44: Three Elephants

44: Three Elephants

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Three Elephants

When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.

~Chinua Achebe

On my final visit, Mary was feeling bad. I could tell as soon as I walked in. She was seated in her wheelchair and her face was pale with pain, her eyes rheumy.

Her daughter Winnie met me at the door. “Mother has something to tell you,” she said, knotting her hands together anxiously.

My heart thrummed like hummingbird wings. I had no idea what Mary had to say, but I was worried.

Although I had been a nurse for twenty-five years, I was still new to home health. On average, I drove 800 miles a week through three large, rural counties. It meant very long days, often with unexpected situations in patients’ homes.

I had met Mary and her husband Herbert almost a year before. A spry octogenarian couple from the great Northwest, they had ventured to the deserts of the arid Southwest to visit Winnie. During the vacation, Mary took a tumble, fracturing her right arm and shoulder. My visits had included many hours of excruciating exercises and loving conversations. I was closer to Mary than any patient I’d ever cared for.

They stayed at Winnie’s, and over time Mary’s fractures healed and her pain became more tolerable, but she remained limited to a wheelchair. Then to our great dismay, Mary developed bowel cancer. She didn’t have much time left. My function as a home health nurse suddenly shifted to hospice nurse. Rather than help her body heal, I was doing all I could to help as it shut down.

I put down my big bag of nursing supplies and went over to pale, stoic Mary. “What is it you want to tell me?” I asked, kneeling beside her.

“Give me your hand,” she said solemnly.

I extended my hand, palm open. I tried not shake, having no idea what to expect. I could swear I saw tears in her eyes.

Mary smiled warmly and took my hand in her swollen hands. “I am going to tell you a story about three elephants.” She started tracing little circles in the palm of my hand with her knobby index finger.

“Once there were three elephants: a great big papa elephant, a great big mama elephant, and a small baby elephant.” She continued making circles in my palm.

“They were walking and walking in the jungle until Papa Elephant roared with his trunk and said, ‘I need to go.’ And he went over here.” She moved her finger down to the tip of my thumb. “They kept walking and walking in the jungle and Mama Elephant trumpeted with her trunk and said, ‘I need to go.’ And she went over here.” She moved her finger along my middle finger.

“They continued walking and walking through the jungle and Baby Elephant gave a toot with his trunk and said, ‘I need to go.’ And he went over here.” Just as her finger drew a line to my pinkie, warm moisture dripped over my palm.

I jerked my hand away and stared at it. The baby elephant had just urinated on my hand!

Mary, Herbert, and Winnie roared with laughter. Mary mischievously opened her fist and revealed a water-soaked tissue.

For a minute I could only gawk. After all, Mary was dying. This was no time for a joke! But then I watched the pain melt away from her body as it shook with giggles. Then laughter bubbled out of all of us.

The next week, Mary was gone. Her family invited me to join in celebrating her life. Together, Herbert, Winnie, and I recounted all the wonderful times Mary had shared with us. We circled her life, like elephants walking around the jungle, laughing as much as we could along the way.

Today, I try to bring a bit of Mary’s laughter to the hands I hold and the lives I touch.

~Donna Mason

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