When we first met, Marta was pushing empty wheelchairs into the first-floor community room at Holy Family Manor Nursing Home, where she neatly lined them up in rows. Week after week, as my family sat visiting my mom, Marta did her thing—and, for some strange reason, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her.
She was a real character and spoke no English but understood more than she let on. I always felt a little sorry for the nurses, trying to persuade her to drink a nutritional supplement or eat crushed pills with applesauce. I felt sorrier still for Marta—a woman so desperately trying to assert her independence in an environment where the only sense of control she had was in her mind.
Marta was only one of a handful of residents on the floor who was still ambulatory. She must've logged a dozen or so miles each day as she traveled from room to room, collecting souvenirs like someone on vacation. She always seemed happy, but even though many of the nurses on the floor were fluent in Spanish and able to communicate with her, I could still feel her loneliness.
So, one day, I welcomed her into our little visitors' circle and she happily pulled over a chair and sat down. I'll always remember how she sparkled. She was wearing enough bingo bling to decorate a Christmas tree and proudly held out her arms to display her many colorful bracelets.
"Muy bonita, Marta! Mi madre," I said, brushing off my high school Spanish and pointing to my mom. Marta brightened like a noonday sun.
"Oh, su mamá!" she said, and the next moments were a Spanish blur as she chattered on and on much faster than my brain's catcher's mitt was able to grasp and decipher. I caught a few random words: "child," "mother" and "sister." Simple words that invited me into her world and connected us because I too was a child, a mother and a sister.
When Marta finally took a breath, I introduced my family: "Marta, este es mi esposo, David. Y, este es mi hijo, Jeremy." She smiled and nodded to my husband and son.
We became unlikely friends.
Every Sunday, I looked for Marta as we wheeled my mother into one of the several community rooms. If I didn't spot her immediately, she always found us. As we continued to have our conversations, my Spanish began to improve. ¿Quien sabe? Who knew?
On my mom's birthday, we tied some brightly colored balloons to her wheelchair, which sent Marta over the moon. She hurried over to my mom and said, "Cumpleaños, cumpleaños!"
"Si, cumpleaños!" I said, so happy to have brightened her day. Then, as fast as she hurried to us, Marta scurried away only to return a moment later with a giant stuffed bear, which she presented to my mother.
"Cumpleaños, cumpleaños!" Marta giddily sang out.
"Sí," I said, wiping away a tear on my cheek.
The next time I saw Marta, she was pushing a doll in a stroller through the hallways like a proud young mother. She parked it and sat down next to me as she always did, gesturing to her bebé. In between small talk with my mom, Marta shared stories of her little one as if it were a real child.
Near the end of last year, Marta's sparkle began to fade. She was forced to use a wheelchair and we saw her less and less. On a recent visit with my mom, I flagged down Abby, a familiar nurse on the floor.
"I haven't seen Marta lately. I was wondering …"
"She passed," Abby said quietly, standing behind my mother.
"Oh!" I gasped.
"What's wrong?" my mom asked.
"She's OK," Abby reassured her as I turned away, trying to conceal my overwhelming sadness from my mom.
I still catch myself looking for Marta in the hallways, but her shine will always live on in my heart.