Now Joanna is holding the hand of someone waiting for her daughter to arrive. Only months ago, this woman — Lois Flowers — was one of the regulars in Pine Haven's dining room where the residents often linger long after the meal for some form of entertainment or another. She was a woman who kept her hair dyed black and never left her room without her hair and make-up and outfit just right. She had her color chart done in 1981 and kept the little swatches like paint chips in the zippered section of her purse. She told Joanna that having your colors done was one of the best investments a woman could ever make. "I'm a winter," she said. "It's why turquoise looks so good on me." She loved to sing and some nights she could convince several people to join in; other nights she simply stood in one corner and swayed back and forth like she might have been in Las Vegas singing everything she knew of Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney and Judy Garland. She loved anything Irving Berlin had ever written. Now she has forgotten everything except the face of her daughter, random lyrics and that your shoes and purse should always match. Joanna has watched the daughter night after night, leaning into her mother's ear to sing — first upbeat (clang clang clang went the trolley, ding ding ding went the bell). She always ends with one of her very favorites like "It Could Happen to You" or "Over the Rainbow" or "What'll I Do?" Joanna — as ordered by Luke's many rules — keeps a notebook with an entry on each of the people she sits with. She has to do an official one to turn over to the nurse who oversees her work, but this is a different, personal notebook she writes just after someone has died. It's a notebook she bought and showed Luke to prove to him that she was taking his assignments seriously — a bright yellow college ruled spiral bound notebook, which was all she could find at the Thrifty Market there close to Luke's house. It was near the end for him so she didn't venture far. "This is my page," he told her. "Everybody should get at least a page." She writes what she knows: their names and birthplaces and favorite things. Sometimes she asks questions: what is your first memory? your favorite time of day or holiday or teacher or article of clothing? How would you describe your marriage? Was there something you learned in your life that surprised you? She records the weather and season and last words if there are any. Luke said that this would be her religion, the last words and memories of the dying her litany. She should read and reread the entries regularly like devotionals. Keep us close, he said, keep us alive. Don't ever let us disappear.
The longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself. Joanna's life is blip blip blip, like images on an old film projector that keeps sticking and burning. She's been spliced a lot of times over the years but finally she feels free — not perfect, not problem-free, just free. No one likes to talk about the positive parts of getting older and aging into orphan hood, how with your parents you often bury a lot of things you were never able to confront or fix or let go of.
She has spent long hours discussing this with C.J., a girl most likely not to be Joanna's best friend and yet, she is. C.J. is half her age, punk and pierced and tattooed with a baby boy whose father she won't discuss — not yet at least. C.J. is beautiful and so unaware of it, long legs and hazel eyes and a beautiful dark complexion that leaves people perplexed and wondering about her ethnicity. It seems she might even be perplexed herself and camouflages herself with tattoos and loose clothing and colors of hair dyes that are not natural to any race.
Joanna wasn't there for her mother, but she was there for her dad, and seeing him through those last days allowed her to let go herself. Being there may prove to be the greatest gift of her life. And of course none of that would have happened without Luke and Tammy.
In her work, Joanna has learned the importance of making peace. She sees it all the time, the stubborn child who won't come to the bedside and so the parent lasts far longer than should be asked of anyone. It is painful to watch and for this reason, she feels lucky to have journeyed her way back to this place. Her dad wanted her to promise to keep the The Dog House running and now she is doing her best, opening and closing and hiring responsible people to work the place, so she can devote herself to the volunteer hospice hours she gives over in Pine Haven's nursing wing.
"Make their exits as gentle and loving as possible," Luke had said. "Tell them how good it will be, even if you don't believe it yourself. You're Southern, you know how to do that." And now family members greet and embrace her like she is one of them. Lung. Brain. Breast. Uterus. Pancreas. Bone. The families discuss and explain the symptoms and diagnoses for her as if they have never been heard of before, have never happened to anyone else, and she listens. Mistakes are made in the telling and she does not correct them. It is important to remain separate, to allow them to claim the disease, claim their grief. It is important not to get too attached or personally involved. Sometimes, when family members are naming the tests and the symptoms and prognosis, she allows herself to imagine her mother, getting the news and then driving home. Actively deciding what to do next but not calling her. But Joanna can go only so far with that or she'll undermine her purpose in the present. She is there, compassionate and listening, guiding the patients to talk and tell their stories if inclined, but knowing when to step back into the shadows of the drapes or a closet door so family members get their time. She knows how to disappear.
Relatives show her all the old photos and letters; they tell her of accomplishments and regrets, and then afterwards, they drift away, her presence like something from an old dream, a reminder of their grief and loss. Sometimes they see her in the grocery or hardware store or when they drive up to The Dog House, and they can't help themselves, their eyes well up and words get choked. Like Pavlov's dogs, they react to her presence. It makes her think of poor Harley, the docile old orange cat at Pine Haven with enough poundage to warm even the coldest circulation free feet only now all of the residents are terrified of him because of the story in a recent news broadcast about a cat who chose to curl up beside whoever was most likely to die. The reports speculated how the cat knew. Did he sense something? Did he smell some chemical release of a body shutting down? His track record was convincing enough that the people who worked in that particular place paid attention to where he spent his time, and the story told was convincing enough to ruin poor Harley's life there at Pine Haven. Once he was the most beloved and coveted creature in the place, and now he is greeted by shrieks and screams — slippers and plastic cups tossed his way. He is just a reminder of what is coming, a feline representation of Joanna herself, the one who appears bedside at the end and massages their cold, darkening feet.
From Life After Life by Jill McCorkle. Copyright 2013 by Jill McCorkle. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books.