Gabby Mason never knew her granddad. Lung cancer claimed him before she was born.
"He died in hospice," says Gabby, who is 11. "My mom said they took real good care of him."
So just after Christmas, when Gabby's teacher told the fifth-graders at Lakeview Elementary that they had to do a service project for their gifted class, Gabby knew whom she wanted to help.
Gabby wanted to brighten people's last days.
For her third-grade "I Care" project, she had drawn cards for patients at Suncoast Hospice. Last year, she sewed lap blankets for them.
But Gabby had never met anyone who was dying. For the last couple of years, her mom had dropped off her donations at the office of Suncoast Hospice. She never saw the patients smile at her cards or warm their hands beneath her blankets.
She wasn't sure she wanted to meet someone that sick. She just wanted to know that she had helped them feel better. Sometimes helping people means getting close to their pain.
At school, she is a safety patrol — and tutors kindergarteners in math. Afternoons are filled with roller skating and riding bikes. She wears flip-flops and peace sign pendants. Her new front teeth just came in.
Gabby's mom, Tracey Mason, 43, waits tables during the day. Every evening she comes home to get dinner for Gabby, to feed their two old cats and walk their new Yorkie. And to ask Gabby about her homework.
"I want to do something different this year," Gabby told her mom about the service project. "Still for hospice, but . . . "
Gabby's mom called Suncoast Hospice. The volunteer coordinator suggested: What about a birdhouse? Something to draw life to a dying person's window.
Maybe we can get a kit at the craft shop, Gabby's mom told her. Gabby had a bigger idea.
"Everyone should get a birdhouse," Gabby decided. "We'll just have to build a bunch." Gabby had never held a hammer.
"No problem," she told her mom. "I'll just ask Chuck."
Chuck Higgins had never built a house for real birds.
At Gulfport's Art Walk, where Gabby had met him, his booth is filled with whimsical wooden boxes — tall, skinny birdhouses he paints with polka dots. He designs them to be hung inside kitchens, on screened porches. The openings are too tight for even a tiny titmouse.
Chuck, 80, shares a Seminole mobile home with his second wife and old black Lab. His three kids have grown and gone; he sold his Clearwater sporting goods store long ago. In the last few years, the former quarterback for Western Michigan has had to have his knee replaced, then his hip. Two years ago, just before he met Gabby, he lost a lung to cancer.
He stopped smoking. Started building artsy birdhouses, started thinking about the end.
On the last weekend of January, at an almost empty Art Walk, Gabby found Chuck sitting at his sidewalk stand. She told him about her plan, about hospice and all the dying people.
"They're kind of stuck there. And they'll never get out," she said. "Wouldn't it be great if they could have nature come right to them?"
Chuck promised to help. "I could be stuck there soon, too," he told Gabby. She didn't really want to think about that. She didn't know what to say.
Chuck went home and started researching on the Internet: What birds nest in Pinellas County in spring? What kinds of houses draw them? He read about chickadees, Carolina wrens and nuthatches. He sketched patterns on graph paper, boxes with different depths, different sized holes.
At Home Depot, Chuck showed the lumber salesman his templates, told him about Gabby's project for Suncoast Hospice. The salesman's dad had just died there. "They took real good care of him," the salesman told Chuck. He helped Chuck figure out how much wood he would need — at least four 12-foot pine planks — and helped him find hinges and nails and wood screws.
And when Chuck tried to pay, the salesman shook his head. Home Depot donated everything — more than $200 worth of supplies.
Usually, Chuck blasts sports radio in his workshop. But on a Thursday afternoon in early February, the radio was quiet. Gabby was worried.
"I don't know how to do this," she said.
Chuck smiled and handed her a hammer. "That's why I'm here."
He had spent a week precutting all the pieces: backs and bottoms, roofs and fronts; two styles to attract four different species of birds. Chickadees like round holes and flat bottoms. Wrens prefer peaked roofs. Chuck had predrilled each hole, counted out the right number of nails. He showed Gabby he had even scored the insides of the boards with a drill bristle "so the baby birds will have footholds when they're ready to climb out of the nest."
Gabby ran her hand over the rough wood. "Oooh," she said. "I didn't know there would be babies."
While her mom watched, Chuck showed Gabby how to hold the hammer with both hands. He set a nail in one corner and braced it for her. "Be careful," he said. At first she was tentative. Tap, tap. The nail didn't move. "Bring the hammer up higher to start," Chuck said. "And when you bring it down, don't be afraid to hit hard." Bam, bam. The nail slowly sank into the wood. Gabby bit her lip and pounded again. "You got it!" Chuck cheered.
"Look!" Gabby called to her mom. "I did that!"
Each house has eight pieces, 28 nails, two brass hinges. With Chuck by her side, Gabby finished one every half-hour. She didn't get to watch the Disney Channel that night. Missed her chance to read before bed. But by 8 p.m., she had built eight houses. "My arms hurt," she said.
"You did good, kid," Chuck said, patting her shoulder. "I'll finish the rest on Saturday."
Gabby asked, "Can I come back to help?"
Jessamine Carter never found out if she has grandkids.
She hasn't seen her only son in 20 years, not since he got in a fight with his father. Even after her husband died in 1994, her boy wouldn't return her calls.
"I know he's alive. And he's not homeless," she said. "I just don't know anything else."
Mrs. Carter is 86. She wed during World War II, was married for 52 years. Her husband oversaw medical records at Bay Pines. She worked in Largo's finance department. In her yard, she tended a flower garden with a big birdbath. "Oh, it was my joy to watch all the animals," she said.
When she moved into Suncoast Hospice in June, doctors diagnosed her with congestive heart failure, tethered her to an oxygen tank and gave her six months to live. Counselors come to visit. Volunteers listen to her stories.
But there are no photos in her room at the end of the long hall. The "family wish list" beside the door is blank. In nine months, no one has come by to request TV shows or open her blinds.
On a warm Wednesday in late February, just after sunrise, Mrs. Carter woke with a fright. That awful noise. Was her oxygen pump failing? Was it some kind of alarm? She called an aide, who raised her shade and showed her the lawn man was trimming the hedge outside her window.
That afternoon, around nap time, the hospice's volunteer coordinator raised the blinds even more. Two men in a golf cart were pounding at a post. "There's someone here to meet you," the coordinator said. A young girl wearing flip-flops shuffled into the room. "This is Gabby," said the coordinator. "She made you a lovely birdhouse."
Gabby stood beside the door, looking up at her mom. She didn't really want to be there. She had come to see the men hang her birdhouse. She never expected to see a real patient. It was kind of scary, meeting someone who was dying.
"Gabby," said the coordinator, "this is Mrs. Carter."
The girl stepped forward, then stopped a few steps from the sofa where the elderly woman sat, struggling to breathe. She cradled the hot pink birdhouse — one of 20 she had painted. This one was her favorite. On the front, she had glued a white picket fence and a yellow bumblebee. "I wanted it to be happy," she said softly.
Mrs. Carter gasped. "Oh, it's so beautiful," she said. She looked at the girl. "And so are you."
Gabby was happy to get away, to go outside to watch the men hang the birdhouse. Mrs. Carter watched through her wide window. Once the house seemed secure, Gabby came back in to say goodbye. This time it wasn't so scary. She plopped on the couch beside the first dying person she had ever met.
"God bless you. You've made me so happy," said the old woman, leaning against the girl. "I hope you will come back and see me soon."
A wren nesting outside her hospice window would be wonderful. A titmouse would be a treat. But what can top a visit from a girl who painted you a pink birdhouse, who sat beside you on the sofa and let you stroke her hair?
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected]