A chance encounter with a passenger on the airport shuttle from Minneapolis to Rochester led to my writing this story.
Reading time: 8 minutes
The red eye from Los Angeles arrived in Minneapolis at 6:15 AM with me and dozens of others on it. Even though Rochester (eighty miles south) is my home, I feel like I’m there when I make it to the big city. Though the shuttle van to Rochester would not leave until 7:30, I checked in early and settled into the hard-plastic airport chair as best as I could, hoping to catch a few winks that had escaped me on the plane. From the corner of my eye I saw a woman with a large boot on her right foot limping her way to the shuttle counter, and in a few minutes she plopped down a few chairs away from me, pulled out her checkbook, and began writing.
Though she said nothing I could tell that her foot was killing her. “Do you want me to take that check up to the counter for you?” I asked, thinking I might be able to save her a few steps.
“Sure,” she said, “and could you get me my receipt, too?” I was tired and not eager to take on extra chores however simple, but I replied, “OK.”
As I waited for the man behind the counter, I looked back at her and said, “It will be a ways to the van, do you want me to find a wheel chair for you?” She seemed pleased that I thought of that, and this time it was her turn for the “OK” reply. I noticed a wheelchair by a nearby information booth and wheeled it back by her side. She was busily updating her checkbook register when I asked if she was going to the Mayo Clinic for help with her foot.” Yes, it has really been hurting me,” is all she offered.
Two elderly women, one with a cane, had joined the vanpool. At 7:30 our parade marched its way across the airport lobby, led by the van driver, Pete, pushing our sore-footed friend, me groggily pulling my luggage, and the two women hobbling along. Bystanders had no trouble guessing that our contingent was headed to the Mayo Clinic.
Getting the passengers into a step-up van was difficult, but Pete and I helped them into their places. I slid into the seat behind Pete hoping to catch those few winks that eluded me on the red eye. The heater blasted warm air that flooded over me, and on this cold December morning it felt as good as sinking into a tub of hot water. Pete guided the van out of the parking area, and before conversation began we were on the highway headed south to Rochester.
She stretched her right leg out until it nearly reached the front passenger seat and began to unroll the protective boot that covered her foot. Her bare skin was suddenly exposed and almost touched my left leg, which I pulled back so it wasn't close to the unpleasant sight. Her foot and ankle weren’t swollen, but the skin was tight and blotchy. “The pain seems to be a side effect of the experimental drugs I'm taking,” she explained as she saw me peeking at her foot. I looked from her foot to her head when she said that and noticed her thinning hair. “That’s from the chemo,” she added as she saw my diverted look, “and it’s finally starting to grow back.”
“My foot is so sore. On my last trip to Rochester, a lady in the front seat of the van bumped against it and I thought I was going to die. I’m not leaving the Clinic today until I get an answer from the doctors as to what’s going on. I guess you just don’t know what these drugs are going to do.”
So rather than catch those much-needed winks that eluded me on the red-eye, I listened to her.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said, “but lately it’s taken a turn for the worse.” I detected a misty glaze in her eyes. “My friend died, my dog just died, I can’t do things for myself the way I want to.” Her voice trailed off and I wasn’t sure how long her list of misfortunes had grown, but I wanted to reach out and give her a hug.
“It’s liver cancer. I knew something wasn’t right. Finally, my doctor in the cities referred me to a surgeon at Mayo. He did a nice job, but the cancer came back and I took more chemo. Doesn’t make me sick at all; just makes my hair fall out. They did a scan yesterday and I’m going back to get the results. I’m hoping that it’s in remission. I’m sixty-six, you know.”
She was small framed and athletic looking. Her hair was coming back blonde, not gray, and her rounded face was tanned (or maybe yellowish from the liver problems). She looked ten years younger than she was.
“You’re kidding!” I said, and she beamed in response, pleased that despite her ailments she looked much younger than her age.
As the miles went by I learned that her live-in boyfriend of thirty-two years had died of an aneurysm. She got the house and some 401K money, more than she had expected. She spent 32 years working at a drug store, and had helped open one in Rochester. She was Catholic and he wasn’t, and that seemed to be the main reason they never married. She wasn’t close with any of her brothers, sisters, nephews, or nieces. Several of her relatives had the nerve to ask what they might have of hers when she died, like vultures circling over a wounded animal.
“It’s so hard to be dependent on others; for example, to watch someone else iron your clothes. No one does things the way you would. I slide down the stairs on my seat, one step at a time, and stay in my basement for hours, doing wash and drying the clothes; watching TV, even taking a nap if I need to. The little things really tire you out.”
She had been born in North Dakota and wanted to be a pilot (but her dad wouldn’t let her) is all I learned of her childhood. She talked at length about politics; Jesse Ventura as governor, the Humphrey’s, caucuses, and primaries. She knew much about what was going on in her state and took pleasure in expressing her views. She talked about her “husband,” how he wasn’t much for expressing his emotions in words, but that years ago, when she was sick, he brought a rose to her every day she had been in the hospital.
“Did you ever think of finding another man?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said. “There was a guy who hung around work and tried to ask me out for a date. I invited him to my house for supper. I have a dog, and it was obvious right away that he didn’t like dogs. My dog stayed in the bedroom the whole time he was there. Animals know a lot about people, and that told me something right there. I never asked him over again.”
The van arrived at the Clinic. Her doctor’s appointment was at 10:30.” I’ve got time,” she said. “How about I buy you a cup of coffee? You could call your wife from the coffee shop and wait there until she arrives.”
I wanted to say that I was tired and really wanted to get home, but I looked again at her and couldn’t leave a lonely, scared woman who didn’t know a soul in Rochester and was soon to learn how many weeks, months or years she had left to live. Instead, I replied, “Thanks, I could use a cup.”
Wheelchairs were plentiful at the Mayo Clinic. Hers zigzagged to and fro as I pushed it with my right hand and pulled my luggage with my left. I remembered her mentioning the pain of having her foot bumped, so I was careful not to bang the protruding appendage into anyone or anything. We arrived without incident at the coffee shop, ordered, and found an empty table. “Good luck,” I said. “I’m hoping that you get a good report.”
“I hope so, too,” she replied.
“I’ll be praying for you,” I added and realized that I didn’t know her name.
She noticed my hesitation and said, “Thank you, my name’s Terri.”
“And mine’s Mike,” I replied.
It was time for me to go. “Can I wheel you to the elevator?”
“That would be nice,” she replied. “And thank you so much for all you’ve done.” The elevator doors opened and another person going up helped back her wheelchair into the car.
“So long,” I said and a wave of sadness came across me as I took a final look at the frail woman.
“Goodbye,” she said, and the steel doors slid shut like the curtains ending a play to which I would never know the end.
Why didn’t I ask her last name? I thought. My wife arrived, I tossed my luggage in the back seat of our car, and we headed home. But it wasn’t home that was on my mind. It was Terri. Maybe I’ll call the van company and see if they could tell me her last name. Maybe I will give her a call. Maybe. I’m sure she would appreciate it.