Hope, With a Gentle Persuasion
By Linda Germain
Maggie recognized the familiar cadence of Zebadiah Johnson as he walked down the hall in his well-made leather shoes. He was a beloved fixture here at the nursing home. Every person he encountered received a weather prediction. Not that any of the prognostications were current, but certainly they were entertaining.
Zeb’s age was a mystery. Curiously, he was a ward of the state. He had been found wandering and seemingly confused. With no identification, and no reason to put him in jail, the town was footing the bill for what was affectionately known in these parts as the "old folks’ hotel." He was called Zeb Johnson only because that was a name found in his Bible.
A deep but quiet voice said, "Morning Ma’am, it is 72 degrees and cloudy. The chance of rain is 30 percent."
"Thanks Zeb. Wait a second. Here’s some water and your vitamin to take before breakfast."
That was the extent of his pill taking. Unlike most of the patients in the building, he was very healthy, except for the amnesia.
Clutching his old Gideon’s Bible with the taped cover, he noticed Mrs. O’Malley sitting in her wheelchair. "Morning, Ma’am, there’s hurricane warnings today."
"I’ll stay alert, Mr. Johnson. Thanks for the information."
She was bright and sharp of mind, but quite incapacitated by arthritis. All the residents were very protective of Zeb and did not seem to mind his forecasting compulsion.
Donations from a wealthy woman whose father had died put Zeb on the best-dressed list. The impeccably tailored suits and shirts were of the best quality and the fit was almost perfect. He had sparkling blue eyes and thick, nicely trimmed white hair. Every so often the local newspaper would do a story on the mystery of his identity. There never seemed to be any leads.
In the dining room, Annie Sue Smith was busy dishing up food. She had grown to love these elderly characters. Zeb made his way to his usual place by the window. She giggled as she beat him to the punch. "Morning, Zeb, how’s the weather?"
"Better cover up your flowers, it might dip to freezing tonight."
"Yes, I’ll do that, Sir. Here are your eggs and biscuits. We have fresh squeezed orange juice too."
Zeb never spilled anything or made a mess. His natural ways in social graces and his lovely demeanor with others caused speculation that he must have some kind of privileged background.
The yearly fire drill was scheduled for today. The purpose was to familiarize the patients and the staff with the closest exit routes in case of an emergency and to meet nursing home standards of accreditation. The residents were forewarned of the event in an effort to head off any heart arrhythmias from the fright of a shrill alarm. The totally bedridden who were receiving oxygen were not required to participate.
Maggie had so much to do; she was a little irritated to have the drill on her shift. In an effort to catch most of the residents in a more cooperative frame of mind, it was to begin just before lunch and afternoon naps.
At exactly 11:15 that morning Fire Chief Pete Phillips and crew were in place. Each patient was poised to walk out quietly, or be rolled in a wheelchair. There was an air of adventure. Finally, the muffled alarm was sounded and like a well trained marching band, the parade began. Maggie, clipboard in hand, and Chief Phillips with his stopwatch to time them, strolled the length of the line reassuring each one.
Mr. Saunders, always confused, thought they were going to recess. Mrs. Barnard was dressed in her finest, even to the fake diamond earrings and her Sunday hat. Mr. and Mrs. Cannon, married for 76 years, walked at a leisurely pace, her arm tucked in his. The chief was not happy with the overall day-in-the-park proceedings but he realized this was probably as good as it would get with this bunch.
The longtime fireman noticed a natty looking gentleman in a well-fit suit. His white hair was brushed to a shine and his blue eyes were clear and confident. He did not wear glasses. Without missing a beat, he said one sentence to the chief.
"Batten down your hatches."
Maggie turned around when she heard the strange message. Zeb never mentioned much of anything except his own interpretation of the weather.
As he strode by with his head held high she gently touched his hand. "What’s the temperature Mr. Johnson?"
"Hot," he said. He had his old Bible under one arm.
Once outside in the fresh air they all did an about face and headed to the dining room. It was unanimous: This exercise had been invigorating and well executed.
Most of the elderly residents were sound asleep by nine o’clock. Nurses Tina Young and Dave Cooperman had just made rounds. They each were looking forward to a brief break for a sandwich and some coffee. The other night shift workers were assisting some of the more dependent patients.
"Hey Dave, I thought I saw Zeb walking down the C corridor. He was dressed."
"Oh, really? You know, Tina, I did not even check on him. He usually is asleep by this time."
As Dave rose to head for Zeb’s room, a strident alarm began to clang. It was the midnight hour. Tina had a look of horror on her face.
"Dave" she shouted, "Flames are coming from the kitchen!"
That was on Corridor C. She raced for the phone while Dave gathered the rest of the staff to line up wheelchairs and get the old folks moving to the outside. They could hear a brigade of fire trucks screaming in their direction. Any hospital or nursing home calls are considered four-alarm. Smoke was beginning to make its way into the halls.
Few of the residents wanted to get up. The playacting drill they had practiced this afternoon did not resemble the real thing in any way.
"Get my good robe and pink slippers," said one.
"I will go no where without my teeth," complained another.
This sudden call to action was most intrusive and certainly did not feel like a walk in the park. As the geriatrics made their way into the hall and realized this was not a drill, panic set in. Some got confused, many were crying.
The patients who had constant need of attention were rolled out on their beds. The place was over-run with the welcomed sight of trained fire fighters.
"Dave," Tina hollered as she wrapped a blanket around a shivering woman, "Where is Zeb?"
The fire crew battled for hours, but nothing was saved. Television news people were filming, and a reporter from the newspaper spoke into a little tape recorder.
"One of the worst disasters to hit this town in years…"
"So many to move out, but miraculously, no deaths, just a few injuries and smoke inhalations…"
Most of the newly homeless were taken to a local hotel. Dave told Tina that Zeb was not on the bus, nor in any of the ambulances going to the hospital. Strangely, many of the old folks reported having seen Zeb, in fact had listened to him read from the Scriptures. He seemed to have asked every single person, even the bedridden, if he or she knew where life continued after physical death. But where was he?
Over the next six months a beautiful new building was erected. The day before opening, Maggie, Tina and Dave were taking one last walk around. Tina caught her breath and stopped abruptly as she pointed to a dapper looking man standing in the Nurse’s station and smiling. He looked very familiar. Dave and Maggie were speechless.
He was beaming. "Lovely weather, friends."
"Zeb?" The three echoed each other.
"Who?" He seemed puzzled. "Oh, I’m sorry; my name is Gabe Trump, the new director of this assisted living franchise. I was looking around to make sure everything is in order before we throw open the doors again. His voice was deep and commanding. At the same time, it was kind and comforting."
The three were bewildered and stunned.
The vigorous, healthy looking man with shiny white hair and sparkling blue eyes excused himself, picked up an old worn Gideon’s Bible and tucked it under his arm, then he saluted and strode down the hall toward the kitchen and out the back door.
* * *
Years later they each received a deathbed visit by the nicest fellow. He told them they were on the way to a most pleasant and balmy place; the perfect temperature. In a clear, sweet voice, he read from Scripture, "Yea though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil…"
He offered his hand to Maggie as she stepped across the threshold of her new dwelling. Lovely recognition surrounded her with peace and understanding.
"Thanks, Zeb," she whispered, "You are an angel."
Linda is a former Registered Nurse who stays busy freelance writing, acting in a local drama group, traveling, and attending Bible College to complete a Master's in Theology/Counseling . She is the very proud mother of a 20 year old son. Linda may be contacted via the Letters’ page of this Magazine.
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