Isn’t it funny how something of seemingly little significance can suddenly become precious – all because of a special memory?
Recently, I have found this to be true. During my 60 years of living, I have seen hundreds of Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy boxes. In some of my more romantic years, I even received a few. A few are tucked away in an old closet, the packages faded through the years. Even now, years later, upon opening the boxes, the faint scent of that delectable chocolate still lingers.
The reminders announcing the upcoming holiday appear on the store shelves very soon after the last vestiges of Christmas have lost their luster. The bright red packages with a slick or satiny touch in a variety of sizes and assortments – accented with bows and fancy wrappings. This year, as every year, the receipt of that special heart-shaped box will bring smiles to faces everywhere.
To me, this year and most likely each year hereafter, the sight of that simple heart-shaped box will bring a bit of sadness intertwined with fond memories. For it was two years ago today, on Feb. 14, 2017, reputedly the sweetest of days, that a forever memory was made for me.
In mid-January, I had begun staying as an aide with an elderly cancer patient named Ruth Cochran – Miss Ruth, to me. She was the mother of one of my Facebook friends and her recent terminal cancer diagnosis had left her and all her family reeling. Hospice had been called in and the countdown to the final days was fast approaching.
When I met Miss Ruth during the last weeks of her life she was the epitome of the gentle, Southern soul. Tall and willowy, gracious in speech and actions, her porcelain skin, jet black hair with wisps of gray and delicate features belied her inner strength. With familial roots entrenched in heritage and tradition, her long life had been filled with family, friends and a zest for adventure. Her infectious laugh was light and airy and seemed to just float away on the wind. One would never imagine she was fighting the most difficult battle of her life. She was a true Southern lady – even to the end.
So our daily schedule had become routine. Every morning, I would enter the home quietly as Miss Ruth rested on the couch in the living room, her favorite spot. It was there she could look out the big picture window into the front yard, watching for the first signs of spring, that early burst of color of the spring flowering tree. Most days she napped with her dog Tebow at her feet, only awakening for meals and bathroom breaks.
On rare occasions, she felt well enough to rouse up and “talk awhile.”
She would tell me of her life – of her idyllic childhood with her doting parents, her young adult life or the interesting travels with her husband and two children during the “military years.”
Sometimes she would tell me about her home place on a 100-year-old family farm, the church ladies, and the cats she had collected through the years. But most days, we would just sit. No TV, sometimes soothing music, sometimes just the silence.
In the last decade, I have “sat” with three patients in their final hours – my husband Steve in 2009, my brother Bobby in 2016 and Miss Ruth in 2017.
That’s what one often does – you and the patient. Sit and wait.
When one is leaving this world for the next one, the priorities change quickly. The loud noise and glare of needless TV shows seem so trite. So, one suddenly becomes still. Quiet is welcome, the stillness somehow soothing as the mind and body do their final work.
So, on this particular cold Valentine's Day last year, Miss Ruth was awakened by the sound of the doorbell and subsequently, the barking dogs. The postal carrier had delivered a package for her.
We hurriedly opened it to find a satiny, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day sampler from her son and daughter-in-law – complete with red bow and the detailed location chart of the chocolates and their various creamy or nutty fillings.
Miss Ruth’s face lit up and the twinkle returned to her eyes – it was Valentine’s Day, time to celebrate! I imagined all the memories flooding over her as she recalled the 70-plus Valentine’s Days in her lifetime.
She gingerly lifted the top from the box and the heavenly smell of chocolate wafted through the air. And a smile spread across her face. Showing her impeccable manners, she offered me a piece first but I declined. No taste of chocolate on my lips could compare with the pleasure of watching her joy as she dived into the delicacies – and ate not one, not two, but three chocolate candies.
After her indulgence, she was ready to dress up for the occasion!
We brushed her hair, put on a glorious red sweater and found a gold and red waterfall necklace from her daughter’s collection of handmade jewelry. She applied a bit of blush and lipstick and asked me to grab a notepad and pen as she named off a list of makeup she would need for the future.
We had a joyous day and, oh, how I wish I had thought to take a photo. I was saddened to know that this would likely be the last box of Valentine's chocolates she would ever enjoy. But in times such as these, it is best to outnumber the tears with laughter and we certainly did so that day!
In the weeks afterward, the pain became such that Miss Ruth spent most of her time heavily medicated as she awaited the inevitable.
Her eyes dulled and the sweet southern soul began slipping away days before her final breath. I was not there to tell Miss Ruth good-bye. But that’s OK as I would really prefer to remember her in my own way - dressed to the nines in her Valentine’s Day garb, eyes sparkling, and smelling of chocolate, laughing and enjoying the moment.
So, this year as you debate whether to treat yourself and splurge on that special box of chocolates, please do! Life is too short not to enjoy the little things – like a “once a year” walk on the wild side! Do it for you and the joy of life!
And in memory of my sweet friend, Mrs. Ruth Cochran.