One Last Smile

July 4, 2008
By Cynthia Lam, Westfield, NJ

Gertrude Agnes Irwin was dying. She was on her deathbed in her room at the Oak Mills Nursing Home, and not one person had come to see her go. Although most people would be feeling lonely and miserable, she felt surprisingly enthusiastic. She knew the end was near, and she was eager to leave the world behind. Hmph. Not that there would be much to miss once she was gone.

Grumbling, the old woman firmly closed her eyes with a final, decisive blink, willing herself to sleep. The sooner I rest, the quicker I can get away from all this misery, she thought. Her life had been nothing but one big failure, a series of disappointments and disasters linked together in a continuous, endless chain of wretchedness. Even now, in the last, precious few minutes of her rapidly fading life, she could not think of a single happy memory from all of her seventy-three dismal years. In fact, she was sure that she had never experienced love, success, or any form of happiness before, for that matter.

The creak of the bedroom door opening suddenly interrupted her thoughts and announced the arrival of Mandy, her young nurse. Quickly tensing her body, Gertrude peeked through a slit in her seemingly closed eyes as she watched the girl stroll in, carrying a tray of medicine and wearing her usual sunny smile.

Making no effort to hide the scowl on her face, the old woman cursed under the breath. Mandy was the least favorite of her caretakers. Although she was not stunningly beautiful (her looks were less than average) or especially clever (she was rather dense), she was perhaps the happiest person Gertrude had known. Whether it was sun or rain, hot or cold, Mandy would always be found beaming with her signature grin and infectious spirits. It was extremely irritating, and the old woman often had to suppress her urges to strangle the young woman.

What was there to be so happy about? She’d rudely demand when she’d seen enough of the familiar flashing dimples. Life is nothing but a waste of time!

She would sputter complaint after complaint, griping that the soup was too hot, or the tea was too cold, trying in vain to dampen the girl’s cheerful mood, but nothing ever worked. Instead of the much-anticipated grumble, she would get yet another kind-hearted smile and an excuse for her behavior (“Oh my, the heat must be making you cranky”). After three years of fruitless attempts, the old woman had long given up, and learned that the best way to deal with Mandy’s sweet happiness was to simply ignore her. This approach seemed to be a bit more effective (at least Gertrude didn’t have to talk to her anymore). Nonetheless, she still longed for the day when there would be a frown on the girl’s face.

As usual, the old woman paid no attention to Mandy’s hushed, fluid movements. Everyday was the same; the girl would come in, change the flowers, and feed her daily dose of assorted pills before finally sustaining the usual one-sided conversation. Gertrude let herself drift off to sleep, knowing that the typical routine was going to ensue. She sighed contently (although she tried not to show too much of her pleasure) as she felt gentle hands fluff her pillows and heard the rhythmic rattle of shaking drug bottles. She rested comfortably, all too aware of the calm, soothing voice that was going to follow. But it didn’t.

It did not take long for the old woman to notice the still, heavy silence that hung in the air. That was strange… She waited patiently for the lively, upbeat tone that had greeted her everyday for the past three years at the Oak Mills Nursing Home, but it did not come. Angry and irritated for reasons unbeknownst to her, she gritted her teeth and opened her eyes.

Only to see a complete stranger in the room.

The woman preparing the medicine looked up from the tray with a startled glance.

“Oh, you’re awake! Well, that’s good. I hope you’re feeling better, because Dr. Richelieu said that you…”

The old woman’s shock and disbelief droned out the nurse’s words. This was not Mandy! Why, it wasn’t even someone she knew! Gertrude stared blankly at the voluptuous blonde, who was snapping her gum and carelessly twirling her bleached hair as she rambled on about the doctor’s advice. Without meaning to, the old woman began unconsciously criticizing the stranger’s each and every aspect.

Psshh…look her face! She looks like a clown with all that make up on. Mandy never used that rubbish. And those shoes – the heels must be at least five inches high! Doesn’t she know that they’re not allowed in here? I bet Mandy would have known that.
Mandy –


“Where’s Mandy?” The words brought an abrupt stop to the nurse’s speech, filling the room with a long, awkward silence. The girl gulped nervously and began twirling her hair.

“Um, uh, so, like, you see…well, I don’t know how to say this, but…um…”

The old woman felt her breath catch in her throat and her heart clench tightly as the nurse went on.

“I-I know you’re really close with her and all, and, like…well, I…” she was
silent for a moment before whispering, “I’m so sorry, but Mandy passed away this morning.”

“What?” The old woman could not believe her ears. This could not be true. Surely, it
was a cruel joke. This could not be happening – not to Mandy, not to her Mandy! The news suffocated her, smothering her with guilt and sorrow. She gasped for air, desperately trying to calm her pounding heart, as she remembered all the times she’d dismissed the nurse’s kind words and tender thoughts. How she’d returned each sweet, sincere smile with a hostile scowl. How there would be no more of these caring, affectionate exchanges. No, no, no!

The old woman felt dizzy as the girl handed her a piece of crumpled paper and continued to talk. She tried to listen to what she was saying, but could only catch certain snatches of her words.

“…breast cancer… three years…so difficult, you know?…just wanted everyone to be happy…never gave up…knew the end was coming…didn’t stop her…kept on going…until last night…call from hospital…collapsed…”

The old woman couldn’t help it. For the first time in thirty-five years, she cried. Remorseful tears spilled down her cheeks as she sobbed with heart-broken cries of pain and sorrow. How could she have been so blind? All her life she had been looking for happiness, for kindness, for love. And yet, when she had finally found it, she chose to neglect it until it was too late. Why? Why did she have to be so stubborn? Why couldn’t she have given the poor girl a chance? Mandy had given her the most precious gift of love and care, and in return, what had she given her?

At this, the old woman choked back her tears. She was angry with herself. Moreover, she was ashamed. She recalled the radiant smile that had shone on Mandy’s face everyday for the past three years. Three years of knowing that she had cancer. Three years of knowing that her life could end at any second. Those three years were perhaps the most frightening years of her life, and yet, she chose to live them with hope and happiness. Mandy had made a choice, and that had made all the difference.

The old woman suddenly realized what Mandy had been trying to teach her all along. By embracing each day with cheer and optimism, she had been hoping to transfer her positive outlook of life to her empty, resentful soul. And bit by bit, it had worked. The old woman finally understood. Sniffling, she unfolded the note.

Dearest Gertie,
By the time you get this, I will probably be far, far away. I will miss you very much (did I ever tell you how you’re my favorite patient?), and I have tried to tell God that I don’t want to go yet, but he says he needs me in heaven!

These past three years have been wonderful. If I have taught you anything, it is this: Life is too short to be bitter about. There is simply no time to waste. Remember: the quality of one’s life is not determined by the number of years it lasts; it is measured by the impact you have on other people’s lives. Embrace and enjoy life to the fullest, because it could end any second, without warning. Life is a precious privilege, so use to its full potential!
I know you’ll do the right thing.
Love forever and always,


The old woman shut her eyes and held the note close to her heart. She longed to see that radiant smile once again.

As she snuggled back against the pillows, never once letting go of the paper, she greeted blissful, long-forgotten memories. Successes, triumphs, and first loves flowed in a wave of nostalgia, forming a smooth reel of her life. At last, she could see what a wonderful life she had led. She would miss this place…

And for the first time in a long, long time, the old woman smiled.

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