It was in the last few days of 1945, when Mr. Frank Shea was found cold and shivering one morning outside City Hospital. Pastor Dayton noticed Frank, helped him to his feet, and with the help of a nurse on her way in, they carried Frank off the sidewalk and into the hospital. 60 years old, skinny as a rail, Frank had a thin smile baring his broken soul, a deep strong voice, deep dark circles masking his jaundiced yellow eyes, and stringy dark hair hung over his forehead.
Cirrhosis, a result of years in alcoholism, take a lot of men like Frank, living hard. He’d moved to San Francisco long ago, soon after the big Quake. Work was aplenty then and he bit off a piece of everything ‘til he hired on to the Railroad.
“Frank, are you awake?” asked his nurse, smiling, “here’s a sip of water.”
Frank was dying. Difficulty swallowing, not eating, fragile, shallow breathing. Nurse Ginny knew it wouldn’t be long. No family noted in his chart, he was all alone. His head turned toward Ginny.
“That you, Nurse? Did I doze off again? You’re a blessing, you are, sitting here with me. Why in hell don’t you marry me, Ginny?”
The nurse chuckled, “If you and I were going anywhere at all, Frank, I’d jump at the chance. Talk with me a bit. About Gertie, you were talking Gertie.”
Nurse Ginny was about the same age as her patient. Short hair, curious hazel eyes, pretty, a few wrinkles here and there. She sat on a cold metal chair, leaning over to catch Frank’s hushed words.
“Gertie came to me just the right time when I was tired, lonely and in the bottle. My sister Susan wrote, wanting to know if I could put up her girl. I remembered her girl Gertie, from before I moved on out here. She was a cute little sprout then, when she first come to Susan after Gertie’s own Mama died. When Susan wrote me, Gertie was 19, she’d won a Beauty Contest, got herself a train trip out here.
“She sure wasn’t the little girl I remembered. All grown up, little spitfire with a golden heart. Some ‘o that gold rubbed off on me, ‘n I quit drinkin’, we fell in love and we got hitched up. I had a few years on her, ‘didn’t seem to matter,” Frank said, blinking his eyes, “’til I ruined it all, couldn’t stay off the bottle,” he went on, his eyes tearing up.
“One day, though, I never forgot. We were out to Ocean Beach. Gertie all snuggled in fur, pretty green chapeau over her dark wavy hair, hair so soft I could run my fingers through it like a breeze. Her eyes were just like yours, yes they were,” he said, peering into Ginny’s eyes.
“That was the day she told me we were having a baby. Oh, if I could only get those days back. Just one more look at that picture.”
Ginny smiled, “So Frank, you’re a father. Well, well,” she sighed, “What picture?”
“A stranger on the beach snapped it, with Gertie’s fancy camera. It was a day. Gertie carried that picture in her handbag every day from then on. Every day. Our picture.”
Frank sniffled, turned his head and he just dozed off.
Ginny sat there a minute, thinking over what Frank had said, wondering about his family.
She walked up the hall to check on her other patients. Twenty five year old Charlie had been a prisoner of war, captured at Wake Island, she heard, back to the U.S. only a few weeks now. He’d come in dehydrated, skin and bones, shattered left arm, likely from the rickets. He had rusty brown hair, bright blue lonely, searching eyes, it seemed, after long being lost in the camps. His sadness slowly melted away, though, as the Red Cross girls came in every day to cheer the troops. Maggie, he was sure sweet on her.
Maggie was sitting on the edge of Charlie’s bed when the nurse walked in.
“Nurse Ginny! We have news for you!” Charlie quipped, trying to raise himself to sit, impossible with his casted arm hanging from a rope and a chain.
“We’re getting married, aren’t we, Honey?” he piped up, looking up at Maggie, his hand around her waist, “I knew it the first day she walked in here, ‘kept coming back every day. It’s a happy day, Nurse! Soon enough she’ll be Mrs. Thomas and she can toss that Shea moniker right out the window.”
“Well, that’s wonderful news, you two. Maggie Shea, that’s a nice Irish name. You sure you want to give it up?” the nurse asked, laughing.
“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll always be a Shea at heart, my grand parents all came here from Ireland.”
“Well, lucky for Charlie they did. Have your parents met this young man yet?” Ginny asked, looking at Maggie’s hazel eyes, her dark wavy hair, pretty face, wondering about her last name.
“She was here yesterday. Mother thinks Charlie’s wonderful. Father, I haven’t seen him in such a long time. He was a drinker when I was little, my mother worried so, we moved across the bay. I know he’d be happy for me, want to walk me down the aisle.”
Ginny replied, “Of course he would. I’m looking forward to meeting your mother when she’s here again, before you go home, Charlie. Maggie, what’s your mother’s name?”
“Gertie,” Maggie said, reaching into her handbag, “Here, I have a picture, would you like to see it? My mother gave it to me on my 18th birthday from her handbag to mine. She never stopped loving him, she told me she just couldn’t sit and watch him killing himself.”
Ginny held that picture in her hand, looking into Maggie’s eyes, like her own, seeing again her beautiful wavy dark hair. She could feel her heart racing.
“Maggie, this is Ocean Beach, isn’t it? This picture looks a tiny bit older than you are.”
She was fingering the photo, a lump in her throat.
“Maggie, come with me a minute. There’s someone you need to see. Just for a moment.”
Charlie stared at the nurse.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ll be right back,” Ginny replied.
Ginny took Maggie’s hand in hers, gripping the picture in the other. Walking quickly and quietly, she pulled a confused and silent Maggie down the hall.
Frank’s door was pulled shut when they got there.
“Just a minute,” Ginny whispered to Maggie.
The nurse walked quietly into Frank’s room. She realized it was too late for Maggie, and too late for Frank.
That ‘one last look’ wasn’t meant to be.