Julie Stevenson

© Copyright 2003 by Julie Stevenson


Photo of a ceramic angel figurine.
Swinging into the parking lot at Wal-Mart my mother comments about meeting one of her elderly patients, Margie. “You’re gonna love her.”

Marge lives in a nearby community and it’s convenient to stop by and meet her. Maybe she’d like to go for a Sunday drive to break up the monotony of spending another day by herself in that big white house with the peeling paint. Especially since her children are all adults now, some with grandchildren of their own.

Marge regales me with so many stories about raising her children and an escapade or two with her husband, the insurance salesman. Although she is somewhat circumspect about her marital life, she does offer that she misses him and will be glad when it’s time to join him. She intrigues me, this 90 pound “gift” to us all. She describes her musical family, creating images in my mind; the singer, the flutist granddaughter, the pianist. She says it is an exquisite feeling to reminisce. There was a day, 35 years ago, when her son went sliding; and his brother came running to the house announcing that Robert was dead! Scared, she ran out in the frigid air with no coat, clad only in her thin cotton house dress. Legs bleeding from the jagged icy snow, she chugged along as fast as possible with wild visions of her unconscious boy lying in the knee-deep drifts, only to discover a dazed and smiling sledder ready to puff up the hill one more time. Damn kids! Margie’s eyes twinkle as she tells these stories. Beaming, she relives the afternoon her granddaughter performed a special piece on the flute, just for her. And the other granddaughter, the music teacher “downstate,” what a talented woman she is. Near the end of her life, this reminiscing is what sustains her.

Margie loves her family. For her, there is none more special. Her family gifts her with angels; ceramic angels, cotton angels, silver - what a collection! She describes in detail to me the history of each one.

Never does she complain about being blind or having to be tethered to the dialysis machine three times a week (no matter what!) for eight years. I don’t learn for several months that her doctor can no longer find a site on her tiny, withered body to place a new shunt. She inspires me with tender displays of purpose and warrior-like endurance, often sharing with me certain truths she’s learned through personal adversity. Her thread of life is vibrant.

And then there are the long phone conversations. She learns my number and, when boredom sets in, she dials me up. Never a bad word about anyone -- mostly joyful, my friend Marge and so sweet and powerful in my life. Any differences between us are becoming fewer.

The only hint of a darker side comes on a muggy evening at dusk when the phone rings and that nasal-sounding neighbor informs me Margie is in the hospital. Suicide? How can that be?

After visiting her hospital room, it becomes clear how unhappy Marge is. “Couldn’t sleep - all that noise. Why do they have someone sitting next to my bed 24 hours a day? I know they are afraid I will do something to myself. Please, oh please, grab my bag and take me home.” Her pain becomes my pain. “You know, they thought I tried to commit suicide when I cut the plastic tubing to my shunt. It was an accident. I just meant to cut that ‘dangling thing’ off my nightgown, not the tubing to my shunt. I would never do that, never.”

Then that May afternoon, so unseasonably hot and sticky. “Tending” my husband as he builds the deck in our backyard, not able to work fast enough to suit him, or to retrieve the correct tools he requests, my frustration is high. Poor time for the phone to ring: “Hi, it’s Margie.....can you talk?” “Marge, I’m going to have to call you back. I’m trying to help Gary right now, and we’ve got a mess on our hands.” She responds in her quiet, small voice “OK, no problem. Bye.” Many hours later, after chasing to town for more lumber and groceries as well, the blinking light on the answering machine reminds me to “pick up.” I press the button to retrieve the messages, hoping our son called from Denver. A message I will never forget is on the machine. “It’s mom. I don’t know how to tell you what I need to say. Call me as soon as you get in. Margie dropped dead today.”

So many thoughts heaved in my brain: visions of Margie laughing with her children at their summer camp near Cape Vincent; playing Scattegories with her and having to “cheat” to help her write her answers. How would I ever be able to open that game again and view her scribbles? And, of course, the memorable trip to JCC for the concert. What a treat it was when Margie accepted my invitation to attend the music program at the College that spring. Her excitement was palpable. I recall how we sat in the front row. She, dressed in her white lacy blouse looking so beautiful, listening to the Jefferson Singers; and me, pondering if I could ever get her back to the car without a wheelchair. How, during the performance she wept quietly, and how I overcame the awkwardness by touching her and asking “What is it, Marge?” “This was always our song, my husband’s and mine,” she whispers. Although she couldn’t see the Jefferson Singers, her front-row seat ensured that she could hear them. I remember the fear when she did collapse on the way back to the parking lot that evening and my brain screamed “You can’t drive your vehicle on the College sidewalk to get her.” But I did.

The funeral is exceptional. A granddaughter plays several pieces on Margie’s favorite flute. Her sons bravely describe extraordinary times with their mom. Our eyes meet as I weep.

Months pass. Often, while practicing quiet and stillness, I feel the fullness of Margie. Over time, the sharp serrated pain of losing her diminishes somewhat. I remember her strength of character; and I miss her, miss receiving her phone calls and seeing her, miss the presence of my dear friend Marge.

Holiday time the following December and another numbing day at work. There are numerous hurdles to jump at the end of the semester. Many of us seem short-tempered, students as well as staff. Too many pressures. Clearly it’s time for vacation; we need to be away from each other. I can’t get out of the office at 5 p.m.; phones ring, students appear with last minute questions, late papers and final grades.

Carefully, I attempt to make my way home on the slushy roads. Feeling melancholy at the work day that just passed and disarmed at the poor driving conditions, the only thought I allow myself to consider is what I might scrape together for dinner. After finally arriving home and unloading the gear from over my shoulder, I notice a package in the middle of the living room floor. It’s a large Overnight Express box taped from corner to corner. The return address reads Syracuse, NY. Who in Syracuse, NY, would send me such a box? Slowly, ever so slowly, I cut through the tape and foam nuggets appear. In the middle of the nuggets rests a white cockleshell envelope labeled “Julie.” As I open the letter and start to read, my knees weaken. The lump in my throat gives way to short, quiet sobs. “Thanks for caring so much about Mom; the long rides, the stops for ice cream, the many phone conversations. She shared with me what an important part of her life you were. Thank you for being there for her when I couldn’t be. The angels in this box are from Mom and me. We want you to have them.”

Ceramic angels, silver angels, glass -- all sizes and shapes, each with its own history -- from my dear friend Margie, by way of her only daughter.

Julie Stevenson is a senior administrative assistant at a community college in Upstate New York near the Canadian border. Since she grew up on the St. Lawrence River, she has many fond memories of swimming and ice skating. She and her husband, Gary, have one son (Will) who resides in Denver, Colorado. Julie enjoys classical music and live theater.

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