It’s been about fifteen years or more since the last time that I saw Emma. I work at a hospital, and although I was usually there in the daytime I was frequently willing to put in overtime to garner a larger paycheck. That usually involved working into the night, and Emma was a housekeeper who worked the evening shift. Emma was older than me and I was older than most of the others there. She was small of stature but was a hard worker. It was evident that Emma had never in her life imagined that anything less was expected of her than that she pulled her own weight. Emma was efficient and very organized; we knew exactly when to expect her to come through our department and we knew that it would be clean when she was finished.
But there was more to Emma than her efficiency and punctuality. Emma was the sweetest lady whom I have ever known. The adjective ‘sweet’ is one that gets overused in my opinion A well-thrown forward pass may be described by the color commentator as ‘sweet’, or a shady business deal conducted behind closed doors may be called a ‘sweet deal’, but those usages of the word sell short it’s true meaning and impact. Emma did not have a mean or angry bone in her body, and treated everyone in our department as if they were a friend or even a child of hers; a beloved child at that. Yes, Emma was a sweet woman.
At quarter ’till ten o’clock her husband, who was already retired, would faithfully show up in the lobby of the hospital to wait for her shift to end. Unlike Emma, Don was a quiet person who waited patiently for his bride to come to him ready to return to their home after a long shift. Don never shared much of his life with us but it was clear that he shared all of it with Emma. When Emma walked down the hall carrying her little lunch bag at the end of her shift Don’s eyes would twinkle just a little and his shoulders would straighten a bit. Don would put his hand on Emma’s shoulder and say something into her left ear, low and inaudible to the rest of us, and they would walk out side-by-side to go home.
We all spoke with Emma often because she felt so much like an old friend, but my partner Becky spoke with her more than most. Becky had risen through a difficult early life to carve out a niche for herself in the middle class, and she felt a kinship with Emma that the rest of us who had no such background could not have access to. Emma told Becky that she grew up on a farm/ranch on the edge of a small town in Texas. Some of her family remained on the farm and some made a living in town, but she didn’t really know much about their lives because she hadn’t visited home in thirty years.
Thirty years! Think of how long thirty years is. As of the moment that I write this tale Ronald Reagan was president thirty years ago. The Soviet Union still existed and threatened the U.S. with destruction (and the U.S. returned the favor). Linebackers in the NFL could still sack a quarterback without receiving a penalty. Thirty years is a long time for anything, and it had been thirty long years since Emma had visited her family in Texas. Emma shared that fact with Becky with an air of acceptance. Poor people don’t get to take vacations and visit family who live over 1,000 miles away. That’s just how the world works.
Becky shared this news with me and I felt a great sadness; not pity, but sadness for Emma. My family was and still is very important in my life and I couldn’t imagine being without them. Becky and I discussed what a not-sweet deal this was for Emma and we began to cook up a scheme to correct the situation. We would ask everyone in our department; X-Ray. CT, MRI, Ultrasound and Nuclear Medicine, plus the radiologists who read our images, to donate to a fund to send Emma on vacation. We began that very moment by whipping twenty dollar bills out of our wallets and putting them into an envelope in a drawer in our exam room.
It was late in the evening when we began this crusade, and so there were only a few people to whom we could appeal with our plan. The response was reassuring however and we raised nearly one hundred dollars in cash and pledges that first night. Over the next month we approached everyone in the department with our plan and soon we had a bag bulging with fives and tens and twenties, and even more gratifying than that was the fact that we had an entire department that was united in the thrill of doing this act for our Emma.
I can’t remember a time when we were more united as a department. People were talking together in corners, giggling in the halls, and kidding with Emma even more than they usually did. I spoke with Don when we were nearing the number that we felt would be adequate to make our plan work and at first he was reluctant to go along with it, mistaking love for pity. I assured him that we all felt like our lives were made better by Emma’s kind spirit and we simply wanted to repay kindness with kindness and he relented. Don eventually became an active co-conspirator in our project.
Sometimes I was begging for contributions, but most of the time people were tracking me down so that they could throw money at me. The pot grew; three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, up it went. We asked Don when she would be able to take a vacation and he gave us a date. Becky took a chunk of our bundle and bought two round trip tickets to Dallas-Fort Worth. The money continued to trickle in after that, and when the night came that we were going to spring the surprise we had two tickets and three hundred dollars for spending money amassed in the bag.
The file room was festooned with balloons and ribbons when Emma came to clean that night. Everyone was laying low and watching from behind nearly-closed doors and dark corners when Emma made her appearance. As usual, she cleaned a few bathrooms first and then angled her cart out of the main hall and into the narrow passage leading to the file room. Seeing the decorations she exclaimed softly to herself ‘I wonder who all of this was for.” At that moment Lois, one of our support staff, couldn’t stand it any more and stepped out from behind a long cabinet of medical records and said ‘It’s for you.”
The cat was out of the bag, and so we all came out of our hiding places and stepped noisily into the file room, laughing and smiling and saying ‘Surprise’ and things like that. A moment later Don stepped out from behind a tall bank of fluorescent lights holding medical images and gave Emma’s dumbfounded cheek a kiss. Becky stepped forward and gave Emma the envelope with the tickets and money and said ‘You need a vacation’.
Emma was floored! At first she was uncomfortable; Emma had never taken a handout in her life. Don spoke quietly into her ear, telling her that this wasn’t a handout; this was a gift from people who loved her. Emma teared up a little and wrestled with her emotions as we wrestled with our own, and then found a place of peace with the situation. She began to banter with all of us and accepted, finally, that she was the star of the show. We were not about to allow it to be any other way.
Emma and Don took their vacation, and soon after their return she retired. Emma never said a lot about her trip and we didn’t ask her. The vacation was hers, not ours, and we were happy to let her enjoy her vacation on her own terms. I think it’s possible that we enjoyed her vacation as much as she did. I cannot remember a time when our department more enjoyed each other than when we were focused not on ourselves but instead were focused on doing one good thing for one good woman. I will always remember that as one of the very best times of my life.