“If you don’t get down to Florida to see your grandma soon, it’s going to be too late,” Ellen’s mother warned. “You haven’t been there since grandpa’s funeral and I’m tired of hearing the same old excuses. She has cancer—it’s only a matter of time.”
“Okay, Mom, I give up,” she’d said, growing weary of her mother’s incessant nagging about the need for her to visit her grandmother. “I’ll talk to Paul about it tonight.”
Ellen kept her word and after dinner that evening, she told her husband she was thinking of making a quick trip to Florida, expecting him to complain about the cost. His reaction surprised her. “If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” he’d said. “I don’t understand why you’ve waited this long.”
As a child, Ellen had looked forward to visiting Grandpa and Nana Stevens in Sarasota. She loved the beach—splashing in the warm waters of the Gulf and playing in the sand with the plastic toys Nana kept in the shed just for her. Then there were the trips to Mote Aquarium, Busch Gardens and twice they had taken her to Orlando to Disney World. She had even liked tagging along with Grandpa on his morning walks through the mobile home park.
“This is my granddaughter Ellen,” he’d say proudly to everyone they’d meet. “She’s visiting from Michigan and I can tell you one thing for sure, you’d better watch out because she’s one smart cookie.” As she got older, she’d wondered if any of them remembered he’d said the very same thing the year before and the year before that, but if they did, they didn’t mention it.
Ellen purchased a round trip ticket to Tampa, leaving on Saturday afternoon and returning to Detroit early Sunday evening. It was a smooth flight and the plane pulled into the gate right on time. When the pilot turned off the fasten seat belt signs, Ellen retrieved the small sports bag she had borrowed from her son from the overhead compartment. She hadn’t brought much with her since she was only staying one night, just a change of clothes, toiletries and a few pictures of her two children.
After stopping at the counter of the rental car agency in the terminal, Ellen steered a gray Taurus down the winding ramp of the airport’s parking garage and followed the signs to southbound I-275. When she reached the entrance to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, she handed the attendant a dollar and drove out onto the causeway.
The blue green waters of Tampa Bay stretched for miles on either side of the road and, off in the distance, Ellen could see the bridge’s bright yellow cables rising high in the air. She drove past the fishing pier on the north end of the causeway and, after crossing over the bridge, passed its twin to the south. The piers were remnants of the old bridge that collapsed after it was struck by a passing freighter in 1980, sending thirty-five people to their death.
Ellen had decided one visit to the nursing home to see her grandmother would be sufficient and it was to be the following morning. After checking into the hotel, she took her husband’s advice and treated herself to a seafood dinner—it was virtually impossible to get a good bowl of clam chowder in Michigan. The next morning, she had breakfast in the hotel restaurant before checking out and driving the four miles to Palm Garden Manor, the facility that had been her grandmother’s home for the past two years.
“Who are you visiting today?” the woman sitting at the desk in the lobby asked when Ellen arrived at the nursing home.
The woman quickly scanned the alphabetized list of the facility’s residents. “Mrs. Stevens is in Room 323 on the third floor,” she said. “Please sign in and be sure to stop at the desk and sign out before you leave.”
Ellen carefully printed her name and time of arrival in the visitor’s log, noticing hers was the first entry of the day. When she got out of the elevator, she saw a group of elderly people, most of them in wheelchairs, sitting in a small gathering area playing cards and watching television. After studying the faces of each of the women, she decided that none were her grandmother. She found her curled up with her eyes shut lying in a hospital bed in her room. A second bed closer to the windows was empty.
“Nana, are you awake?” she said softly. “It’s me, Ellen.”
The old woman’s eyelids fluttered at the sound of her voice. “Where’s George?” she asked irritably, “dinner’s almost ready.” The faded hospital gown did little to conceal how frail she was and the blue of her veins contrasted sharply with the milky translucence of her skin. She eyed Ellen suspiciously, smoothing back her short gray hair with a hand gnarled and covered with age spots. “My back hurts, I need to sit up.”
Ellen hurried out into the hallway. “The woman in Room 323 needs help,” she said to the first person she saw. A heavy-set black woman, dressed in purple cotton pants and a brightly colored print top, nodded and followed Ellen back into the room. After gently helping the old woman turn over on her back, she raised the head of the bed and placed a pillow behind her back for added support. “There you go, honey,” she said. “Do you need to go to the bathroom while I’m here?”
“No, just leave me alone!”
If Ann’s curt reply to her offer of assistance annoyed her, she didn’t let it show. “I see you have a visitor today,” she observed cheerfully.
“I’m her granddaughter,” Ellen explained, blushing with embarrassment at her grandmother’s rudeness. “I’m visiting from Michigan.”
“That’s nice,” the aide said, looking past Ellen to the woman in the bed. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little while, Ann.” Then she disappeared.
“You remember Josh and Emily don’t you, Nana?” Ellen asked, taking out the pictures of her children and handing them to her grandmother one at a time. Ann studied each picture silently for several seconds and the corners of her mouth seemed to turn up ever so slightly before she let them fall into her lap.
“I’ll put them right here in case you want to look at them again after I leave,” Ellen said, collecting the pictures and placing them on the tray of the over the bed table. “Would you like to watch television?” she asked, reaching for the remote that controlled the television set mounted on the wall. Without waiting for a response, she turned it on and began running through the channels until Lucille Ball, dressed in men’s clothing—a thin black mustache dangling precariously from her upper lip—appeared on the screen.
Ellen sat silently in the chair next to the bed, her eyes fixed on the television screen, until the episode of I Love Lucy ended twenty minutes later. Then she rose and kissed her grandmother on the cheek. Her skin felt cool and smooth against her lips.
“I have to go now, Nana,” she said.
“Goodbye, Ellen,” the woman replied, meeting her granddaughter’s gaze for the first time since she’d arrived.
When Ellen stopped at the desk to sign out she was crying, but if the receptionist noticed, she had no comforting words to offer. She had been in the job a long time and her sympathy was reserved for the facility’s residents.
Once safely in the car, Ellen sat with both hands wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, the tears streaming down her cheeks. She wondered how much it had hurt her grandparents when she decided her family’s vacations were too valuable to be wasted visiting old people in a mobile home park in Florida. After a few minutes, the tears succeeded in washing away most of the guilt and she took a tissue from her purse and wiped her eyes.
She was looking forward to the drive back to the airport. It was a clear day and she knew the view of Tampa Bay from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be spectacular.