I met Glenn last night in the neon-lit hallways of a local hospital. He was alone; almost alone, that is, as he struggled down the corridor. His aluminum alloy walker was to his front, catheter bag attached to the side, and there was a yellow Labrador with foam-stuffed antlers gently secured to her bewildered little head. The dog’s leash was secured to the walker opposite the catheter drainage bag and the contrast was striking. Glenn was two days from Christmas and light years from Easter.
Glenn, dressed in beige-colored flannel pajamas, with thin red stripes, seemed to worry more about the catheter getting too far from him, than from him getting too far from his little canine reindeer. He was cheerful, but nervous.
Glenn did not seem to walk as much as he appeared to shuffle. His imitation leather slippers looked more Wal-Mart than they did L. L. Bean and were worn to the point of danger. As he navigated his walker down the hallway he was a calamity of sounds.
“Glenn, I think it’s time we got you back to your room,” said a large African-American woman named Roberta. Clearly, she was charged with keeping Glenn from falling and breaking a hip.
“I’m tired of my room,” he retorted, somewhat under his breath. “I need some exercise.”
“You know the rules, Glenn,” she answered. “The doctor doesn’t want you walking around by yourself.”
“I’m not by myself. Can’t you see that I’ve got Gracie here?”
“I’m sorry Glenn, but I don’t think that’s what your doctor had in mind,” she said maternally, but with no lack of authority.
My trip to the hospital had been obligatory. The boss had a gallbladder and a failure to visit would have been remembered. The visit had been dutifully completed and it was time to go. But here was Glenn, alone with the exception of little Gracie, the reindeer dog, and clearly about to face the battle of his life.
As the nurse faced her patient down, Glenn attempted to flee. The walker hit the floor a hundred times as he quickly rotated himself counterclockwise. Little Gracie’s stuffed antlers were askew and there was a look of terror in her eyes. If bodies started flying, she already knew that there would be nowhere to run.
Glenn’s captor soon had both hands on his left arm and he immediately tried to shake her off.
“Now, Glenn, don’t be that way. You know the rules. I don’t want to have to call your son again,” she threatened. “And I don’t want to have to put Gracie back in the kennel. But this is a hospital and you aren’t the only patient here. You simply have to cooperate.”
They were beside me now, as I pressed myself up against the wall to avoid the potential melee. And then Glenn tried to pull free one last time and the whole crowd started crashing my way.
Seeing no way out, I attempted to grab Glenn’s right arm and thereby keep him from falling. Luckily, the plan worked. I then helped Roberta usher poor Glenn and Gracie down the hallway to his room.
As we slowly and gently turned him so that he could be seated on his bed, his defiant eyes locked on mine.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“My name is Al,” I said.
“Like the state?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked, thinking that perhaps he was a confused Alzheimer’s patient.
“I mean like Al-aska, or Al-abama,” he answered, winking. “Or maybe like the city, you know, Al-toona. Or maybe you’re French, like Al-ouette?”
“Now, Glenn, this nice man just helped you. You should at least be pleasant,” lectured Roberta, while little Gracie looked on with crooked antlers – the poor thing had heard it all before.
Glenn juggled himself into bed, carefully holding his catheter bag as Gracie followed behind, snuggling close to his side.
“Roberta, am I still getting out of this prison tomorrow?” he asked.
“We hope, Glenn, we can only hope. It’ll just depend on whether your son is able to come and pick you up,” she answered.
“Well, don’t pressure him. I know I’m a pain in the ass, but he has enough to worry about. He’ll get here as soon as he can,” said Glenn with sad eyes.
And then turning to me, he said, “How about you, Alabama, can you stay and visit for awhile?”
Having not considered the possibility, and being anxious to get home, I said, “Sure, if that’s what you’d like.”
“So tell me, Alabama, do you like to fish?” he asked, as Roberta escaped the room, shaking her head the whole time, but clearly relieved that old Glenn had focused his attention elsewhere.
“I do, Glenn, but it’s a lousy time of year for fishing, don’t you think?” I answered.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But when I was a boy, my grandfather used to take me ice fishing. It was colder back then. I haven’t been ice fishing in years. Probably won’t be going again, either. They tell me I’ll be dead inside of a month. The cancer got a head start on me and I haven't been able to catch up.”
His words sucked the air from my chest and left me with no possibility of a reply. He was obviously elderly, but scheduling your death was not a concept that I was comfortable discussing. I just stared and listened.
“Yeah, I lost Millie four years ago. She was the kindest woman I ever knew. She would’ve had to be really kind to put up with me.
“Then I got sick last year. I didn’t really mind. I’ve had a good long life. Don’t care for this catheter much,” he said, gesturing to the yellow rubber tube leading to….well, you know where.
“Don’t care much for all the poking and prodding, either. Or the drugs that make you sick, or the drugs that are supposed to make you better. Or the rules, the special diets, the IVs, the home health nurses, or the doctors that really don’t have time for you, and don’t really care about you if they did have the time. No sir, Mr. Alabama, I just don’t care for much of any of this crap. It’s just no way for a proud man to die,” he said, as he stared off at death in the distance, careening toward him like a meteorite.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Alabama, if it weren’t for my little granddaughter, I’d put a 45 caliber to my head and we’d have a closed casket. But the truth is, we’re sort of having a little race to see who gets to the embalmer first,” he whispered, as a tear fell from his eye.
“If I had a life to give, I’d surely give it to save that little girl. Nine years old and the damn cancer has her already. It’s bad enough that I’ve got lousy genes, but the thought of passing them on to that precious being is almost more than I can bear. I know my son blames me. How could he not?”
The black plastic frames sat crooked on his face. He was a mirror image of his dog – crooked glasses matching crooked antlers. They were quite the pair.
“My son sits by that hospital bed every day. I told him not even to come here. I want every bit of energy that he has to be directed toward that little girl. That’s why I don’t know if I’m going to get out of here tomorrow. They won’t let me take a cab, and there are only three of us left, and only one of us has a driver’s license.”
“Don’t give it a second thought,” I said. “I’ll drive you home.”
“You would do that, Alabama? You would do that for a complete stranger?” he asked, seemingly touched by what I hoped was kindness.
“I don’t feel like you’re a stranger, Glenn. And yes, I would be happy to drive you home. I get off work at four and I can be here by four-thirty. Can you be ready by then?” I asked.
“You bet!” was all he said.
* * * *
As the afternoon wore on and my work seemed more inconsequential, I found myself looking forward to seeing Glenn again.
Even though he was dying and his days on Earth were numbered, he was not going to let a single moment be wasted. And he was not going to worry about himself – it was his grand-daughter who occupied his conscious mind.
When I once again went to his hospital room, he was dressed and sitting in a wheelchair. He wore an ancient overcoat and a faded fedora. The glasses were still crooked as he clutched a white plastic bag in his lap. Gracie sat by his side, clearly as anxious for discharge as was the old man.
I pushed the wheelchair down the hallway, past the weary nurses, too tired to notice our leaving, and out into the cold Christmas Eve air. The light gray clouds flew low and the cold wind blew bits of snow and sleet into our faces as we braced ourselves against the elements.
“Do you smell that air, Alabama? Do you smell it?” he asked with marvel in his voice, as he found joy in the world. “No cleaner smell than the air on Christmas Eve.”
We piled into my Blazer and he gave me directions to his home.
“Isn’t there someplace I can take you? Would you like to get a bite to eat? Buy some gifts?” I asked, wanting to do something more for the old man who would never see another Christmas Eve.
“I would like to see my grand-daughter,” he said absently. “She’s at Children’s Hospital, but I need to stop by the house first, if that would be okay?”
Not sure that I was up to the emotional toll that an evening such as this would exact, I agreed. What else could I do?
We entered Glenn’s house, a humble brick ranch, and I was immediately struck by the smell – it smelled like home.
“Millie and I lived here for thirty years,” he said, as he studied the living room. “We had a good life.”
Using his walker, he shuffled to the kitchen and pulled a bone shaped cookie from a jar for Gracie, who sat and looked imploringly at him.
“That’s a good girl,” he said, as he offered the cookie to her.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he said as he shuffled down the hallway toward his bedroom.
I took a seat at the kitchen table and listened to the sounds coming from the bedroom. Doors and drawers opened and closed, followed by periods of silence, but it wasn’t long before the sounds of shuffling could once again be heard in the hallway.
“Ho, ho ho!” he called out in a robust voice, “Merry Christmas!”
Gracie was lunging and barking, as Santa with a walker, made his way toward the kitchen.
“It’s okay, girl,” he said. “It’s only old Glenn.”
In one hand, he clutched what looked to be a handmade doll to the walker. It was an odd cross between Cabbage Patch and Raggedy Ann, but it was easy to see that it had been made with love.
The Santa suit hung from the body ravaged by cancer, appearing as if the ghost of Christmas past. The beard was askew, the hat nearly covered the old man’s eyes,pushing the glasses into their usual crooked tilt, and the black boots rose high enough on his legs to bring to mind go-go boots of a day gone by.
“I’m ready,” he said, lifting and dropping the walker as he made his way toward the door. “I just hope we’re not too late.”
The walk into Children’s Hospital was long and arduous, but Glenn refused a wheelchair. He was going to walk to see his beloved grand-daughter, regardless of how much it would take out of him.
“Her name is Eve,” he said as we approached the door to her room. “She’s the prettiest little girl to ever live.”
As he reached the door, he stopped, took a deep breath, and gently cracked it open. There was a quick flurry of activity from within as his son and daughter-in-law rushed to the door.
“Dad, what are you doing here? You’re too weak. You just got out of the hospital,” said his son, now with even more to worry about.
Glenn simply raised a single finger to his lips as he whispered, “Shhh…and the name’s Santa. And this here is my friend, Alabama,” he said, as he opened the door more widely and began shuffling toward the bed.
The little girl lay motionless in the bed. Her hair had been taken by the chemo and her face was moon shaped from the steroids. Her forearms were bruised from the IVs and the blood draws, and there was a tube in her nose.
Santa sat on the edge of the bed and his heart broke. He took the doll and placed it on the young girl’s chest, carefully clasping her hands around it.
The eyes opened; vacant, but searching.
“Grandpa?” she asked.
“Santa,” he answered.
“Grandpa,” she said. “You came.”
Santa lay down in the bed and cradled his beautiful girl’s head to his shoulder.
“I’m here, Little Eve,” he said. “And so is Grandma Millie. I’ve brought the doll that she made for you before she died.”
The words came only with the greatest of effort from the exhausted little girl.
“Grandpa,” she struggled, “I love you so much.”
The tears flowed from the observers in the room. No more tender moment had ever been witnessed.
“What do you want for Christmas, Eve? You can have whatever you want,” said Glenn, quietly into her little ear.
The answer came haltingly. “I have been praying for a miracle, Grandpa,” she whispered.
“Then a miracle is what you shall have.”
They lay there together as Eve’s breathing became almost imperceptible. She was no longer able to talk as the life ebbed from her ravaged body. Glenn knew what was happening and the very thought caused his heart to ache unlike anything he had ever experienced.
As Eve took her last breath, the old man gave up his own grasp on life. God had given little Eve her miracle.
Grandpa was taking her for a walk.