It was another beautiful autumn afternoon in 2007. The day was almost over, and I was at my final stop before going home. I always saved this nursing home for last when I was out in the field, because it was such a pleasant experience each time I visited. With an excellent staff and a perfectly maintained building, residents and family members really seemed to appreciate life there.
I needed to evaluate one of the residents for services my company might be able to provide, as she was being discharged the next week to go live with her daughter. As I proceeded down the hallway, reading name holders outside each door, I considered a couple options I thought might be workable for my customer.
About half way down the east wing, mid-thought, mid-stride, I stopped cold. No idea how long I stood, frozen in that spot, staring in shocked disbelief at the name on the wall. Reading it over and over, I was having difficulty comprehending that name could belong to the person to whom I thought it belonged; there was only an initial of the first name, and then the complete last name.
After I do not know how long, I shook myself out of that momentary paralysis, and gingerly peeked into the room; saw a nurse’s aid, side view, sitting in a chair, feeding a resident whom I could not see, because of a curtain in the way. I did not want to barge in on a stranger, but it became imperative I find out who that resident was. The nurse’s station was just around the corner, so I scurried over to it, and asked if the Z. Martin in room 110 was Zinnia Martin. The nurse on duty told me it was indeed Zinnia.
Time, for me, in that place, did not obey tick tock laws at that moment. It swirled, and I swayed, locked in a struggle to remain outside a vortex where my history collided with my present, trying to suck me in and whirl me about; there I stood, wondering how to deal with this shocking convergence of a sixty year old me woman and a ten year old me girl.
After regaining a bit of composure, I asked the nurse if it would be all right if I went in to see Mrs. Martin. She told me it would be fine, Zinnia was finishing dinner, and would love some company. Then, she added I needed to be aware there was a problem with her speech; explaining Zinnia had a stroke and as a result, had lost the ability to speak. I asked if she could still read, and was told she could.
Thanking the nurse, I turned around, went back down the hall, and sat down on the floor, leaning my back against the corridor wall outside her room. Taking out a sheet of paper from my notebook, as I sat cross-legged on the floor, this is what I wrote:
Dear Mrs. Martin,
You were my fifth grade teacher in 1957, and of all the teachers I had before and have had since, there is no one I respected and loved more than you. When I became your student, I was a skinny, shy, lonely, very curious little girl who had a secret passion for learning and wanted desperately for just a little approval. You instinctively seemed to know my heart from the very first day, and in that year taught me more than I can possibly list here. And, beyond finding and lighting my inner candle of self worth, you proclaimed on my report card, which went home for everyone to see, that “I was a joy to have in class, and you wished you had thirty-four other students just like me”. I want to thank you for being the first person who ever told me I could do whatever I chose in life, and what was more, you believed in me. You taught me well, and I will never forget you.
When I finished my little tribute to the greatest teacher I ever knew, I quietly entered her room, and walked around the curtain. There she was, only the person sitting there was not the tall, vibrant red head, with azure blue eyes; no, she was a small, very frail, white haired aged beauty who looked puzzled at my arrival. I explained who I was, and said I had a letter I would like for her to read.
She took my letter and held it in a shaky hand, and read it right then and there. I watched her, and after just a few moments into it, she began to cry. When she finished, she took my hand in hers, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, she mouthed the words thank you. I hugged and held that dear woman for as long as I dared before completely losing it myself, told her she was very welcome, and left.
That night, I journaled the events of the day, recalling as I did a great lady who taught me to love Louisa May Alcott, draw with charcoal, be proud that I liked math and was good at it, and to square dance. She also taught me my value as a human being was not going to be measured by frivolous things like my weight or how quiet I was in class. She expected me to set my standards high, work hard, and never be afraid to stand up for those things in which I believed. I recalled a time, fifty years ago, looking into the depths of those same azure blue eyes that locked onto mine again in the nursing home, and promising her I would believe in myself. And to the best of my ability, Mrs. Martin, I have kept that promise.