Ms. Connie was known, to her delight, as the Jackie Kennedy of Our Sanctuary nursing home. A tall, eighty-something woman who tucked splashy flowers into her voluminous curls, she’d strike up a conversation with anyone she encountered.
These chats were never a half-hearted “How are you?” tossed off before zipping away in her wheelchair. She’d ask an aide if her ailing daughter was feeling better, or check whether the receptionist’s son had heard from his dream college–“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him!”
Ms. Connie shared a suite with Ms. Alice, a woman who was in her nineties. Ms. Alice was more reserved, but equally good-natured. Morning and evening, you’d find her sitting in her room, absorbed in a book. Despite their contrasting personalities, the two were close friends.
We met when I was fourteen, two years after I’d started volunteering at Our Sanctuary.
I made Ms. Connie’s acquaintance at an ice-cream social in the dining hall. Afterwards, she accepted my offer to wheel her back to her room; along the way, she peppered me with questions.
Hearing my name, she exclaimed, “How unique and pretty! It seems fitting for a beautiful girl like you.”
Without pause, she asked, “Do you work here? Oh, a volunteer! How nice of you to spend time with us old ladies!”
We both laughed. The quiz continued: “What else do you do in your free time? Are you an only child? Oh, you have an older sister. Did she spend her time with old ladies when she was your age, too?”
In parting, she invited me to visit her again. “Just come to my room. I call it my ‘hotel room’–it sounds better!”
The following week, when I stopped by, she wasn’t in–but Ms. Alice was. Introducing myself, I asked for Ms. Connie.
“Daytimes, you’ll hardly ever find her here,” she replied, smiling.
Over the next four years, she and Ms. Connie became my dear friends. I learned that Ms. Alice and her late husband had lived in the French Quarter, and that she loved wine, bread and animals as well as books; and that Ms. Connie had been a stay-at-home mom of three who also adored cooking and entertaining.
I visited them every week, and when we couldn’t meet, we’d talk by phone. Our friendship, as unlikely as it might seem, felt natural.
True, there were moments of generational disconnect, such as Ms. Connie’s astonishment when I played her favorite Frank Sinatra song by tapping some buttons on “that goofy device” (my cellphone).
Our differing religious backgrounds also sparked fascinating conversations. Ms. Alice was incredulous that, during Ramadan, I abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. “And Lent is challenging for me!” she said jokingly.
Mostly, though, there were endless words of encouragement and support.
Before a big exam, I could count on Ms. Alice to say, “You’ll sail right through it.” She’d ask the exam’s time so that she could recite a prayer for me at that precise moment.
Ms. Connie seemed more concerned about my social life. Whenever I was buried in textbooks, she’d exclaim, “Oh, Hanan, those teachers are merciless! Can’t you go see a movie with some girlfriends?” She made sure to introduce me to her grandson, who was my age. (We became friends, but only that.)
Seeing Ms. Alice and Ms. Connie in action taught me many important things.
Take loyalty and caring. When Ms. Alice was feeling down, Ms. Connie sensed it–and knew the remedy.
“Hanan,” she’d say, “can you bring Alice some of that special Hawaiian bread? And plenty of butter. I think that would cheer her up.”
At mealtimes, when Ms. Connie’s high spirits drew snappish comments from the more staid residents, Ms. Alice shed her reserve: “Shame on you for hurling such a distasteful remark at Connie! She did nothing to deserve that!”
One summer afternoon in 2014, arriving home after a month-long visit with family in the Middle East, I dialed Ms. Connie’s number.
No answer; she must be buzzing about the halls. I called Ms. Alice.
“Hanan, I’m so relieved to hear your voice,” she said. “You need to come in. Can you come now?”
Expecting the worst, I drove to Our Sanctuary and rushed to their room.
The scene there instantly wiped out the sense of security I’d always felt at Our Sanctuary.
Ms. Connie lay in bed, gazing unseeingly at the ceiling. Gaunt and rigid, her limbs contorted, she let out agitated, visceral moans. If not for her curly hair, I’d never have known her.
Beside the bed, Ms. Alice poised gingerly in her wheelchair. Ms. Connie’s daughter, who’d come from California, sat in the corner, playing soft music on her laptop. A nurse and Ms. Connie’s two aides hovered nearby.
I was stunned. How had Ms. Connie been reduced to this?
Three weeks earlier, I gathered, she’d suffered a serious fall. After two weeks in the hospital, she’d come back a very different woman, and her deterioration had continued.
I almost fled, but forced myself to stay, thinking, How can I leave Ms. Connie in such a state?
Although she was physically alive, I sensed that her spirit was gone. No matter how desperately we longed to help, we couldn’t bring her back. All we could do was bear witness. And so we kept watch through that long night until, just before sunrise, Ms. Connie took her last breath.
In the three years since, Ms. Alice has become more a family member than a friend. Whenever my mother bakes a treat, she sets aside some for Ms. Alice; my father and little brothers always ask how she’s doing.
The summer before last, she confided, “I wish I’d learned French. I often come across French words in novels; it would be nice to be able to parse them.”
Now she’s almost finished the French textbook I gave her for her birthday.
“Well, Hanan, I failed another French test today,” she’ll say laughingly, to which I answer, “If you’re enjoying it, Ms. Alice, as far as I’m concerned you’re getting an A-plus.”
We talk by phone daily. She asks how I fared on my last exam; I ask how things are going at Our Sanctuary.
“Oh, Hanan, you’ve been coming here long enough to know that this place never changes!” she replies. “We’re all still chugging along.”
Knowing Ms. Alice and Ms. Connie has transformed how I live my own life.
Ms. Connie made me a better conversationalist; Ms. Alice, a better listener. Ms. Connie taught me what it’s like to be the life of the party; Ms. Alice, that you can travel the world and get to know all sorts of people through the pages of a book. Ms. Connie showed me that you’re never too old to have a good time; Ms. Alice, that it’s never too late to learn something new.
Witnessing Ms. Connie’s sudden, tragic decline has made me appreciate my life and good health all the more, and seeing my two friends’ gentle treatment of one another before and during that terrible time has shown me the nature of true friendship and empathy.
Between them, Ms. Connie and Ms. Alice have taught me how to live more fully and compassionately. I’ll always feel overwhelmingly grateful to have known them.
About the author:
Hanan Rimawi is a third-year undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans. She is studying neuroscience and public health, and is vacillating between geriatric medicine and international humanitarian law as potential careers. “Volunteering at Our Sanctuary has been one of the great joys and privileges of my life. Although I can’t understand how the staff allowed me to begin there at the age of twelve, I’m so grateful that they did. I’ve wanted to write about Ms. Alice and Ms. Connie for a while, and I’m thankful to Pulse for providing the opportunity to share my story. I also want to thank my friends Kathy Le, Brian Earp and Sarah Gamard for their helpful feedback, and, finally, my beloved mother and my high-school English teacher Erin Walker for their encouragement.”