ONE MORE BEFORE I GO

By John Thomas Tuft

Grace punched the code into the electronic lock keypad and entered the building for her shift as a CNA in the Fairfield Community House, an assisted living facility. The nights were getting longer and colder as winter approached. She clipped her name badge to her uniform and dug a package of Pecan Sandies cookies from her bag. They are Henry’s favorites. The 83-year-old widower with Alzheimer’s rarely received any visitors and Grace knew of his legendary sweet tooth. The hallway lights were turned low as she began a midnight shift dragging a large garbage bag behind her, collecting soiled diapers and undergarments from the rooms of her sleeping charges. Esther had gotten into her stash of chocolate with the usual explosive results, so Grace had to clean her up and change the bed linens. She knew Henry would be lying awake, waiting for the eerie swishing sound of the bag across the tile hallway as she made her way toward him.

Sure enough, as Grace stepped through the doorway, the small lamp beside the bed clicked on. “Esther did it again, didn’t she?” asked the figure in the bed as he struggled to sit up, smoothing the wisps of white hair into place. Grace stepped closer and moved her right hand out from behind her. Henry smiled. “My favorite, Pecan Sandies. You remembered!” Grace opened the package and handed him two cookies. “No more, Henry, or you’ll be in the same boat as Esther,” she said with mock seriousness. “Are the kids back from the dance yet?” asked Henry. “I don’t like them being out late.” Grace’s face softened. “No, Henry, your kids are fine. You’re in Fairfield House.” Henry looked mildly confused. “Maggie is always too soft on them.” He chuckled. “I don’t know what she fussed over more, them or her petunias.”

Grace handed him the cookies and fluffed his pillow. “Is Maggie coming today?” Henry asked, sounding almost childlike in his hope. Grace stopped and took his hand. “Henry, remember Maggie passed away two years ago.” Tears sprang to Henry’s eyes. “Oh, I miss her so. I used to watch her from the porch, out there in her flower beds, talking to her petunias.” He squeezed Grace’s hand and whispered. “Don’t tell her, but I don’t even like petunias.” “I won’t tell,” whispered Grace with a wink. Henry got a faraway look, “Do you think she knows I’m in here? How will she know where to find me, Grace?” Grace put her hands on her hips as she exclaimed, “All she has to do is follow the cookie crumbs.” Henry laughed. “I wouldn’t even mind if she brought me some petunias, just one more time before I go.”

“It’s too cold out for petunias now,” said Grace. “Besides, the gardeners already dug up everything for the winter.” Henry stopped her as she turned to go. “I’m getting so tired, Grace. If you see Maggie, would you tell her to come soon.” His words stuck with Grace as she walked back to the nurse’s station at the end of the hall. The other CNAs were huddled around the latest memo from management. Juan looked up as she approached. “More budget cuts,” he sighed. “They always take it out of the food budget. Oh, and they’re thinking about moving Henry over to Memory Care. The state wants us to keep those beds filled, I guess.” Grace protested, “No, not Henry. He’s okay, just a little confused. Who wouldn’t be in this place?”

The midnight pharmacy delivery arrived then, and Grace busied herself emptying Mrs. Brodmerkel’s capsules into applesauce and feeding it to her to help her digestion and keep her calm. She made a mental note to get back to Henry’s room again, but something kept coming up. The early morning hours slogged through and finally on her meal break she made it back to Henry. He was sitting up in the bed, beaming. “Maggie is coming today.” He pointed to the table beside the bed. “I saved her some Pecan Sandies. She loves them, too.” He gave a shy smile. “And she’ll be jealous of you, Grace. She always said I had an eye for the pretty girls.” Grace demurred. “How do you know she’s coming?” Henry whispered. “She’s bringing petunias,” in the excited hush of a child on Christmas morning.

At the end of her shift, Grace put on her jacket against the cold and punched in the code to exit the building. At first, the new sunrise blinded her and as she squinted, she caught a vision of a riot of colors. Confused, she looked around in disbelief. Every flower bed, every bit of hard, cold ground had sprung to life. With the glory of petunias. She reached down and picked one, and heart in her throat, she ran back inside, past her coworkers, and dashed into Henry’s room, excited to show him. But the old man lay there in his bed, unmoving. His face finally resting in peace. And in his hand, he clutched a single petunia. Just one more before he could go…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.