The phone is ringing. I check the caller id; I am already late, but if it’s Declan or the kids, I will simply have to be later. The teacher’s meeting starts at 8:30 a.m.. I know this last meeting of the year preys on their patience. They all -- to a number -- want to be on the way to the summer break. For the teachers who are teaching this summer, there is a week before preparation begins for summer school. The clock is ticking. We all feel it.
The nature of working in an academic environment is that life revolves around a calendar. It is a reliable and inexorably predictable dance.
Whately Prep shows on the small screen of the house phone handset. This call originates on-campus. I pick up the receiver. “Head’s House.”
“Head Dickinson?” This is Cole Potter.”
“Oh, Potter, have you got news about the recent vandalism?”
“Workin’ on that, m’am. I’m callin’ about Gillian Dickinson, your aunt, m’am.
My deputy reported that she called Security at 5:51 a.m. to request assistance. We wanted to call 911, but she said she would refuse to go with them to Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Ms. Dickinson said she would accept a ride in one of our vehicles or not at all.”
“Why did she want to go to the hospital, do you know?”
“She said her heart hurt and that is was hard to breathe. She said she lost her balance.”
My own breathing is quickening. I feel the lub dub, lub dub of my heart pounding in my ears. I know she’s 89, but I have not allowed for the possibility that anything could happen to her. She is an institution. I should know better. Even the Roman Empire fell.
Potter is still jabbering.
“Ms. Dickinson insisted that I promise not to call you before 8:00 a.m.. She was hospitalized under the care of Dr. Spring. They are doin’ tests at the moment. Among other things, they mentioned she might have a urinary tract infection.”
By the time I am off the phone with Potter, I have formulated a plan. I have a finely-honed skill when it comes to emergencies. First, I disengage. I create as much emotional distance as possible from whatever it is that is occurring. Second, I review the facts in order to move on to ...Third, I make an action plan.
My aunt is under the care of a hospital because she in medically unstable. More information is not available at this time. I have a meeting I am expected to chair in exactly....I glance at my watch....seven minutes. The hospital is eleven minutes away.
- Call Assistant Headmaster Craig to review the changes of benefits and administrative changes with the professional staff.
- Call Dr. Spring and check Aunt Gillian’s condition. Pick up anything she needs from her house.
- Drive to the hospital. Call Declan from the car.
Dr. Spring says that it is likely that Gillian has an embolism. This can be very serious. She will be undergoing a battery of tests today. “It would be nice for her to have someone with her,” he says, “Does she have family?”
“I’m it,” I say.
Dr. Spring urges me to pack Aunt Gillian an overnight bag.
I have rarely entered Aunt Gillian’s home uninvited. It feels like a violation somehow. I stare at the stained glass window that is over the stairs like I have never seen it before.
For just a moment, I soak up the colors as they stream through the glass. On the way up the stairs, she has her beloved butterflies photographed and inventoried. I never see a butterfly without thinking of Aunt Gillian.
Moving upstairs to her room, I find it exactly as I found it five years ago and fifteen years ago. She has the taste of a Spartan. It seems oxymoronic to enter a Victorian home occupied by an eighty-nine year old woman and find it spare, almost cold. Gillian does not embrace nostalgia or sentimentality. This is visible in the way she lives. I gather a couple of her cotton, full-length nightgowns, her denture case, eyeglasses, toothbrush and four pairs of underpants. Hanes, for her. I add a shawl and a pair of slippers. She has a devotional and two reading books by her bed. Her glasses, set upside down to protect the lenses, rest on top of the stack. I take the devotional and one of the literature books. I wonder why she is reading “In the Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett. I swear she could recite it she has read it so often.
I place all the object in a small valise she has stored inside the bedroom closet.
I am struck by how Aunt Gillian is. Everything is exactly where I would expect it to be.
Aunt Gillian, in a nutshell.