She was quite elderly, probably 90, and in very poor health. She sipped on a can of ginger ale throughout the day because of a stomach problem, and some sort of condition with her throat forced her to clear her throat frequently and made speaking difficult.
But Miss Winnie's mind was as sharp as a tack. Monday through Saturday, she croaked, "I want to go bed at 7:30 when Jeopardy! is over."
As she watched her favorite show, she stared at the television intently. I felt certain she knew many of the questions to Alex Trebek's answers.
Everyone loved Miss Winnie. She was sweet. She was loving. She never complained.
My concern that Miss Winnie's roommate, Virgie (short for Virginia), might feel overlooked, was for naught. I've never met a person more selfless than Virgie.
After I obtained my certification and started lifting people from wheelchair to toilet or to bed, many of the patients voiced their concerns. "You're not big enough to lift me," they'd say. "You're too skinny."
I already had my doubts about my strength. Their worries made me even more nervous.
But if Virgie felt any misgivings about my abilities, she never uttered a word. Instead, she praised me. "When Janie puts you to bed, you just fly right in," she said.
Virgie couldn't have known how much she increased my confidence.
Virgie seemed my little center of tranquility in the constantly chaotic world of the nursing home.
One especially bad evening, poop flew, patients complained, and nurses shouted. Virgie couldn't have known what was going on outside her room, but she told me as I washed her in bed, "If I was to get real sick, it's you I'd want nursing me, Janie."
I wanted to purr with delight. I thanked her and kissed her soft, withered cheek.
The thing was, though, Virgie, was "real sick." She had been sick as a child when she had polio, which left her without the use of her left leg. Making do with a cane, she had raised five children and worked in a grocery store for 30 years. Now she used a wheelchair, with her left leg propped up on a pillow. She had diabetes. Her watery blue eyes saw very little. Although she couldn't read the words, she still went to the hymn sings held in the dining room, humming along when she didn't know the songs.
Virgie loved the Lord with all her heart and soul. She also loved Miss Winnie.
"Miss Winnie, do you need a fresh can of ginger ale?" Virgie would ask. "Do you want to go to bingo? Do you need help with your call light? Do you want me to rub lotion into your hands?"
Whatever Miss Winnie might require, Virgie was determined Miss Winnie would have it. And Virgie never worried about herself, which she demonstrated powerfully one day when Richard wheeled his way into their room.
Richard was the bane of everyone's existence, but he couldn't help it. He had suffered a brain injury and didn't know what he was doing. He spent his days roaming the hallways, slamming his wheelchair into walls and doors, and sometimes entering other patients' rooms.
One night he went into grouchy Mabel's room. She screamed for help. After I removed Richard she yelled at me for "letting that man run loose."
"We can't lock him up or tie him down, Mabel," I explained. "It's against the law."
But sometimes I wished we could shut Richard in a padded room and let him smack into one wall after another. The man was dangerous. He ran into other patients during his treks through the halls. One night he took a cup of pudding from the snack cart and threw it at me -- hard.
Richard was probably about 50 years old, large, and still very, very strong.
All the patients knew who he was and feared him, so as soon as he careened through the door to Miss Winnie and Virgie's room, they turned on their call lights and started shouting.
But Richard moved fast, and he headed straight toward Miss Winnie. She stared at him in terror. With no thought for her own safety, Virgie moved her wheelchair into place. She blocked Richard's way with her paralyzed leg that was extended straight out on a support. Richard ran into Virgie, but their room was the closest one to the nurses' station and help arrived quickly.
Fortunately, Virgie wasn't injured.
When I arrived for work that night, Miss Winnie told me the story of Richard's attack.
"I just knew I had to protect Miss Winnie," was all Virgie had to say.
Miss Winnie also told her daughter-in-law about Richard. Within days, the door to Miss Winnie's and Virgie's room had been cut in half so the bottom could be closed while they were in the room. The staff could still see Miss Winnie and Virgie, but Richard, who didn't know how to turn a doorknob, couldn't get in.
* * *
I've always wondered how Virgie developed such a generous spirit. True, she behaved as a Christian should, but I've never met any other Christian as giving and unconcerned about herself as Virgie was.
When Miss Winnie died, Virgie took it hard. It was the only time I saw her cry. She consoled herself with the knowledge that Miss Winnie had gone to Heaven.
Virgie's new roommate had terminal cancer. Every evening the unfamiliar woman's side of the room filled with family members and friends eager to cheer up the dying patient and keep her company. She seemed to be a pleasant lady, but she and her visitors never noticed Virgie.
Perhaps it was because when they arrived, Virgie wheeled herself into the hallway outside the room, where she sat until the last visitor had vanished. "Virgie, what are you doing out here?" I asked.
"I don't want to be in the way with all those people visiting," she answered.
Night after night, Virgie sat in the hallway, her head drooping with exhaustion. I could have told Virgie that it was her room, too, and she had a right to be there. I could have told her I would close the curtain around her bed and tuck her in for the night.
But I knew it was pointless.
I admit I was grateful when the new lady, who I never really got to know, passed away, and Virgie no longer spent her evenings sitting in the hall.