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Dance Among the Weeds

by Roberta McReynolds

We started out as strangers, the nursing home resident and I, but we found that the differences between us fell rapidly away and a bond formed. She grew up in another country with customs difficult to comprehend in my modern American world. She forgave me for my ignorance and was patient as I struggled with an accent foreign to my ears. She understood I was sincere in my effort to provide companionship and that made a difference.

Twice a week as part of our ritual I asked, "Would you like to go outside with me and see the garden?" The reply was always the same: her voice reflecting the distinctive tonal quality of her Asian heritage.

"No, ma’am. Thank you very much," the answer was polite, yet firm.

Cancer had handed Mliss* a death sentence and her world had shrunk down to a single room in this nursing facility. She was young, but time was not on her side.

I listened to stories about the country where she grew up and even brought her travel brochures with pictures so she could see the land she left behind many years ago. She tried to teach me a native dance, which must have provided great amusement as I awkwardly attempted to mimic her graceful moves. It was worth it to see her smile.

Our visits together made me acutely aware of what a privileged, easy life I’d led by comparison. Her spirit had endured so much. I felt drawn to her, wanting to learn where Mliss got such strength of character.

Each time our visit concluded, I knew that when I returned in a few days, I’d ask my standard question yet again. I longed to see Mliss outdoors in the sunlight, where the shadows of her sadness would be diminished, if only for a while. I wondered if my motivation was truly for her benefit, or if I was feeding a personal need to offer something more important to me than her. I cautioned myself not to be pushy and to respect her wishes.

Nearly seven weeks passed like this. Mliss was getting weaker. She didn’t get up out of bed as much and our dancing lessons were clearly a thing of the past.

"Would you like to go outside with me and see the garden?"

"Yes, ma’am. Okay."

I thought I’d heard incorrectly, but she was pushing back the nest of blankets on her bed and getting up. She straightened her clothes and with a dignity so characteristic of this woman, got her purse and arranged herself in the wheelchair I fetched to conserve her energy during our outing.

The landscaping around the facility always impressed me, but on this day I looked at the gardens with fresh eyes. I pointed out various plants and flowers as we slowly made our way along winding sidewalks, stopping frequently to admire the essence of nature around us.

Following an inner voice, I impulsively stepped off the path and over a low-growing shrub to pluck a sprig of lavender. I held it to my nose and inhaled the sweetness, then handed it to my passenger.

"Oh. Very nice, yes," her face was transformed with the smile that lifted her cheeks and added a sparkle to her deep brown eyes.

Encouraged, I scanned the landscaping for something else that would elicit a warm reaction. I broke off a piece of Rosemary and rubbed it between my palms to release the fragrance. I had learned that Mliss was a good cook and she obviously appreciated the memories of her kitchen which returned with the Rosemary in her hand.

"There, ma’am, over there please!" she pointed to a rose bush ahead of us. My thought was to position her close enough to the edge of the sidewalk to enjoy the flowers, but she surprised me when her hand darted out and quickly picked a yellow rose, thorns and all.

We made our way through the meandering garden, she directing and me pushing. We added another rose and some mint in blossom to the growing bouquet. There were some flowers that I couldn’t identify, but it didn’t matter. Mliss even requested I pick some interesting looking weeds for her. Yes, weeds. This was a woman who had been confined indoors for many weeks, perhaps months. Long enough to appreciate the delicate beauty of sunlight on a tall weed bending gracefully in the warm breeze.

When we returned to her room, Mliss got up and shuffled over to the sink in her room to rinse off her flowers and arrange them in a vase: a mixture of color, shape and texture, with large flowers and tiny. A florist probably wouldn’t have paid a nickel for the odd collection we gathered. I wouldn’t have sold it for any price.

"Thank you, ma’am, very much," Mliss pushed the palms of her hands together, fingers pointing heavenward, and bowed, "I like."

We exchanged hugs and goodbyes. Seeing Mliss outside and beaming was the greatest of gifts.

The very next day Mliss had a seizure and she entered into a coma-like state. Her cancer was spreading rapidly. There would be no more chances to pick flowers in the garden.

My new friend died several days later.

I find that I’ve been spending more time in my own garden lately, just because I can. I have the health and freedom to go out into my yard whenever the mood strikes and I don’t take that for granted as much as I used to. I must confess that I don’t even look at weeds the same way: someone showed me the beauty in all living things. And if you look over the fence, you might even see me practicing my Cambodian dancing lessons.

* Not her real name: Mliss is a Cambodian name meaning flower.

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