I had come to adore Miss Mabel, and she had become a sort of surrogate mother to me. Over the next few months, my visits became less frequent, and I missed them, but I was still diligently working on my house. One day I went to see her and she handed me a paper bag. I was surprised, perplexed and a bit worried for some reason.
“You need to have this now,” she said. When I asked what was in the bag, she smiled and said, “open it.” When I opened it, I pulled out an old, stuffed panda bear.
“That belonged to Katy,” Miss Mabel said. “I bought it for her and she kept it here so her father wouldn’t tear it up. She used to sit in that chair over there and hold onto it like it was her very own little child.”
I couldn’t stop the tears that were welling up in my eyes. What a touching gift Miss Mabel had given to me. I hugged the bear, perhaps the same way that Katy had and the same way I so often wished that I could hug her.
Miss Mabel surprised me when she said, “run along home now.” She didn’t follow it with, “we’ll talk more tomorrow, or come back later.”
I had an uneasy feeling…almost like a forewarning, but I thought that maybe I was just letting my emotions get the better of me. Miss Mabel had given me a part of Katy, which had become a part of her, and would now become a part of me. I gave her a hug, a kiss on the cheek and a promise that I would see her later.
When I got back home, I was shocked to discover several notes in the bottom of the bag that had been the little panda bears’ refuge for so many years. Against my better judgement, I decided to open them. I had made a promise that I would never open any more of Katys’ notes in my little tin box, but I justified my betrayal by telling myself these notes might be different. These notes were written in the inner sanctum of Miss Mabels’ house.
I didn’t know if Miss Mabel knew of the notes, or knew what they asked for. If she did, she didn’t say.
I took them all out of the bag and began reading. Sadly, they were not different.
The first one said, “Dear God. Will you send a Knight in shining armor to take me away?” It was dated 1965. The next note said, “Dear God. I still hate you and I don’t believe in you anymore.” My heart was breaking. Katy was still writing notes and praying to a God in whom she no longer believed. It was dated 1966.
I picked up the little bear and held it, wishing it was Katy. I imagined that she had never known the warmth of a hug, and she was most likely touch-starved. I remembered Miss Mabel telling me that if she moved too quickly or got too close, Katy cringed and screamed.
That night, I decided once more to leave the notes folded. The words written on them would remain silent and forever unseen. My thoughts were that if I didn’t open them, I couldn’t feel more of the pain of those unanswered prayers from a lonely, heart-broken little girl.
In the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by flashing lights. I got up and stumbled to the window. I could see an ambulance at Miss Mabels’ house, so I threw on my dressing gown and flew outside. I didn’t even realize that I was barefoot, until I stepped on a sharp rock.
I was horrified to see Miss Mabel strapped to a stretcher, straddled by a paramedic who was pumping her chest in a manner that I feared would break every single one of her ribs. An accompanying police officer stopped me before I could get close and asked if I was a relative. I told him that I wasn’t, but that she was a very dear friend.
In that instant, I realized that she was a very dear friend, whom I knew nothing about. She had talked about marriage and men in a disparaging way, but had never mentioned siblings or even parents, and I knew nothing about her medical history, other than she was wheel-chair bound.
I must have had some sort of premonition earlier when I felt a bit disquieted. I couldn’t explain it and it somewhat frightened me, but I selfishly dismissed the feelings. I should have gone back to check on her.
As they were taking her away, I remembered her telling me about an old African tradition. She said, “they say if you take a handful of dirt from the path your loved one took when they left, they will return to you.” She said, “the last time I saw Katy, I leaned over and took a handful of dirt, but I never saw her again.”
I did the same, but I knew that I would never see that extraordinarily remarkable woman again…at least not in this life.
Just as I feared, Miss Mabel died that night. My beloved friend was gone and I was going to miss her terribly. I wondered if she knew she was going to leave, and that’s why she gave me Katys’ bear.
Having no next of kin, she was buried in the City Cemetery, where all the other indigent people rest. Although she was now just a number, she would not be forgotten. I had a small marble plaque made which said, “Miss Mabel, My Friend.”
Her house was taken by the state and prepared for auction. If I had been able, I would have bought it…for two reasons. It was hers, and it housed Katys’ painting. I went to the auction and bought the chair where Miss Mabel said that Katy sat, and I literally took Miss Mabels’ bible from another womans’ hand. I lied and told her that I had already bought it. I was thinking that later, I could write my own note to God. It would say, “Dear God. Please forgive me for lying.” The note from Katy that I gave to Miss Mabel was still in it, where it would stay.
Her house ultimately went to a flipper, who had no intention of preserving its originality. Their idea was to completely gut it, and equip it with modern appliances and accouterments to be more in step with the present time. Then they would make a quick profit on the resale.
When the contractors arrived, I walked over and asked them about their plans. They had been commissioned to knock down the walls and make it an open floor plan. I showed them the painting and asked if there was any way to save it. I offered to pay them to just cut out that one wall, but they said it would be impossible.
As I slowly walked back home, I realized that I would never hear another story about Katy. I had no idea what she looked like. I had no idea how old she was. Had the man who bought her grandmothers’ house not painted over the mural, I might have been able to have seen her as a little girl. I was almost certain that the “old woman and little girl” he so gruffly described, must have been Katy and her grandmother.
I was grief-stricken over the death of Miss Mabel. I would never know the story behind her disgust toward marriage and men. I would never know why she was in a wheelchair. I would never know her hopes and dreams, other than what Katy had depicted in the mural, which had now been destroyed.
We always think there is going to be one more day, one more visit, one more Coca-Cola, one more cigarette, one more episode of Jeopardy, one more piece of lemon pie and one more story. But life and death are unpredictable. We all have our own expiration date and Miss Mabels’ had come. I think that maybe she had exceeded hers a bit, and I think she was ready, but I wasn’t.
I wasn’t ready to lose this amazing woman who had left an indelible mark on my life and my heart, and I would be forever grateful that I had been blessed to have known her. I knew that she wouldn’t want me to be sad, nor would she want me to mourn so I decided to get busy and put all of my efforts into my house.
One room at a time. One day at a time. Eventually the restoration of my house was complete, but the story didn’t end there. There was one more thing I had to do.
I had to find Katy.