Kay Wheeler is a spirited, strong-willed, 96-year-old former Army nurse who is a family friend. She and her husband attended the Presbyterian Church that my parents joined when they moved to St. Helena in Napa Valley over 20 years ago. A few years later, when a flood devastated the Wheelers’ mobile home park, my parents gave the Wheelers an apartment in their home to live in until they had a new residence. I did not live in California at the time, but knew of the friendship, and especially I heard stories of Kay.
When I eventually moved to the Napa Valley, and started working at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, Kay was widowed, and had relocated to a mobile home park in Calistoga. She was a Tribune subscriber, and read my stories. She also happened to get her hair done at The Ultimate Kerr, the small beauty salon next door to the Tribune. So every couple of weeks I would see her, say hello, catch up on her news, the volunteer work at the local hospital, church doings, health matters. She always gave my hand a warm squeeze, eyes twinkling.
Always, she paid attention to my life through my writing. When my partner Sabrina and I lost our African grey parrot Barney, who I had frequently written about, Kay sent a beautiful condolence card, remembering the special animals in her own life. I began sending cards regularly, too, for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, any excuse to put a bright little reminder in her mail box.
As she aged, living alone at the mobile home park proved too difficult, and Kay decided to move back to St. Helena into a senior apartment complex. I offered to help her pack boxes. Because of scheduling conflicts, with friends and relatives in town, she ended up declining my help. Instead, we agreed to meet soon for ice cream – she admitted she loved rootbeer floats.
As promised, shortly after, I made a special trip over one afternoon and took her to the local A&W for rootbeer floats. We had a wonderful time. She asked about my animals, my partner Sabrina, who she had never met, and other details about my life. She chided me about smoking, and urged me to quit. She told me stories about her time as a nurse, things I had never known. And we shared memories about my dad, who passed away seven years ago from lymphoma. Kay adored him, and he adored her right back.
It’s easy to get busy, and not find time for things. We intended to get together again soon, but a couple of months passed. Finally, though, I reminded myself that one must take time for 96 year olds. On the spur of the moment one afternoon last month when I was running errands in Santa Rosa, I called Kay and asked if she was free for dinner. She said yes. I made the trip over the hill, and picked her up. She said she wasn’t really that hungry these days – all she wanted was a bowl of soup. We went to the most popular pizza/Italian joint in St. Helena, where she had minestrone and I had pasta. We again had a wonderful conversation. After the soup, she admitted she still had room for a scoop of ice cream.
Two weeks ago, by chance, I saw Kay again. My sister Catherine was in town from Connecticut with her husband Eric and 10-month-old son Kaden, to have Kaden baptized at my mom’s church. Kay hadn’t been feeling well, but had made it to church, decked out in a straw hat covered with pink and purple flowers. During community announcements, she said, “I’ve lost my pep and energy; so, if anybody’s seen it, please let me know!”
I was thrilled to see her, because Sabrina was there, and I was finally able to introduce her. Kay smiled broadly, and reached up towards her. Sabrina, always wonderful with older people, held out her cupped hands and said, “I just wanted to let you know. I found some of that energy. Here it is.” Kay thanked her, and grinned.
Kay fell last week. They ended up performing heart surgery on her at St. Helena Hospital. I was hoping to go visit her today. My mom called yesterday to say she had passed away. She had never really been conscious since the surgery.
I will miss this dear, sweet friend. I am grateful, though, for two things.
First of all, I know she was ready to go. She was tired, and in pain, and simply plain worn out. She remained cheerful and stoic and brave and generous to the end, but it was time.
Secondly, I have no regrets. I took time for my friend. I was not a close friend, really, just the daughter of fellow church members. But I showed up for her. I kept promises. We had rootbeer floats together. And I am not left with that raw ache of thinking, “Oh, I wish I had done it differently.” Because she knew that I loved her.