January 30, 2012
Barbara Nichols writes…
I run an afterschool reading and math program in a small town in South Carolina. This is the story of one student and his remarkable grandmother.
I first met Chris in 2005 when he started attending our afterschool program. Chris was a quiet, hard-working, and unassuming sixth grader at the local middle school. At the end of each day, I noticed that a cab came to pick him up. Being curious about the reason why he wasn’t picked up by his parents as most of the other students were, I decided to do a home visit. This was the beginning of a six year relationship with Chris and with Ms. Daisy, his grandmother.
With Chris’s address in hand, I drove to his house, parked my car, and walked up the ramp to the small house. The windows were covered in plastic. There were old pieces of furniture on the screen porch. The house hadn’t been painted in years. Upon opening the door, I was surprised to see a hospital bed in the middle of the tiny cold living room. Surrounding the bed were lifts, medicines, and an oxygen tank. Lying under many blankets and quilts was Ms. Daisy – and by her bed stood Chris.
Greeting me like an old friend, Ms. Daisy reached her hand out to me. Her warm appreciation and her love for Chris were immediately obvious to me. As we talked, she explained that she had been bed-ridden for years with a variety of problems including heart failure and fibromyalgia. She explained that she had no way of arranging a ride home for Chris, so she was paying $3 a day to have him picked up by cab. She felt that helping Chris catch up academically was well worth the money for the cab. She talked about what a fine boy Chris was – dedicated to helping her as well as trying his best in school. From that day on, I drove Chris home.
During the rides from the program to his home, I found out more about this remarkable boy. Chris often was the only person in the house with his grandmother. He made sure she took her pills. He did his best to “cook” for her, often heating instant meals in the small microwave in the kitchen. When she needed to be hospitalized, he went with her, often staying in her room all night. Most nights at home, he slept on the floor next to Ms. Daisy’s bed to be sure she didn’t need anything during the night. Neighbors checked on Ms. Daisy during the day when Chris was in school. When he got home, he stayed by her bedside. He rarely went out to play. He never had friends over. Yet, there was this peaceful acceptance of his role. I got the feeling that he looked at the care of his grandmother as a privilege rather than as a burden.
Over the years, I visited Ms. Daisy often. I, too, felt it was a privilege. She told me proudly that she adopted Chris when he was an infant. Chris, born with heart problems, spent many months in the hospital during the early years of his life. From the time he was a young boy, Ms. Daisy taught him the things she felt were important – hard work, kindness to others, doing your best, respecting all people. Ms. Daisy often talked about how anger accomplishes nothing. She felt that each person was doing the best they could and needed support from others. She felt that even the smallest gestures by people should be appreciated and acknowledged. I always left our visits with a renewed sense of optimism and peace. Chris watched and listened and learned from his grandmother, as he remained by her bed.
Ms. Daisy loved Chris with all her heart. She really was an example of “the iron hand in the velvet glove.” When Chris was given a computer by a generous couple in Georgetown, Ms. Daisy insisted that it be set up at the foot of her bed so that she could see what Chris was doing. She had heard of kids who went to “bad places” on the internet. When I explained that he did not have access to the internet, she still wanted to oversee the situation. When Chris rode his bike in the neighborhood, she insisted that he only go a block in each direction so that he would not get too tired. She kept up with his schoolwork, making sure that he did his homework. One day while I was visiting, Ms. Daisy’s lunch arrived from Meals on Wheels. She asked the volunteer to put the lunch in the refrigerator. I asked her why she wasn’t eating her lunch. Her reply was, “Chris is hungry when he gets home from school. I’ll save it for him.”
The boy by the bed matured over the years. He’s now 17 ½ years old. Last year, we hired Chris to work at the afterschool program he had grown to love. It was not easy for Chris to make the transition from student to staff member. He would often go home and talk to his grandmother about how to handle different situations that arose. She talked with him about insisting on respect and good behavior from the students. She urged him to take suggestions from the teachers without feeling that he was failing in his job. She talked about setting an example of good behavior through his own actions. At one point, she reported to me that she had told Chris that he could either do a good job or she would insist that he quit. Ms. Daisy’s remarkable strength of character, coupled with her unending love for Chris, has been the major factor as this young boy moves rapidly toward adulthood.
Ten days ago, Ms. Daisy had trouble breathing. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital. Over the days, her condition worsened. Chris saw her as often as he could, standing by her bed in the Intensive Care Unit, holding her hand. He told her about the good report card he had just received. He told her about things that happened at the afterschool program. He told her he loved her. When he knew the end was near, Chris told his grandmother that he would always stay on the path she started him on. This was the last gift he gave to her.
Ms. Daisy died a little after noon today. Chris was called out of school and went to be with her. He told me, “She really looked peaceful.” This remarkable woman is gone. The love that she and Chris shared will go on forever. As he stood, saying good-by to his grandmother, the boy by her bed began his lonely journey on the path toward becoming a man. Ms. Daisy’s example of love and courage will guide him.