The Call
Photo by WWC on Adobe Stock

I was walking the trails through the oak forest on our property, looking for the pair of pileated woodpeckers I could hear furiously pounding their heads against a tree trunk.  My phone rang with a similar rhythmic urgency in my pocket, as though in conversation with the woodpeckers.  I pulled the phone out of my pocket and noticed an out-of-state number.  Usually, those are spam calls; usually, I ignore them.  But on this morning, some deep, tingly feeling—a premonition, an intuition, perhaps—compelled me to accept the call.  It was Kim, mother of a young adult, Aaron, who died in our hospice unit more than five years previously.  She said she had been thinking about me and decided to call.

How brave of her to call!  What emotional energy she must have expended to make that call, to take the chance that I would remember her, that I would pick up the call.  When I said, “Of course I remember you,” I heard a soft snuffle on her end.

As she brought me up to date on how she came to live in a neighboring state, I heard hints of family disruption and financial strain.  She was no longer working for her longtime employers, two men who had been supportive and forgiving through the long grind of her son’s lifelong illness. She wasn’t very specific about the troubles she’d been through.  I remember her sharing with me about her health challenges, too, but I don’t remember the details now.  What I do remember were the threads of poverty, sorrow, and isolation running through her story.

Her son Aaron was in his twenties when I met him, a young man with the intellectual and emotional age of a much younger child. He was about the size of a ten-year-old boy but hunched over like an old man, with an unforgettable elfin face to match.  Like many youths who have  grown up in the hospital, Aaron had an outsized personality and a practiced banter from interacting with kind nurses and generations of medical residents.  He was an entertainer.  Kim and I laughed and shared a couple of stories about her son’s zany personality, about his antics on our unit as his life ebbed, flirting with the nurses.  I told Kim the blue, beanie bear Aaron had given me still rides on the dashboard of my car, slumped over like Aaron: a memory, a talisman, my personal protector.

Kim told me she wanted to express her gratitude again for how we had cared for both of them.  Right after he was transferred from the hospital to the hospice unit, I discovered the pair was homeless, staying in cheap motels during brief periods when Aaron was not in the hospital and keeping their possessions in a storage unit.  His mother worked full-time but had missed a lot of work with his illness and couldn’t keep up with rent payments.  Somehow, she had felt safe back then, sharing with me they had no place to go if the hospice unit couldn’t keep him until he passed.  And somehow, I had found the words to build a consoling connection with the two of them.

His specialist at the hospital had no idea the family was homeless, even after twenty years of caring for him.

I’ve reflected a great deal on the experience I had with this young man.  His decline was slow and relentless, but while he could still get out of bed, he wandered the halls, stopped in to visit the nurses at the desk, and spent many languid hours out by the garden gazebo where his mother went to smoke.  In the early evening hours, herons and egrets would land in the garden from the nearby bayou, looking for insects or crawdads, tiptoeing like ballerinas through the grass. I taught Aaron to recognize the differences between the big herons and the little ones, the egrets from the herons, the black-crowned from the yellow-crowned night herons.  He learned their names and shared his observations about their behaviors with me.

His mother reminded me on the phone that on the last night of Aaron’s life, a black-crowned heron landed on the window ledge outside his room and stayed for quite a while, looking intently into the room.  A messenger?  His ferryman?

I’ll never forget Aaron’s memorial service, held in the chapel of a facility for disabled adults fifty miles outside the city, neat cottages surrounded by live oaks and gently rolling hills.  I remember the tales his friends and family members shared about the many kindnesses and special opportunities provided to Aaron in this rural community, how compassionate neighbors lifted Aaron up and included him in local festivities. I remember the praying mantis that landed on my car door as soon as I parked, still there after the service ended, her forelimbs folded in benediction.

No, I didn’t forget this young man and his mother. It had been a privilege for me to walk alongside Aaron for his final mile.  I could never forget them.  Today’s call was a powerful reminder that grief is never “over” for parents who lose a child.  Kim’s sadness and longing may ebb and flow, but it never goes away.  Today, the desperate need to talk with someone who remembered her son reared its head for this bereaved mom.

Kim’s call was a gift to me today, and I hope to her as well.  As we ended our conversation, I asked her if she could feel my hug.

About the Author

Nancy L. Glass

Dr. Nancy Glass has been published in Intima, in Pulse, in Medicine and Meaning, in Medical Literary Messenger, in Write Launch, in Persimmon Tree, and others. She won the 2022 Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest in Nonfiction. She practiced various pediatric specialties including hospice for forty years, retiring as Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in 2022. She received her MFA (Writing) from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2023.