JOE KOVAC JR.
The Macon Telegraph
The endless salad and breadsticks were on the way, but the margarita arrived first. Deborah Monroe had dreamed about it. Now here she was, about to take a sip.
She licked her lips twice, squeezed a lemon and moved in.
She was parked at the table in her wheelchair, her chin even with the glass’s rim.
She recalled the last time she’d had a margarita. She’d been alone at a Mexican restaurant. It was her 55th birthday.
But Tuesday evening she was among friends, dining with social workers and caregivers who’ve looked after her for years.
The meal was her dying wish.
Go to Olive Garden, order steak and, by golly, drink a margarita.
She took a sip.
“This works faster than my pain pills,” said Monroe, 61.
She has lung disease. Doctors figure she has maybe six months to live.
Jada McNair Elliott, a social worker who tends to her, recently got in touch with the Dream Foundation, a California-based wish-granting organization for adults.
Sure, they said, they’d pick up the tab for Monroe’s evening out. And throw in a chauffeured white limo.
“It seems like a small wish, doesn’t it?” Elliott said. “But it’s a big deal for her.”
Earlier Tuesday, Monroe was in her room, one she shares with a couple of residents, at a personal-care home in south Macon.
She was about to change into a black pantsuit for her big night.
She said she’d been craving Olive Garden for the longest time. She gets by on $110 a month in spending money.
She never eats out. The last time was that lonely birthday dinner nearly six years ago.
Why Olive Garden?
“Because of the advertisement on TV,” she said. “It looks soooo good.”
Months back, she asked the woman who bathes her how the food there tastes.
The woman told her she’d love it.
“I want a steak with some cheese and special stuff on it like they have on TV,” Monroe said to the woman. “And I want me a margarita.”
The other day the foundation mailed Monroe a box of goodies: a “Dream On” T-shirt, an American flag, a tiara and a perfumed blue-fabric corsage. The gifts made her cry.
She took a whiff of the fake flower and motioned to the package it came in.
“I wish the perfume was in here,” she said. “I don’t have any.”
An oxygen tube runs ear to ear beneath her nose. She has worn it so long that it feels like part of her. She takes it off sometimes, though, to smoke her Wildhorse menthols. She said young people should stay away from cigarettes. “It’s worser than drugs.”
The oldest of six children, Monroe grew up in the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. Her father, who worked at a laundry, died when she was 4.
When she was little, at Christmas her family had a silver tree with a spotlight shining on it. She used to wait until everyone was asleep and sneak out of her room to stare at the tree.
One year for Christmas she got a doll and named her Susie. She kept it until she was 16. She got pregnant. Her mother tossed Susie in an incinerator.
“She said I was getting ready to have my own doll,” Monroe recalled.
She later worked selling clothes, then as a hotel maid, a cook at McDonald’s and as a private nurse. She moved to Georgia, settling in Milledgeville, Eatonton, then Macon.
She’s been sick for years and can’t take care of herself. She has three children. Two daughters and a son.
“But I don’t see ’em,” she said.
Beside her bed sat three boxes. Her belongings. Among them, a TV, a stereo and a Regulator wall clock she bought at J.C. Penney ages ago.
Propped nearby was a piece of art, a framed drawing of a man hugging a woman. Monroe’s eyes fixed on their embrace.
“When a woman and a man marry,” she said, “a woman wants her husband to love her like that.”
Her stuff was in boxes because she was moving to a home in Eatonton where she knows people. Her church isn’t far.
When the limo showed up to take her to eat, they carted out her belongings and stowed them in the stretch, a chariot of a U-Haul.
First stop: dinner.
Next stop: the rest of her life in Eatonton.
When the limo pulled up at the crape myrtle-skirted Olive Garden near Macon Mall, Monroe said, “I’m ready to eat!”
As they wheeled her inside, tiara atop her head, oxygen tube tucked away, she said, “I’m being treated like a singer. Lord, take my breath away.”
She must have said thank you 100 times.
“I’m gonna remember this for the rest of my life,” she said.
At the table, she slipped out her false teeth.
“I wanna taste everything,” she said.
She asked about the appetizers. A waitress suggested stuffed mushrooms.
“I love mushrooms,” Monroe said. “I ain’t never had ’em stuffed, though.”
She went with the spinach dip.
Then she ordered her steak, the Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo, medium rare.
When it got to the table, chef Channing Johnson came out to see if it passed muster. Monroe took a bite and chewed. And chewed.
“It’s wonderful,” she told the cook. “You did a beautiful job. ... You made it so good.”
She looked up at Johnson.
“You all right, baby,” Monroe said. “You can cook for me all the time. How is you with chitlins?”
The chef squatted beside her and posed for a picture.
A friend said she had to kiss the cook, so she did. On the cheek.
“You smell good, too,” Monroe told him.
“You made my day,” the cook replied.