A Tribute to Gloria
By Gail Branan
“Special moments of life come unexpectedly, highlighted in bright spots of color. Join me in my special moments, the moments when I gather fresh flowers, in this Writer’s Blog dedicated to the memory of a friend who shared with the world the Flowers on The Fence which I now share with all of you. For Gloria. With love.”
Thus reads the dedication to my own blog, Flowers on the Fence. Anyone who followed my blog from its inception knows that Gloria is Gloria Kernells, a spicy Southern lady (think The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, think Steel Magnolias) whose yard sported the most wonderful fence – a fence full of painted flowers. Flowers that just shouted “Hey! How y’all doin’? Ain’t life grand?” That fence purely waved to any passersby who cared to glance over long enough to see it. I met that fence long before I met her. I’d admired it for years before she invited me down for cake and coke. “Just follow me and watch where I turn. But you can’t miss it. It’s the house with the flowers on the fence.” Just typing those words even now gives me the same instant thrill of recognition I felt at the time.
Gloria was a one-of-a-kind lady in Jeffersonville, the one you could count on to be there when needed. Anywhere. For sick folks, for terminally ill folks. Doing the yard work, straightening the house, bringing food, collecting blankets for the local nursing home. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. There was nothing saccharine or artificially sweet about Gloria Kernells. She was something of a power in the town, both by dent of her forceful personality and because she was a Jeffersonville, Twiggs County native, a member of several sprawling, entwined, intermarried, and interrelated families with deep, deep roots in the county. She was everybody’s cousin, and if she wasn’t related by blood, she either knew them or knew of them, and either liked or disliked them. With Gloria, there wasn’t a lot of in-between. And trust me on this – if you didn’t want to know what she really thought, you didn’t ask her. In fact, you didn’t even give her the opportunity to tell you ‘cause if you did, she’d tell you whether you asked or not.
Gloria didn’t like me. She loved me. She lost her daughter in a kitchen fire some two months after we first struck up our friendship. That changed a growing friendship into something more. I was adopted. In my early fifties. And that was fine with me. I’d never been close to my own mother, whom I frankly think with the hindsight of age and the advances of modern medicine, would now be classed, at best, as bi-polar and sometimes frankly psychotic. Being mothered and friended simultaneously by the same person was a new and heartwarming thing for me. Saturday afternoons were ours. Sometimes we’d visit on her back porch by the gold fish pond, hidden behind the flowered fence. Sometimes the weather required we adjourn to her den. Sometimes we’d take ourselves down to Dublin, Georgia for an afternoon of shopping. During the week, if she had to come into Macon, the city where I work, we’d go to lunch. We had several restaurant favorites, The Rookery downtown, the Ole’ Times Buffet on Gray Highway, Ruby Tuesday out at the Macon Mall.
Now, you’re probably wondering what all that has to do with a guest spot on Joanne’s blog during her Alzheimer Awareness Month blogs. I don’t in fact know whether it does or not. You see, Gloria never allowed herself to be diagnosed. She just decided she was going to die. And she did. “Just like that?” you say. “Why, that’s impossible.” Yeah, I’d have thought so too, were any else telling me this story. But no, it wasn’t impossible. And yes, it was pretty much just like that.
What I know for certain is that during the course of a year’s time, Gloria – she who enjoyed everything – began to enjoy nothing. It was gradual, this change in her attitude, so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. I mean, everyone has bad days, right? Then there was an increase in tension level, and again, everybody has bad days, right? Besides, Gloria was almost the perfect definition of high-strung. So some days she was more high-strung than others. Sometimes she seemed to waver more in her decision-making process. So what? Gloria was always impeccably dressed, impeccably groomed. Well, alright. Nobody gets their eyeliner or lipstick perfect every time, do they? She took an intense dislike to driving in Macon traffic and then to driving even in neighboring small town Dublin. Well, who likes traffic, anyway? Trust me, people. When someone like Gloria is seen occasionally with a less than perfect eye-liner or lipstick line, that’s a big deal. When someone like Gloria agonizes over a decision, that’s a big deal. When someone like Gloria, who considered life a hayride to enjoy, begins to enjoy nothing, that’s a big deal. When someone as independent as Gloria drives only when she has to, that’s a big deal.
We didn’t notice. None of us from Gloria’s inner sanctum of the small-town sisterhood noticed. Some of us noticed some things. None of us noticed everything. None of us put everything together. Worst of all, we didn’t notice till it was way too late that she’d stopped eating properly. And we didn’t find out until the night she broke down and called one of her oldest friends from childhood to take her to the ER at the Fairview Hospital in Dublin. Where they put her immediately into Intensive Care. We’d known she wasn’t feeling well. She claimed it was her back. It wasn’t. It was a total and complete depletion of sodium. There was no sodium in her body. Contributing factors? Not eating and drinking massive amounts of water.
We got her through that. She came home. We thought everything would be alright. It wasn’t. She didn’t want company. Any of us. A Round Robin group of friends checked regularly anyway. Two of her oldest friends from childhood lived nearby and were retired, one of whom had transported her to the Dublin Hospital that awful night. These angel friends took point position. Within three weeks, they found her on the floor, incontinent, unable to get up. And refusing to allow anyone to call a doctor or take her to a hospital. But enough’s enough. Her daughter-in-law bodily picked her up and carried her out under protest to the car to take her to their home. She never came back to her own house or to the flowers on the fence. She steadfastly refused to go the doctor and when advised that an appointment was made, she went to sleep one night five days before that appointment date and never woke up. She always was determined to get her own way.
I truly do not know whether Gloria was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I firmly believe so, as her father also died of this horrible disease. What I do know is that it had to be some form of dementia, whether it was Alzheimer’s or not. And that there were signs that we, her circle of town sisters including myself, her daughter by mutual choice, missed. I don’t know whether noticing would have changed a thing. Maybe. By one of those freaky coincidences, I’d talked to a former nursing home aide the very day before Gloria died.
“Honey, sure sounds like end second stage or maybe even third stage Alzheimer’s to me.”
“Well, really strong-willed people, they fight it. And they fight to hide it. And then something happens, like the sodium depletion. And they go straight to end stage. They got nothing left to fight with.”
“But within three months?”
“Honey, I had this college professor on my shift when I lived in California. She went from teaching classes to writing on the wall in feces in two months’ time. Yes, that fast.”
I can’t tell you how much I miss Gloria still. I can tell you – hindsight is the best sight. Notice the older, even the not so older, friends and family members in your life. Pay attention to the little things because they might not be little things. Taken together, they could be a pattern that alerts you to a developing problem.
I didn’t notice. And so I remember Gloria with my own creation, Flowers on the Fence Country. Because she and the real fence are no longer there to visit. I don’t have an actual picture of Gloria and really don’t need one. Her face and the sound of her voice remain in my heart. The pictures of her fence remain on my blog. And so, folks, that’s the background story, the history, the reason, that a writer’s blog named Gail Roughton Branan’s Flowers on the Fence was born. For Gloria. With love.