I recently marked the day which would have been the 100th birthday of my mentor, Sadie Nickerson. It was a quietly special time for me, and I spent most of that day remembering my teacher, friend and surrogate mother. She was a powerful woman who had lived with and mastered adversity. For more than 20 years, I had visited her often and when I was living in Cape Breton, we talked weekly by phone. But in her last months, time caught up with her 87-year-old body, and congestive heart failure was shutting her down. She had weeks – perhaps days – to live. But I don’t want to think of that – I would rather remember the last time I had seen her, and how her going into spirit strengthened my belief that life continues after we experience this transition called death.
July 17, 2001: all day long, I felt compelled to travel from my home in Toronto to visit Sadie, who was in a nursing facility in St. Catharines. Sadie’s gently wrinkled face popped into my mind when I was making my kids’ breakfasts, and thoughts of her came again when I was vacuuming the livingroom rugs. And again that afternoon while I was telephoning a girlfriend and chatting over a cup of English Breakfast tea.
Each time I imagined her, the urge to visit was stronger.
When my husband came home that evening, I asked him to watch the kids and make sure they did their homework, then hopped into the car and drove for over two hours through a light summer rain to St. Catharines. I considered it a fortunate sign to see a parking space right in front of the nursing facility’s front doors. I sprinted through the drizzle into the building, and made my way to the first floor nurses’ station.
A grey-haired nurse looked up from her computer monitor and offered me a bright smile. “Are you here to see someone?”
“Yes. Sadie Nickerson.”
“Oh.” Her smile slid away, yet her eyes stayed fixed on mine. “Are you friend or family?”
“A friend, but considered family.” I didn’t need to be psychic to read the woman’s downcast expression. “It isn’t good, is it?”
After a pause, she said, “No.”
She rose and asked me to follow her. Our footsteps clicked over the polished linoleum floor as we walked down a long hall. Dark, blocky letters were etched into the hard plastic name plates outside residents’ doors. Here and there, wheelchairs were folded against the walls. The stark beige walls seemed industrial, as if the hallway belonged in something built in Russia under Stalin.
Though the facility seemed impersonal, the staff was kindly and attentive. On my visit last week, there had been plenty of activity: residents shuffling through the halls or being pushed in their chairs, soft music floating out from open doors, families with youngsters visiting their elder loved ones. Perhaps the place was quiet now because it was dinnertime.
I said, “She doesn’t have long, does she?”
“No.” The nurse was business-like, yet not unfriendly. Her tone of voice suggested someone whose job dealt with death everyday, and had learned that forming attachments with people who were dying was a sure route to emotional burnout.
At the end of the hall, she took me into a plain beige room. Sadie lay on a bed against the far wall. Her covers were pulled up to her chin. An oxygen tube beneath her nose snaked into a respirator beside her bed. She needed the apparatus; her lungs weren’t working properly anymore, and her breathing was punctuated by gasps. A water pitcher and a half-filled glass cup sat on the bedside table. The side window was open; thankfully, it had been drizzling that day, for Sadie’s room overlooked the area where workers congregated to smoke. On some days, I’d had to cut my visit short because it felt like the air had been wiped with a dirty rag.
She smiled when she saw me, and her eyes sparkled to life. Though her energy was low, her appetite for companionship was high. I pulled a chair beside her bed and held her hand for a few moments. I sensed her strength returning. We chatted about our families, and how often her son visited her. Then we gave each other readings. It was something we always did. Her message to me concerned my son and daughter. I regret that I no longer remember her words, because it was the last reading she gave me.
My turn. I concentrated on my good friend and mentor, and the numbers 2 and 3 suddenly felt important.
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Sadie, I see you going within a two or a three—”
Suddenly I saw the wall across from me dotted with soft white lights. I thought of my stepmother’s house, and the collection of decorative plates adorning her walls. But the oval lights were solid. And even though I saw only white, I felt that they were faces looking into the room.
“Sadie,” I said, amazed, “you’re surrounded by spirit people!” It was a magical moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling. “Sadie, everyone’s here for you!”
I watched the lights, then realized they were in a formation. Three rows of seven. Did that mean something? I waited for the spirit people to speak to me. Slowly, they faded, and once again I was facing a blank, beige wall. Come back, I thought, projecting my thoughts. And then I was left with the feeling that I might have imagined everything.
I turned to Sadie. Her eyelids were fluttering, and I could tell she was tired. I stayed in her room for a few more minutes, gave voice to whatever thoughts were flitting through my mind, then squeezed her hand and said goodbye. I thought she nodded, but today I’m not sure.
Early the next morning, Sadie’s son telephoned. He had gone into the nursing home to visit his mother, and found out that she had died around 6 a.m. He was distraught, and I, too, wished I had stayed with her longer. A hole had opened in my life. I had just lost my teacher, my mentor – my best friend.
Then I realized I had been the last person to talk with her. But I wasn’t the last to see her – that honour belonged to all her spirit people on the other side of life.
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