lived a full life.

And so it is with my friend, Anna, whose 70th birthday I helped celebrate last week on the 23rd of March in her room at a nursing home in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has been a resident for several years. I last wrote about Anna in 2014, when it became clear to me that there was no one currently in Anna's life to care for her, to look in on her, to let her know someone cares. Anna has no family in the U.S. at all, so I took it upon myself to start visiting her.

Since that post in 2014 a lot has changed for Anna, primarily for the good. I got to know Anna years ago when we volunteered together at a nature preserve near my home in Baltimore County. After Anna's first bout with brain cancer in 2007, I visited her in the hospital and brought casseroles to her apartment when she was able to return home. Anna eventually resumed her career as a concrete chemist for the State Highway Department, although she didn't volunteer with me anymore. We kept in touch via email, but eventually she stopped communicating.

It turned out that in 2012 Anna was struck by a second bout of brain cancer. I found out when far flung friends, relatives and colleagues resurrected a long-dormant email chain on which I was copied to ask her whereabouts. In 2013, when no one could find her, I took it upon myself to track Anna down so I could relate her condition to those who were concerned. I found her in a rehabilitation center following her second brain surgery, this time with permanent paralysis on one side and not enough strength to ever return home.  But the next time I went to visit Anna at the rehab center, she wasn't there. I had lost her again. In early 2014 I found her at a nursing home in Baltimore City and promised myself I would start visiting more often so I wouldn't lose track of her again.
Anna's sister, Eva, right, and I met a mother koala and her
baby at Caversham Wildlife Park in Western Australia in 2016  

In 2015 I became pen pals with Anna's sister, Eva, in Australia. Eva filled me in on Anna's challenging life story and their childhood in Communist Hungary. Over the next year Eva and I became such good friends via email that in August of 2016 I flew to Western Australia to spend ten days getting to know my new friend. We did lots of sightseeing and cemented our friendship over our mutual affinity for animals, nature and science.

Frustrated by never being able to reach her sister when she called the nursing home from Australia,  Eva purchased a cell phone for Anna and loaded it with prepaid minutes. We developed a new routine. I would visit Anna every other Friday, early in the morning. Because Anna is too weak to hold a cell phone on her own, I would dial Eva's telephone number in Perth and hold the phone to Anna's ear so they could talk to one another.  It was the first time Anna and Eva had been able to speak to each other on a regular basis in decades. Anna loved it. She and her sister were now able to chat away in their native Hungarian every two weeks and, although Anna can't say much, I could tell that her demeanor was changing. She was happier.

Anna, left, and her sister, Eva,
stand behind their mother in
Budapest, Hungary
In the fall of 2016, things got even better. I lobbied to get Anna moved to a room where her bed would be by the window, so she could look out at the trees and sky and feel closer to the nature she loved so much. Now she would be able to watch the seasons change! And I was able to get contact information for Anna's three grown children in Nigeria and the U.K. A new routine developed. The day before I visited Anna in the nursing home, I would email the children to see who would be free to receive a phone call from their mum the next day. Now, when I arrived at the convalescent hospital first thing Friday morning, Anna and I would ring up Eva in Australia and then we'd call whichever children were available, one after another. Suddenly Anna was connected on a regular basis with everyone in her family. At Christmas she even got to speak with some of her grandchildren for the very first time.

Though she spends much time alone, Anna tells me she is not bored. She has a lot of time to think, she says, so she wiles away the hours in her hospital bed reliving memories of worldwide travels and long ago adventures, allowing her imagination to carry her to places to which she can no longer travel in her physical body.
Wilhelmina had 30 tulips delivered
for Anna's 70th birthday

I also managed to locate the sister-in-law of Anna's deceased husband in Tennessee. Wilhelmina's son owns a bookstore, so when she expressed a desire to do something nice for Anna, I asked if she might be able to obtain copies of The Little Prince and some of Anna's other favorite titles in CD format, which I had not been able to find locally or online. When Wilhelmina asked what she might do for Anna on an ongoing basis, I suggested that having a bouquet of flowers delivered to Anna's room once every three months might be a wonderful way to offer seasonal cheer to Anna all year long. Thus, I was as excited as Anna on Christmas Eve to help her unwrap her new CD books from Wilhelmina beside a beautiful arrangement of evergreens before we called Anna's sister in Australia and her children in Lagos and London.

So, here it is, March, 2017, and the occasion of Anna's 70th birthday. Anna is no longer able to chew solid food, so when I asked what I might make for her birthday, Anna was quick to tell me that she'd been craving Chinese Hot and Sour soup. That would be a perfect gift for me to make for my friend!

I made sure all the ingredients for
Anna's birthday soup were diced
very fine
A few weeks ago, Anna's children inquired as to what gifts their mum might like to receive. I suggested they put together small albums filled with photographs of their lives: pictures of the children, with captions, showing them at school and at sports, photographs showing their homes and spouses, and handwritten cards or letters describing their lives and hobbies. Wilhelmina arranged to have a brilliant bouquet of flowers delivered to Anna on her special day -- tulips, which had been a childhood favorite of Anna's because they always bloomed during March in Hungary.
My Chinese Hot and Sour soup for
Anna came together beautifully 

The day before Anna's birthday, I prepared hot and sour soup from scratch, using a recipe I found online and taking care to mince all the ingredients very fine: tofu and barbecued pork, wood ear mushrooms, fresh ginger and bamboo shoots, so that Anna would have no trouble swallowing. I gathered together the gifts her family had sent to me: Anna's favorite perfume, Gloria Vanderbilt, a jar of special Emu cream for her fragile skin and a musical birthday card, all from Eva in Australia, and photos, cards and letters from her children.

On the morning of the 23rd, I heated a container of soup and loaded the gifts into my car. Anna was sleeping when I arrived but awoke to the sight of wrapped presents piled high on her bedside tray. We opened the cards and gifts from Anna's family one by one. There were handwritten letters from each school-age grandchild in London, written in their very best penmanship, describing their hobbies, what they are studying in school and what they want to be when they grow up. There was an album filled with photos of the children engaged in school and at play. There was a framed collage of photographs from her son, filled with images of his toddlers posing with Santa and having fun in a park.
You can't tell but Anna is smiling broadly!

I read each letter and card to Anna, and then we made our phone calls to the far-flung corners of the world. It was the first time Anna had ever been able to speak to her sister and all three of her children on the same day. I fed Anna some of the Chinese soup I'd made, which she immediately proclaimed to be far better than the restaurant version I had brought to her a few weeks earlier. I dabbed a bit of perfume behind her ears and rubbed some Emu cream on her hands.

We left each other as we always do. I asked Anna what book she would like to hear, then plugged in the CD player, adjusted the volume on the headphones and positioned them gently over her ears. I waved goodbye as Anna settled in to listen to her favorite author, her gifts spread out on the table before her, a look of peace on her face. No doubt the feathers of her years were fanning out to convey Anna to lofty places in her memory, the broad wing of time transporting my friend to happy recollections of years well lived -- and of many birthdays gone before.
Cheers,
Lynell

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