We never got the chance to help.
Two days after that visit, my husband's mother suffered a bad fall, breaking her hip and causing considerable extra damage.
We spent several weeks alternately sitting by her bedside and arranging for her housing and care.
Finally, we were once more on the road home.
Mary's house appeared in the front window.
My husband made the now-familiar turn quickly and we found ourselves parked beside a strange vehicle.
Mary's car was nowhere to be seen.
We looked at each other and I felt a shiver.
We both knew it.
Something was wrong.
We got out quickly and hurried to the front door.
As had happened on so many of our visits, it was opened before we had even reached the steps.
A young woman stepped out, one hand shading her eyes from the setting sun.
We climbed the few steps and approached her.
"Hello. I'm Mary and this is my husband, Frank . . ." I began.
"Oh, it's you!" the young woman exclaimed, reaching out both of her hands towards us. "At last you've come!"
I raised my hand, doubtfully and felt it gripped tightly.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" the woman said. "Mary will be so glad!"
"What's the matter" Frank spoke up beside me.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Of course you don't know!" The woman dropped my hand and twisted both of hers together. "It's really quite sad."
"Yes?" Frank prompted.
"Well, she . . . she's . . . dead."
The words went through me like a bolt of electricity.
"Oh, no!" I whispered.
The woman turned to me. "I'm afraid it's true."
"But how? The last time we saw her, she was fine. Happy!"
The woman smiled. "Yes. She was." She took a deep breath. "And that's something I need to talk to you about."
She turned towards the door. "Please, come in."
We followed her into the sweet, familiar home with dragging feet.
How could this be?
My mind struggled to take it in.
The young woman paused just inside the door and turned towards the fireplace.
Instinctively, my eyes followed hers.
There, framed neatly above the crackling flames, was a large picture of Frank and me. The two of us were leaning towards each other and smiling broadly for the camera. Behind us, through clear glass windows, one could see the mountains, close up and falling away into the distance. The sun was just setting behind the furthest ones.
It was a beautiful picture.
Obviously the one taken by Mary with her ancient camera on our very first visit.
"Oh," I said, rather ineffectively.
Frank gripped my arm tightly.
"I think I need to sit down," I said.
He guided me over to the familiar couch and the two of us perched there.
The young woman took a seat in Mary's chair.
"First, I should probably introduce myself," she said. "I'm Mercy Roberts. I'm from the church congregation that Mary attends. Er . . . attended."
I murmured something polite, my mind still reeling.
She cleared her throat. "Anyways, Mary drove into town a few weeks ago to do some shopping. But while she was there, in the grocery store, she had a heart attack."
"Oh, Mary!" I said.
Mercy nodded. "It was a bad attack and she didn't make it to the hospital."
I put my face in my hands.
Frank rubbed my back.
"So, a few weeks ago?" he asked.
"It must have been shortly after we were here the last time."
"I don't know about that," Mercy said.
"But the picture," I whispered. "What about the picture?" I lowered my hands and looked up at it.
Frank and I, smiling politely at the camera for a woman we had just met.
"Well, that's the thing," Mercy said. "We, none of us, knew who you were. Mary talked about her new, wonderful friends named Frank and Mary, but she didn't ever tell us your last name."
She, too, glanced up at the picture. "After she had been . . . cared for, our Pastor came here to try to help settle her affairs. You know she had no other family."
"Well, as soon as he walked through the front door, of course he saw the picture. He figured that it must be a photo of the new friends she was always talking about."
"Oh, Mary!" I moaned.
"And then the search was on to find the two of you."
"We live in the city."
"Yes, we figured that," Mercy smiled. "But it is a rather large city!"
"It is," Frank agreed.
"Finally, it was decided that one member of the congregation should come here to the house each day and wait for you to show up."
"Oh, I'm so sorry that you had to go to so much trouble," I said.
"Oh, it's been no trouble," Mercy said. "In fact, it's been a pleasure. It's so quiet and peaceful here." She looked at us. "And it's so nice to be able to finally meet the people who brought Mary such happiness in her final days."
I reached into my purse for a tissue.
"We did that?" Frank's voice sounded . . . choked.
Mercy smiled. "Yes. You did." She glanced over at the nearly finished quilt on the far side of the room. "You know Mary. She was always sweet and kind, but before you came, she was . . . rather sad. Lonely. Afterwards, she was so much better. Brighter. Looking forward to the future and your visits."
"I never realized," Frank said.
"Yes. Well, it's true."
By this time, I was sobbing into my scrap of tissue. "Oh, Mary!"
"So you don't know anything more about the picture," Frank said softly.
"Well, no. It was there when the Pastor came . . . afterwards. Like I said."
"But the one she had up there before? The two kids?"
"Oh, that one is hanging in the spare bedroom, now," Mercy said. She again looked up at the picture and smiled. "She always said that this spot was special. Reserved just for family."