The Christmas decorations hung from every corner of the care facility. The staff had put on a little New Year’s party during the residents’ lunch. Most would be long asleep by midnight that night. They wore party hats, had noise makers, and were given a glass of sparkling juice with their mid-day meal. The staff made the rounds at the tables, asking them to share stories of New Year’s Eves gone by. The stories ranged from times their children all gathered around for the evening to neighborhood parties in decades past. For a few, it was the night they met the man they would later marry.
But for the resident in room 306, it might as well have been any day of the week. Her time was growing small. The room was kept dim with soft, classical music playing. Staff came and went, checking vitals and changing her position every few hours to prevent sores.
”Keep her comfortable.” Those were the doctor’s orders. There was nothing more to do.
The room was sparse but sophisticated. A black and white photo of the husband she lost on the nightstand. A large easy chair faced a small television which sat atop a bookcase, filled with well-loved volumes. Only one piece of artwork adorned the walls. She would tell anyone who asked it was a Chagall. On the dresser, was a pair of silver candle sticks. The staff provided battery powered candles for her to use. She turned them on every Friday night and turned them back off on Saturday evening. But they sat, unlit for about three weeks now. A small Hanukkiah adorned the side table, next to the chair, in front of the window.
Mrs. Ehrlich didn’t get much company since her arrival at the home three years ago. A young woman would come every other week to handle the laundering of her elegant wardrobe and bring her whatever she might need for personal care. Occasionally, the young woman’s errands would include fetching a new book or recordings of Mrs. Ehrlich’s favorite composers. Once, when she was visiting, a member of staff poked their nose in on some made-up errand, just to get a closer look and find out who she was.
“Are you a niece or a granddaughter?” the staff member asked.
“No ma’am,” she replied politely. “My name is Sarah. I work for Mrs. Ehrlich’s nephew.” With that she returned to neatly replacing Mrs. Ehrlich’s laundry in it’s proper place, in the small closet. Mrs. Ehrlich hadn’t engaged in the conversation. Instead, she sat in her easy chair with a freshly prepared cup of coffee and a black and white cookie, on a delicate china plate, presumable sent along by her nephew with the promise of a visit that would never come.
She mostly kept to herself. She read a great deal and studied the psalms. The staff tried to keep the residents engaged and entertained with various games and activities. Mrs. Ehrlich usually declined to participate. Except for the musical performances. She loved music. It was not unusual to find her enjoying a concert, being broadcast on television, on a Saturday evening. She preferred to take her meals in her room whenever it could be allowed. The staff fell into the habit of allowing it as often as Mrs. Ehrlich requested. Her meals were especially prepared, separate from the other residents’ food, at the request and expense of the same nephew.
Cora, the evening nurse, finished attending Mrs. Ehrlich before deciding to change the disc in the player.
“How about some Mendelssohn for a change?” she suggested as she stopped the current disc. Mrs. Ehrlich’s breathing was shallow but still even. She didn’t stir at Cora’s remark. The Rondo Capriccioso Op 14 danced lightly through the air. Cora lingered, straightening and fluffing this and that to enjoy the solitude of the room and the beautiful music. She knew she needed to carry on but she hated to see residents nearing the end of life being left alone. Her supervisor wouldn’t allow them to linger in the rooms longer than was necessary. Mrs. Ehrlich’s nephew knew her condition and yet he didn’t come. Finally, Cora made her way out. She was needed to pass out the evening snacks before the residents would need to be helped to bed. The staff would gather for a sparkling juice toast at the PM shift change before she went home to her boyfriend and takeout food to ring in the New Year in just a few hours.
Around 10:30pm, the night nurse sent for the attending doctor to check Mrs. Ehrlich. Her breathing had become labored.
“It won’t be much longer,” the doctor said. “She probably won’t make it through the night. Any family should be called.” The nurse just nodded. They left countless messages for her nephew already. But they always went unreturned.
The young woman, who was employed to make biweekly visits, took the calls and simply said, “I’m sorry but Mr. Ehrlich is unavailable at the moment. I’ll be sure he gets the message.”
The nurse went back to her station and pulled the contact record. This time she called the emergency number. No one ever attempted to reach him there. They were always under strict instructions not to use that number, save for extreme circumstances. A woman being hours away from death certainly seemed to meet that criteria.
“Yes,” came a harsh male voice after the second ring. She quickly stated her business and tried to impress upon him that his aunt didn’t have long. “Yes, thank you,” was all he replied before ending the call.
A short time later, a middle-aged man, with deep blue eyes and hair graying at the temples rushed through the front entrance and up to the security guard at the front desk. “Mrs. Ehrlich’s room, please. I’m her nephew.” The guard directed him down the hallway and to the left. The nurse was startled when the door to room 306 suddenly flew open to a man of average height and fit build hustling inside. His unfastened overcoat billowing behind him.
“Am I too late?” he asked hastily, slightly out of breath.
“No,” she stammered. “Let me get you a chair.”
“David,” came a soft, raspy whisper before the nurse could move. The nurse’s eyes widened as she observed her patient.
“Aunt,” Mr. Ehrlich responded with a relieved sigh as he rushed to remove his overcoat, tossing it carelessly onto the easy chair.
Mrs. Ehrlich’s eyes had opened and she spoke for the first time in a week. The nurse regained her composure and dashed from the room to find a chair. In her hast to get back to room 306, she nearly knocked over another night nurse.
“Geez, where are you off to?” she demanded in a harsh tone.
“Mrs. Ehrlich’s nephew is here,” was the reply as she raced off. The other nurse’s brow knitted in confusion as she watched her co-worker hurry off down the hall with the chair.
David settled himself in the chair at his aunt’s beside, gently encircling her frail, mottled hand in his. A slight color had returned to her cheeks. She blinked slowly and her breathing remained shallow.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner, Aunt,” he told her.
“You’ve been busy, dear,” she responded, speaking barely above a whisper. He looked away, ashamed with himself for not taking the countless messages from the nursing staff more seriously.
They spoke softly to each other. David whispering words of comfort to his beloved aunt. She had raised him from the age of 10, when he lost his mother and father. Mrs. Ehrlich never married and had no children of her own. They made a rocky start, she having no idea what to do with a 10 year old boy in the house. But eventually, they fell into a routine and came to cherish each other. David credited her with his success in life. He’d been the youngest in the history of his firm to make partner. But the strain of the work it took him to get there had made him neglectful these past few years. She was the last family he had left. David would be lost without her. He hated having to put her in a place like this, at the end. She deserved better than this, after all she had done for him. She deserved to be at home. He wiped away a tear as it rolled down his cheek.
Mrs. Ehrlich drifted off slowly, around 11:30pm. The music continued to play softly, from the disc player on his aunt’s dresser. Before his arrival, the staff turned the television to face his aunt’s bed with a New Years Eve special playing on mute. The camera panned the crowds in Time Square before returning to a host. David studied the images as the footage cut to somewhere else in the world where the new year already arrived. Fireworks exploded over water creating a dazzling reflection. David turned his attention back to his aunt now and again, studying her as her breathing became increasingly shallow and more labored. The nurse came back, a little before midnight, to check her vitals again and to administer another dose of medication. They were left alone again.
“You’re going to see the New Year, Aunt,” he whispered as the count down started. He gave her hand gentle squeeze.
He thought he felt a light squeeze from her in return.
A final, gentle sigh escaped Mrs. Ehrlich’s lips.