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“Mildred” was a firecracker. She was a brilliant, compassionate, no-nonsense 82-year-old who grew up in the southern Appalachian mountains and learned a lot about the world despite her limited exposure to anything beyond east Tennessee. I cared for her for over 15 years, and I always looked forward to our visits – I always learned something from her. When she finally succumbed to her lung disease, after smoking for 70 years, it really bothered me.
There are some diseases we can’t treat, so we should rejoice in our small victories. But it’s hard sometimes. Anyway, one beautiful spring day she could tell she was near the end, and she called me on my cell phone:
Mildred: “Hey, doc. I can’t breathe. I’m pretty bad off, here.”
Me: “You should go to the ER.”
Mildred: “Can they help me?”
Me: “Maybe. With your lungs, maybe not. But maybe.”
Mildred: “I don’t want to do that again. Can you come see me?”
Me: “I’m in Dallas right now, getting ready to give a speech about heart disease. I’ll be home mid-day tomorrow. But if the ER can’t help you, I probably can’t, either.”
Mildred: “I understand. But please come see me. Call before you come. If I answer, please come see me.”
Me: * pause * “Right. Ok. I’ll call.”
So I call her the next morning, she answers, so I get in my truck and drive 45 minutes to her trailer park near Mountain City, Tennessee. It’s the fourth of the month. Everybody gets their disability checks on the third. So as I pull into her trailer park, and there are all these people sitting on lawn chairs out by the entrance, trading money, for drugs, for food stamps, for prescriptions, for God knows what else. Never go to a rural Walmart on the third of the month, and never go to a place like her trailer park on the fourth of the month.
I pull up to her trailer, and just walk in. I know she can’t answer the door.
Mildred: “Hey, doc! Come on back!”
So I go back to her bedroom, and find her bundled up, shivering under the covers, with her home O2 running full tilt. She’s gasping for breath, and finds it hard to speak.
Mildred: “I can’t breathe. It’s getting worse. The inhalers don’t help.”
Me: “You can’t inhale, so the inhalers can’t get to where they can help you.”
Mildred: “I’m going to die, right?”
Me: “Well, yes. Maybe not right now, though. The hospital might be able to tune you up a bit with IVs, respiratory therapy, BiPAP, and whatnot. Might be worth a try.”
Mildred: “I’ve done that over and over again. I’m sick of it. I’m ready to go. I miss my husband. He probably hasn’t had decent killed cabbage since he got to heaven.”
Me: “They don’t have killed cabbage in heaven?”
Mildred: “They don’t have MY killed cabbage.”
Mildred: “But they’re about to, I think.”
Me: “And I thought heaven couldn’t get any better.”
Mildred: “I’ll make you some when you get there.”
Me: “Don’t wait up.”
Mildred: “Do me a favor – under my kitchen sink, off to the right, there’s a false panel. Behind that, there’s a paper bag. Could you bring that to me?”
Me: “Is there killed cabbage in it?”
Mildred: “No, silly. Just bring me the bag.”
So I go to her kitchen, root around under the sink, and jump back with a startled, but manly, scream.
Mildred: “Are you ok?”
Me: “There’s a million cockroaches under here.”
Mildred: “Oh, right – sorry. Ignore them. Just get the bag.”
Me: “I’m going to my truck to get my .45 automatic.”
Mildred: “Stop being so dramatic. Just bring me the bag.”
So I take a deep breath, shove my way past herds of cockroaches the size of pit bulls, and grab her bag. I carry it back to her bedroom and set it on her lap. A couple cockroaches scatter from the bag across her bedsheets.
She pushes it back to me, and hands me a scrap of paper. “My son got messed up on drugs. His wife left him, and I haven’t seen my grandkids since then. I’ve tried to call. She won’t answer. Her number is on the paper. Call her up, and tell her that I’ve left my money to my grandkids. Ask her to spend it on them.”
Me: “I’m not walking out of here with a bag full of your life savings.”
Mildred: “When I die, those dope heads out there will just steal it and spend it on narcotics. Give it to my grandkids.”
Me: “I don’t like this.”
Mildred: “I don’t like dying. But here we are.”
Mildred: “Shush and do as I say.”
Me: “Right. I’m really sorry you’re in this situation.”
Mildred: “I did it to myself. And like I said, I’m ready to go. Get me out of here.”
I held her hand for a bit, until she shooed me off. I got in my truck, with a bag full of money and cockroaches, and drove home. I put her bag in a plastic garbage bag and tied it off tight, to keep the cockroaches where they were. I hid the bag in my garage.
I called the number. No one answered. I left a message. I called again a week later. Same thing. After a month or two, I was starting to wonder what to do with the bag, when finally “Amber” returned my call. I explained that her former mother-in-law had died, and had asked me to give her something. She asked what. I said I didn’t know. A few weeks later, she drove out from Maryville. She looked unhealthy and rough. Greasy hair, dirty clothes, tattoos on her arms and neck.
Me: “Mildred saved some money up. She put it in this bag. She asked me to give it to you, and she asked you to spend it on her grandkids.”
Amber: “I’m done with all them. She hasn’t seen her grandkids in six years.”
Me: * shrug *
Amber: “How does she know she can trust me to do that?”
Me: “She died a horrible death, alone in the dark, in a cockroach-infested single-wide trailer. Her options were limited. She couldn’t trust me, either. I hope you’ll do as she asks.”
Amber: “What if I don’t?”
Me: * shrug *
Amber: “How much money is it?”
Me: * shrug *
Amber: “You didn’t look?”
Me: “It’s not my money. It belongs to her grandkids.”
Amber: * looks at the bag on the table * “I don’t believe this.”
Me: “I can imagine. I hope you do the right thing. Your call.”
Amber: “So you just give me that bag full of money. And I just drive away.”
Amber: “No lawyers, no taxes, no nuthin’.”
Me: “Just your word to Mildred that you’ll take care of her grandkids.”
Amber: * pause *
Me: * pause *
Amber: “Ok. I guess that’s mine, then.”
Me: “No, it’s her grandkids’.”
Amber: “Right. That’s what I meant.”
Amber took the bag and drove away.
It’d be a great story if she used that money to clean up her act and provide a better future for her kids. Maybe she did. Hard to say.
At the very least, some guy in heaven finally got some decent killed cabbage.
We should rejoice in our small victories.Published in