Many people in this world have family businesses. Some are plumbers, some are lawyers, some are doctors. My family, our business was a nursing home. My aunt was a partner and the administrator, my mom was the activity director and my mentor/one of my closest friends was the assistant administrator. Being a single parent, and having an understanding boss in her sister, my mom would often bring me to work with her on the weekends and school holidays so that I wasn't left home alone. The nursing home was a second home to me. I grew up helping with the activities, talking with the patients, racing wheelchairs down the hallways and in general getting in the way whenever possible. It was an invaluable experience in that I never considered wheelchairs as something odd to be stared at and I learned the value and the importance of the elderly. I'd listen to their stories, talk with them and their families and I had more grandparents than any other kid around.
When I was old enough, I began working in the business office. Over the years, as would be expected, I became closer to certain patients. One of them was particularly special to me. Her name was Clara. She had been a patient for a short time after breaking a hip and once she rehabilitated, she went back to the board and care where she normally lived. She liked our beautician, however, and so she'd come back every few weeks to get her hair done. Since she didn't drive, I'd go over and pick her up and then take her back. She was a great lady - funny, irreverent and a little bit crazy but in a good way. She was from Italy and had married a US serviceman in World War II. I still have her green card. She had the most beautiful black hair when she was younger. By the time I knew her, it had turned a gorgeous snow white with strands of black shot through.
Eventually, as generally happens, she became ill to the point where she needed to live at the nursing home full time. Her mind deteriorated so she didn't always know where she was but she usually remembered me. Her actual family wasn't involved with her at all so I ended up being her emergency contact, her caretaker, all of it. I'm listed on her death certificate as next of kin. Most days, the nurses would wheel her up to the hallway right outside the business office so she and I could talk while I worked. When Clara was feeling especially nice, and not a little nuts, she'd sing for me. My favorite song out of her repertoire was O Sole Mio.
Clara didn't have the most beautiful voice and she didn't always remember all of the words but her rendition of that song was, and always will be, my favorite. We had a routine we'd go through. She'd ask me what song I'd like to hear her sing, knowing exactly what I was going to say. Then I'd tell her O Sole Mio and she'd warble it just for me in her sweet 80-year old voice.
When Clara got really sick for the last time, the nurses called me when it looked like she was going to die. They said she'd been asking for me. It was really late and I drove as fast as I could through the empty streets so I could say goodbye. I went to her room, held her hand and she looked at me with those lovely brown eyes for the last time. She'd waited for me to get there before she died. That had never happened to me before nor has it happened since where I meant that much to someone that they held off death just to see me before they let go. It was a powerful gift and not one I've taken lightly. My sweet Clara.