The first time I met Miss Joanne was in Panama City, Florida. I can’t remember how long ago it was. But I had younger skin back then, I remember that much.
She was dancing, I also remember that.
She was an old woman. Big grin on her face. Her dance was a cross between the Mashed Potato and a U.S. Army infantry march. It was precious.
About me: I have been playing music for money since I was a teenager. I wasn’t particularly good. But I was a local, and those were all the qualifications a boy needed. I played restaurants, pool halls, beer joints, churches, and on one occasion, a car dealership.
In my daytime hours, I would work labor jobs—laying tile, hanging sheetrock, installing bathrooms. But during evenings, I would travel wherever music called.
And one night, somewhere in my twenties, I was playing in Panama City. It was late. Elderly Miss Joanne was there. She approached the stage. She handed me a cocktail napkin with handwriting on it:
It read: “Will you play ‘You Are My Sunshine?’”
The band played. She swayed to the music and sang aloud. Eyes closed. It made me smile to see a woman her age so in love with music.
On our break, she hugged my neck. She bought me a beer and sat beside me. We talked. Then, she asked me if I wanted to dance.
“Me?” I said.
“Yes, you,” she said. “I may be old, but I can dance like a teenager.”
We never danced, because I don’t dance. But I wish I would have now.
Throughout the years, I saw her a lot. She wore a sparkling clothes she’d decorated herself—adorned in sequins. She had a shock of white hair and wrinkled skin. And she always carried one cigarette in a miniature sleeve, hanging by a string around her neck. Just one.
I asked about this lonesome cigarette.
“I smoke this when the mood hits me,” she said.
And when she smoked it, she talked. She was brilliant. A poet, writer, philosopher, and she had memorized thirty thousand funny limericks. I didn’t know her well, but she was beautiful.
Year after year, I kept playing in new dives, and she kept coming to hug my neck. I would play “You Are My Sunshine.” And she would sing until she couldn’t.
I visited the hospital, last week when I heard about her stroke.
When I pulled into the medical center parking lot, I had a feeling sweep over me. It was an overwhelming one. And I know this going to sound painfully cliche, but it’s true.
I looked in my rear view mirror at my reflection, and I realized I am not that same young man anymore. I am a new me. Whoever he is.
I don’t hang sheetrock to pay bills, or play music for tips. I am older. And stiffer. With more expensive health insurance. I don’t walk to the mailbox as fast as I used to. And I don’t like to eat dinner past 5 P.M.
I rode the hospital elevator. I walked the white hallways to Miss Joanne’s room. I rapped on an open door and walked inside.
I could’ve kicked myself for not bringing flowers.
There she was. Miss Joanne was lying on her side, motionless. Her eyes were just as piercing. Her mouth was open, her face flat. She was trying to talk, but couldn’t.
Her family was gathered nearby. It’s the same scene you’ve seen in every hospital. Adult children, sleep-deprived and exhausted.
A nurse was checking Miss Joanne’s machines.
I held her hand. It was warm. I remembered the bumbling young fool I was once, playing music for donations. A pathetic, lost young man. This merciful woman, who always hugged my neck, must’ve seen right through me all those years ago.
I spoke to her.
She answered with moans.
“Remember me?” I asked.
She grunted a response.
Someone near Joanne’s bedside said, “Would you sing for her? Joanne always liked to hear you sing.”
I didn’t know what to say. It felt wrong. The idea of singing in a room with beeping monitors, hospital beds, weary family members, and IV bags. I felt ridiculous, but I cleared my throat. And I sang.
“You are my sunshine,
“My only sunshine,
“You make me happy…”
Joanne’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Awake, alert, but trapped inside her own head.
When I finished, she squeezed my hand. She moaned something. It was something she seemed to want me to hear.
I leaned close and said, “I didn’t catch that, Miss Joanne.”
She struggled to say it again. She really struggled. The muscles of her mouth strained.
“I love you,” she said.
And it was the last time I ever hugged her neck.
I hope you are dancing right now, Miss Joanne.