I saw this ant,
this mangled, flattened speck of a thing
frozen on page 23
of Beautiful Souls
I was no longer thinking about Paul Grüninger
and the Jews he saved from certain death
I was thinking about the person
who read this book before me.
Who killed the ant?
A student on the HUB lawn, I bet.
Cramming for a test on Eyal Press’ evocative portraits,
simple acts of humanity
that appeared extraordinary
in desperate, confusing times,
But more concerned with evening her tan
and the boys playing catch nearby,
their T-shirts draped at their skinny hips
by a corner tucked into their shorts
as they silently graded her.
Maybe a frazzled mom at Spring Creek Park
sitting on a blanket near the sand pit
where her kids were throwing dirt
and not sharing
as she tried to squeeze three minutes of leisurely reading
into an afternoon crammed with
and bathroom runs
and tiny ants
wandering across her rumpled throne.
When I was a kid library books
had this magical pocket in the back
that held the names of all the people
who’d read the words before you.
I would study the names and the penmanship and the dates,
who they were and what they thought. Will I like this book as much as Steven Cross did? Mira Schultz checked this out twice in two months.
A little heart dotted her “i” both times. Who dribbled something on page 16? Which one underlined “I shall always be with you”? Are they with me now? Will I be with the next one who reads this book?
The ant is with me.
I bought the ant and its final resting place
for 3 dollars at a used bookstore and café,
where it smells like knowing,
New books are special,
but the best books are used.
The best words are worn, broken in.
Edited. Enlightened. Entertaining. Endless.
Reread, shared, creased, stained, memorized.
When I write something
and send it out into the world
I reread it, sometimes fifty times,
every time from someone else’s point of view.
I scrunch my brain into someone else’s skull
And try to read my own words with their eyes.
I don’t know if it is an exercise in empathy
or a painstaking devolution into madness.
But it is important to me,
to hear my message hit different ears.
Because what I need to say
and what I want you to hear
are sometimes two different things.
But I can’t know that until I do both.
We cannot see fingerprints on words or poems
but they exist.
These stories we read and borrow and dog-ear
and drop tears onto
and underline passages from
and buy and sell
and inadvertently crush ants with
But no more important than the recognition
for the fact that we are sharing them
with other people.
Strangers we are now connected to,
in the way that we know
some of the same sentences
they’ve sounded out in their minds.
How extraordinary is that.
We know what stories they’ve taken in,
the character of Grüninger
they, too, have contemplated.
We share that now.
We, the people who have held this copy of Beautiful Souls.
An hour after I voted yesterday, I wanted a do-over – not to change the person I voted for, but to change the heart of the person voting.
It hit me a few minutes after speaking with a friend, who said she’d cried as she voted that morning. “I didn’t think I would, but I did,” she smiled. I’d become so blind that it took me several minutes to realize what she meant – that the history-making moment of seeing a female presidential candidate on the ballot for the very first time was worthy of spending a second a bit overcome in that little booth.
I had not taken such a moment, and that’s when I realized I’d voted with hate – not love – in mind. I’d hastily filled in the little oval for Hillary Clinton pretty much as a tiny black-inked “f*k you” to the hate-filled campaign of Donald Trump.
And yes I now see the irony. And, God help me, the way out.
I started noticing the signs more and more in my last few runs around town. Despite all the negative press, despite the incomprehensible bigotry, misogyny and fear that underscored their campaign, “TRUMP-PENCE” (Pence! The man who doesn’t believe in such basic things as climate change and evolution and equal rights for the LGBT community!) signs kept springing up in State College. I didn’t know what to make of that. They stole my already labored breath. They made me feel differently about certain streets. In my mind, they may as well have said “A racist probably lives here.”
On Monday I crested a hill I’ve run a thousand times and there it was, a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” sign on the carefully raked lawn of the sweet old couple who’d saved me from heat exhaustion earlier that summer, offering me the shade of their carport and a cold bottle of water when I nearly collapsed toward the end of a sweltering 10-miler. My heart sank.
They seemed like such good people, I thought.
I was doing it without even realizing it. The seeds of hate, planted by good intentions like yearning for equality and justice for all, were sprouting inside me, coloring my judgment, allowing stereotypes to take over where once there were individuals.
“I just hate her, don’t you see, Robyn? She’s just AUGGH I can’t even think about her face without being disgusted!” a friend of mine raged recently, trying to explain to me why Trump would get her vote over Clinton. The hate creased my pal’s pretty face and made her nearly come off the cool grey sofa on which she sat. I stayed quiet, silently appalled and feeling sorry for the misguided, mangled heart of this woman I’d been regularly praying with in a Bible study for more than two years.
Trump’s face makes me feel that way, I thought, feeling more justified in my opinion than the woman sitting across from me, seething and in pain.
“Hillary’s a liar!” people said on social media over and over, ignoring all the times Trump lied – to contractors who worked for him, to students of his own university scam, to investors, to the IRS, to his first wife, to journalists, and to the entirety of America in every single debate.
Five statues of a naked, bloated Trump appeared in cities across America last summer. “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the project was called. People gawked and reveled in the mock-humiliation of the narcissist’s likeness bared for all to see. Many of the same people jumped down Trump’s throat for focusing on and judging women based on their looks over the course of his campaign (and his life). “Body positivity!” they chanted. “Fat shaming is disgusting!”
Hate is what brought us here. Hate on both sides. We picked a side we felt was filled with lies, immorality and terrible judgment and we dug in our heels against it. We ignored or made excuses for a candidate’s shortcomings or mistakes and pointed fingers instead. That one’s way worse, we accused.
I’m sure many people voted with love in mind. Hell, I even posted a video the day before the election, pledging to do just that. But many more, whether they recognized it in the moment or not, cast their votes yesterday based on hate.
Hate for big government.
Hate for small-minded leaders.
Hate for a broken system.
Hate for racism and discrimination.
Hate for lies and deceit.
Hate for immaturity and ineptitude.
Hate for immorality.
Hate for misogyny.
Hate for the idea of having a female president.
Hate for a pro-choice agenda.
Hate for a pro-life agenda.
Hate for Obamacare.
Hate for minorities.
Hate for the fear of gun control.
Hate for the fear of guns taking more innocent lives.
Hate for religions that are different than yours.
I admonish my kids when they use that word, and I’ve used it 24 times already in this post. Hate is a cancer and it must be eradicated. The good news is we already have the antidote. I think right now many of us are worried about how to deliver it to newly elected leaders who are, at best, in denial of even having such a disease. But there must be a way. It is up to all of us to follow our hearts, not our fears.
The first thing I will do is to take the signs down in my mind; I hope you will too. Force yourself to forget ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Train your mind to see individuals everywhere, not stereotypes. And if you read that sentence and thought ‘Yeah, I know a lot of people who need to do that,’ there’s a good chance you are still part of the problem.
I don’t know what kind of change will come from above in the next four years. But I do know that in my life, nothing will change if I don’t. I am the leader in my home and I can be a leader in my community, and I choose to lead with love. I have to, so that I can survive and my children can thrive. We are building their inheritance every day, all of us, the ones who I disagree with on fundamental issues and the ones who weep beside me today.
Last night I cried for our country, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized among us who now might be facing an even steeper uphill battle than they’ve always known. I turned off the TV early and crawled under my covers, trying to pray for God’s will and for our nation’s incoming leaders with a heart that was not clouded by grief and anger. My phone continued to buzz and light up throughout the night, friends and family as stunned by the news as I was grasping for a way to make sense of the darkest implications of this election swirling in their minds.
But as one of our nation’s best and brightest leaders knew, that’s not the way forward. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose actions as a regular American citizen had more of a lasting influence than many of our country’s previously elected presidents. That, today, should inspire us even more than his actual words.
This is not me determined to put on rose-colored glasses. This is me with eyes swollen from crying, a heart heavy with anxiety, but a soul that thankfully keeps color-correcting my vision when I begin to process issues or people in black and white, and when the shades of the future I see in my mind become ominously dark.
Love is bright and bold and multi-colored. Our nation is likewise, and it will continue to be that way – more so every day, in fact. If we make it so.
Another famous MLK quote that I woke up thinking about this morning actually was paraphrased from another pastor, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who, in 1853, wrote:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
“You’re just a girl,” I heard my 7-year-old sputter, and the world stopped spinning.
He was mad at me for punishing his brother, and in a defensive, little brother way, he was sticking up for his idol by trying to argue Kostyn’s case. When I shut him down Evan muttered “stupid” – a word they’re not supposed to use in this house – before his last-ditch effort to dismiss the punishment by dissing the parent.
“You’re just a girl.”
My first instinct was to drag him by the ear to my laptop in the other room, plop him down at my desk and pull up a video of a woman giving birth. Because I’m pretty sure nobody can witness the incredible feats of will and strength and selflessness that a woman calls upon to bring forth another human being into this world and ever use the word “just” again when describing her gender. But I thought that might be a little too graphic for his elementary school mind.
Still. Just a girl? Oh, my son. No. As soon as he said it and saw the crazed look in his mother’s eyes when I walked slowly into his bedroom and dared him to repeat what he’d said, he reneged. “I didn’t say anything,” he pleaded innocently, over and over, until I let him scamper off to find his brother.
I stood there in the hallway staring at my reflection in the mirror. You might think this is an overreaction to a second-grader’s off-handed comment, which I know was designed to make me mad, but I felt sick to my stomach. I considered the fact that he’d been watching me apply mascara at the exact moment he’d said what he’d said, and I somehow felt sheepish for this, as if I was perpetuating stereotypes of girls just wanting to be pretty.
They’re always watching me, my sons. I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m raising future men who will have opinions of women they might not consciously even recognize. But those opinions will someday color who they befriend and who they defend, who they work for and who they hire, who they date and who they hate and who they elect president. Those subconscious opinions will influence whether they see a woman as “assertive” or “bitchy,” as “a bad driver” or “a defensive driver,” as “empathetic” or “sappy.” And all of that, on some basic level, is being formed right here in this house. And in their dad’s house. And everywhere else, which is terrifying.
I began to wonder what subtle gender biases and expectations were seeping into their little psyches just by being in this world. Last weekend I’d helped Evan build a robot from a kit he’d gotten for Christmas, and as I twisted each wire and turned every tiny screw, I tried to ignore his occasional commentary: “Maybe we should have Daddy do this; he’s really good at building things.” Yes he is, exceptionally good. But I’ll be damned if they’re going to grow up in a world where they only see men wield tools.
So yeah, they’ve watched me put on makeup, and they’ve watched me curl my hair, and they’ve watched me try on three different pairs of shoes with the same outfit. They’ve also watched me mow the lawn, and kill giant spiders in their bedroom as they run screaming in the other direction.
They’ve watched me wash the dishes every night and fold the laundry and scrub the toilet. And they’ve watched me hang pictures and assemble shelving units (and half-swear a lot while doing that) and replace batteries and unclog drains and shovel the driveway. They’ve watched me choke back tears while re-reading blog posts I wrote about their baby and toddler days. They’ve watched me compliment strangers, bake cookies for neighbors and let drivers into my lane. And they’ve watched me climb to the top of the jungle gym, dribble a soccer ball, and dance with both of them in my arms.
They’ve watched me fail them, and apologize to them. And they’ve watched me cry, more times than I care to admit.
So what does “just a girl” mean to him? I wondered. Is it all going wrong, despite my efforts? Is it inevitable, this bias? This gender inequality? This ‘just’?
Rather than call them both up for a lecture on how I never want to hear anything like that from either of them, I decided I needed to know where Evan in particular is in terms of defining us – both of us. So I called him over to me, and told him he could earn back Kostyn’s stuffed animals if he helped me out with something first. Always wanting to be his brother’s hero, he said yes immediately. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “Boys” and “Girls” at the top.
“I want you to write down what you think of when you think of these two things,” I explained, handing him the marker. “There’s no right or wrong answers, just anything that comes to your mind. This is not a test. It doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll still get your brother’s friends back.”
He smiled – he still is young enough to love “homework” – and immediately started writing. I walked away. When I returned, he looked up and smiled again.
“I have so many things for girls but I can’t think of many for boys,” he said. I glanced at the paper. Under “Boys” he had written “Like to fight.” Under “Girls” he had written “Some like dolls. Most like pink and purple. Not like to fight.”
“OK, cool,” I said. “How about some describing words? Not necessarily what things boys or girls like, but what are they like?”
“Ohhh,” he said. We got out a second piece of paper and started again. I walked away again. When I came back, he had three things listed under “Boys:” Nice. Mean. Outdoors. This time the “Girls” column was empty.
“I don’t really know what girls are like,” he said. “They’re all different.”
“Think about the girls in your class,” I said. “Or your aunts, or your cousins Cora and Ziva, Grammy, Nana, you know lots of girls.”
He still looked stuck, and I realized I liked that he was having a hard time, that maybe he wasn’t able to lump all girls into a few descriptive boxes. We are not all pink and purple.
I was going to let him go at that. But then I blurted out, “Why don’t you use me then. If one of your classmates asked you to describe your mom, what words would you use?”
This, I knew as I was saying it, was what I really wanted all along: The chance to see myself through his eyes. “Just” what am I to him? I wondered. Not so much “How am I doing as a parent?” as “What impression of half of this world’s population am I helping to make?”
It only took another minute and he was done.
I smiled. I thanked him. I filled his arms with his brother’s confiscated stuffed animals. Then I went back to the mirror to finish blow-drying my hair.
Do you ever find yourself so mentally exhausting/exhausted you just can’t deal with your own neuroses anymore? That’s where I’ve been this past year or so.
Honestly, I think this is the best thing about middle age. I’m not talking about a midlife crisis; it’s more of a midlife catharsis. I think we all get so damn sick of the same insecurities, hang-ups and excuses we’ve suffocated ourselves with for so long that we finally stop bitching about it – to ourselves or others – and begin the arduous yet wholly satisfying task of beginning to breathe fresh air rather than continuing to choke down the toxic fumes we’ve carefully, carelessly manufactured inside our own thought bubbles for decades. Because time’s a wastin’, people.
More to the personal point: I wore shorts this summer. All summer. Granted, not every day, but enough. Much more than in previous summers, which was basically never. I wore them in public places and in my own backyard. I wore shorts on long runs around town and on short trips to the park with the kids. I wore them on vacation. I wore them out with friends and while running errands. I wore them on dates. I wore them at the lake and the pool. I went to the lake and the pool.
And you know what? I not only lived through it, I eventually began to enjoy it. The more I ran in shorts, for example, the happier I was that I wasn’t overheating, and the longer I was able to run, and the more I began to notice that the muscles in my legs were really starting to come into clearer focus. Funny how that works.
It took awhile, but I no longer worried about people snickering behind my back, looking aghast at my pasty gams – shuddering at the awfulness that is me. Those were all legitimate(ly crazy) fears I’ve always lived with. I’d spent all previous summers wearing yoga pants around the house regardless of the temperature, because not even I wanted to see my bare legs in the privacy of my own home. A few years ago I wore jeans to the beach in August, for Christ’s sake.
You might think I’m crazy, but I bet you are, too, and I hope right now you’re thinking more about your insecurities than mine. Maybe for you it’s not shorts; maybe it’s wearing a bathing suit that’s difficult. Maybe it’s your crooked tooth you can’t stand, or your stretch marks, or your thinning hair. Maybe it’s the size of your fill-in-the-blank you don’t like. Maybe it is whatever it is, and that’s for you to know and not me.
My point is, this summer I said ‘Screw it.’ It’s hot outside, and nobody cares about this but me.
Obviously, I’m oversimplifying things. I did not miraculously reach a point where my long-held, damaging self-beliefs were suddenly hauled away like last week’s trash. In reality, it’s been a painstakingly slow process. I’ve had, collectively speaking, years of therapy regarding my various insecurities. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about them. I’ve been in an ongoing support group to deal with trauma from my childhood. I’ve read books professing my worth as a child of God and a person of value in this world. These books all have passages underlined and highlighted by me, hopeful notes scribbled in the margins and eventually left to gather dust. I’ve journaled and meditated and tried to “run it out.” I’ve taken lessons from a crumbled marriage and a life of trial and error and applied them, like layers of Papier-maché, to my worldview.
All the while, I’ve alternately avoided mirrors or I’ve glared and grimaced into them. Neither tactic worked. Until.
You know how sometimes when you say a word over and over it begins to not sound like the word – like any word – at all? Flaw. Flaw. Flaaah. Measure. Measure. Mezsh-ur? Mezzzuuuurr.
That’s what happened when I stared into the mirror long enough to realize it was just me staring back – a dizzying and disorienting revelation.
When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I came across this framed Norman Rockwell print, “Girl At the Mirror,” in an antique store in downtown Saratoga Springs. The expression on the young girl’s face was exactly how I felt, and would continue to feel for another 20 years. I bought it immediately and took it to my first apartment; it moved with me 12 more times in the ensuing two decades. Oddly, though, in all those apartments and rental houses and duplexes, I mostly kept the print in the basement or tucked away in a spare bedroom. As a grown woman, I was embarrassed that it resonated so deeply.
But sometime last year I Googled the painting and read that Rockwell said the magazine picture of movie star Jane Russell was an addition he regretted including; the girl who posed for the portrait did not actually have it on her lap.
This created an opening for a new interpretation in my mind. If you take away the magazine, what is she looking at? I wondered. What is she comparing herself to, if not to the Jane Russell she’d seen in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (or the very title of that film)? She must be comparing herself to something. To the popular girl in school. To a comment her father made. To the way she’d seen her mother look at her own reflection in a mirror.
Because we don’t just see what is in the mirror, we see what is there in relation to everything else we have seen and heard. The question is, can we unsee it? Can we close one eye and blot out Jane Russell with our outstretched thumb? Can we un-hear the playground taunts from grade school about whatever innocuous physical characteristics made us stand out? Can we un-feel the heartbreak of rejection from our teen years? Can we flush from our systems the constant hyper-sexualized messages pop culture skewers into our TVs, phones, magazine stands, radios, clothing racks, brains, friends, sexual partners and psyches?
I used to say I hated mirrors; I would mostly avoid them, walking briskly by with averted eyes, looking down at the sink while washing my hands, never straight ahead. That was dumb. I was a 2-year-old throwing a blanket over my head and thinking that would keep me invisible.
Nah, nah, I can’t see me!
A mirror shows you the truth; it’s your mind that immediately distorts and judges it. So, bolstered by all the self-improvement steps previously mentioned, along with my newfound knowledge of Rockwell’s Jane Russell regret, I started to treat the mirror like the object that it was meant to be. I tried to stop distorting and judging. I stopped looking into the mirror, and started to just see what was there.
I started to see my legs exactly as they are. The calf muscles I’ve always known were too wide (Says who? “Society”? Magazine covers? An ex-boyfriend?) slowly became, simply, my calves. I took ownership of the ankles I always wished were thinner, the pale skin I always wanted to be more tan, less freckly, the thighs I had longed to be more toned. Mine. Mine. Mine. Only mine. Only for me. For the movement of my body through my life. For dancing and running and walking and swimming. To serve as a lap for my boys. To allow me to wander and explore, to climb and to hike. To wrap around someone special. To let me see the world from a vantage point that’s 5 feet, 8 inches off the ground.
I saw my legs, my whole body, in the mirror. And what I saw was not “better” or “worse” or “thinner” or “fatter” or “paler” or “darker” or “shorter” or “longer” than yours. It was just mine. It’s so obvious I can’t believe I’d missed it all these years. Of course my legs don’t look like Faith Hill’s; they’re not hers, dumbass. They’re not supposed to look like her legs. They’re supposed to look like Robyn Passante’s legs. And they’re doing a damn fine job of it.
These legs look different today than they did a year ago, partly because I’m running more than I ever have, and partly because I see them in a different light than I ever have. Then again, I am also not the person I was a year ago, or three years ago, or six months ago.
Every day I am trying to be more myself and less other people’s expectations, more confidence and deliberateness and less old habits and cyclical mistakes. I am trying to figure out what it means to live a really good life. I am trying to be more open to experiences, to chances, to life as it unfolds. I am trying to be less apologetic, more giving, less cynical. I am trying to abandon the false idea of perfection. I am trying to live out my faith. I am trying to trust people. I am trying to trust myself.
I am trying to stop looking so hard into the mirror, and just see.
We are all dying. All of us, right now, as we squabble over dinner plans and run our kids to baseball practice and put on mascara and binge-watch Netflix, we are all inching closer to the end.
We know this, of course. But there are people in rooms all over the world who are closer than most of us to getting there. I spend my Saturday afternoons with them. When I tell people I’m a hospice volunteer they say things like “I don’t know how you do it” and “It must be so hard,” and that stuff makes me wince because it’s not at all. It’s actually a beautiful, soul-satisfying experience, and many times the highlight of my week.
So I’m sharing a snapshot of my last two visits with one of the patients I’ve been seeing since December. I should note that it’s not always like this. Often my visits with patients are filled with laughter and conversation and quiet companionship. But this is what it’s like when our time together is coming to an end, which is the part I think people fear – and shouldn’t. I hope that reading this might entice even one person to consider spending a tiny bit of their free time signing up to become someone’s last new friend. You will not regret it.
Sunday, July 17:
“Good morning, Louise!” I say as I walk into her bedroom, past the sign taped to her door that says “LOUISE’S ROOM.” The same reminder is on the wall opposite her bed. Mid-morning sunlight shines through the blinds facing her, a silent admonishment over her still being under the covers on such a gorgeous day.
I set my hazelnut coffee in its paper Panera Bread cup on her nightstand and pull her wheelchair up to the bed before plopping down on it. This is usually where I sit. She is usually awake.
A country music song plays on the radio atop her dresser, nearly drowned out by the steady drone of the oxygen machine behind me, its long green tube snaking and curling its way to Louise’s nostrils. I glance down to make sure I haven’t run over it with the wheelchair, cutting off that extra bit of air she needs to help her lungs inflate. She’s about to die, but I sure don’t want to have a hand in it.
I lean over her bed rails and stroke her wispy white bangs. They are soft and fine and finally not hanging in her eyes; someone must have cut them.
“It’s Robyn. I wanted to come back today to see you again.” For all the months I’ve known her, she’s never said or, to my knowledge, remembered my name. I feel silly saying it now. The last time I had a patient with Alzheimer’s, I had to reintroduce myself every other week when I visited her. “Oh, come in. What do you need?” she’d ask, and I’d tell her who I was. We’d go over the same details, that I have two kids, that she has one son, a retired teacher. That I’m a writer. That her son wrote a book. “Have you seen it?” she’d ask, picking it up from the table beside her the same way, so eerily, every time. “I’m just reading it now,” she’d say as I marveled. The bookmark never moved.
Louise wasn’t like that. She never remembered who I was from one visit to the next, but she didn’t seem to care, and her face always lit up when I walked in. “Well look who’s here,” she’d say, then ask me if I saw her car in the parking lot, or tell me she needed to get home soon to help her mother, who really was working too hard in the garden. She’d lived at the nursing home for at least two years, hadn’t driven in forever, and her mother was long dead.
It was disorienting at first, but I grew to anticipate the unexpectedness of the visits. I knew I’d be joining her on the roller coaster that was her brain, along for the ride for an hour or so. Arms up, we’d go wherever the tracks took us, me holding her hand when she got scared, when her world dipped and spun out of control. “When can I go home?? I don’t understand where this is. Why isn’t anyone coming?” It happened more and more as the months wore on.
But the coaster sits idle on the track today. I rest my head on the bed rail and watch her breathe. Her eyes are closed; there is no movement behind her eyelids. Her mouth is open in the shape of an oval, lips curled inward, jaw slightly slack. The left side of her face is swollen and bruised from a recent fall, splotches of purple and red and green and yellow that run together and down her cheek and chin and across her chest. I wonder where she was trying to go when she tumbled out of bed last week. To the bathroom? To her mother’s garden? To the post office where she worked 40 years ago?
I take a long sip of coffee. “I met your youngest son yesterday.” I put down the cup and pick up her hand. It curls around mine and I glance back at her face, but see no flicker of anything. I notice her mauve nail polish has been removed, but whoever did the job wasn’t thorough. Just enough for the staff to watch for the fingernail beds to change from pink to blue, I imagine. Her fingers are cool, though they’ve been under the down comforter. “Wayne was here to see you!”
Wayne, the first family member I’d met in eight months of visiting her, who wasn’t sure how long Louise had been living there or when he’d seen her last.
“He loves you very much.”
Wayne, who didn’t speak to his mother or touch her. But he did preach to me for an hour about how my heart is black with evil and I need God to save me.
“He sounds like a very passionate man, Louise. He sure loves God. I bet you had a hand in that, didn’t you?”
Wayne, who lamented that when his mother dies he will be forced to move out of her house so his siblings can sell it and divide the estate.
“I know you did your best raising them,” I tell her, my face leaning toward hers. I hope she can hear me. “Being a mother is just the most amazing job in life, ya know?” My voice chokes. “And you got to do it. It’s a hard job, too, I know. It’s so hard. And you did it four times. They all love you so much.”
I’ve only met Wayne, but I still believe what I say. It is a hard job, and I’m sure she did her best. I know they love her, I see traces of it here and there: A Mother’s Day card propped up on the shelf. A new box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies on the windowsill. Wayne asked me if his mother ate those; I said I’d never seen her eat anything. “I bet people who work here are coming in and taking them,” he said suspiciously. He had deep concern for the crème pies.
I caress her forearm, our hands still locked, while my eyes take in the room one last time. The calendar on the wall still showing May. The photos of loved ones on the windowsill. The framed black and white portrait of her husband in his uniform on the dresser behind me. For awhile she knew it was her husband. Then one day she said it was her brother. A month or two after that she wasn’t sure who it was.
“Hmm,” she’d said, noticing it suddenly and squinting at it from her bed 6 feet away. “Is that?” And then, nothing. Wayne told me his father died in 1988, which is a long time to live with the memory of having a spouse.
I pray aloud for her, with her, on her behalf, thanking God for her, for this friendship, for her life, for her peace and pain-free body at the end. I ask God to take her, to wrap her in His arms, to reunite her with her loved ones.
Then, for a long while, I just sit there quietly. My mind wanders to my life. I resist the urge to check my phone, to mindlessly scroll through social media platforms looking at people’s vacations in progress, political rants. I love that for this hour I get to leave my life and most of my identity behind. Nobody here cares who I am, what I’ve accomplished, what I’m wearing. I’m just a warm hand to hold, an easy smile to flash in a lonely person’s direction. That’s it. It’s perfect in its simplicity. I do so little here.
I watch her chest rise and fall. At one point I lean over her again and whisper, “It’s OK to go, if you’re ready, Louise. I’m right here with you.” Selfishly, I want her to leave this world while I’m here, so I’ll know she didn’t draw her last breath alone. I don’t know why this matters. She might not even know I’m in the room, and it’s sadistic, morbid, totally messed up to wish for someone to die. But the end is coming anyway.
We don’t control such things, though, and after an hour I need to leave to pick up my kids. I kiss her forehead. “I don’t want to leave you.” I start to cry. I watch her chest rise and fall. “I love you, Louise. I will never forget you. When I see you again, will you remember me? I hope so.”
I walk out of the room slowly, watching. Just in case. Her chest rises and falls, her mouth still hangs open. I sniff and wipe away tears as I head out the door. I wonder when the end will come.
Saturday, July 23:
I didn’t expect to see Louise again after last Sunday, but I’ve kept tabs on her throughout the week and by Saturday afternoon I hear from her hospice nurse that she’s still alive. “I’ll be surprised if she makes it through the night,” she tells me over the phone, so I decide to head back one last (last) time.
I’m careful to remember my hospice badge today, as I expect a vigil of some sort by family members who don’t know who I am or whether I belong there. But when I enter her room, it is empty. It is also disheveled. The closet doors are open, as is the nightstand drawer. Louise’s bed has been pushed away from the wall, I assume to give the aides better access. Her family photos have all been piled on one end of the windowsill to make room for extra linens and medical equipment.
Her room is in transition along with her body, and I am unsettled to be inside it more than I am to be beside it.
Louise is lying on her back, her face angled straight up to the ceiling. Her mouth is wide open but her breath is quiet; I don’t hear the telltale rattling in her chest that sometimes happens near the end.
“Lou-iiiiise,” I sing-song playfully, sitting down in her wheelchair, maneuvering around the O2 tube. “I’m so glad I got to come back and see you again.” I comb my fingers through her bangs, caress the side of her face. The bruises look a bit lighter, but now I can see there are bruises on her left ear, too. And as my fingers comb through the hair framing her face, I feel a knot the size of a gumdrop right above her ear.
It hits me then that the fall is why we’re here. I mean sure there’s the Alzheimer’s, and the cancer, but for such a frail body to have suffered such a physical blow … her compromised immune system does not have the strength to come back from it.
I don’t make small talk, yammering on about how hot it is outside or what my kids and I did yesterday. It would seem almost disrespectful to do so. This is her time.
I find her hand under the covers and take it in mine. It is much stiffer than last week, but very warm. I lean over her and pray aloud, heartfelt words that come fast from my heart to my lips. We never talked about religion, she and I. Doesn’t matter. It’s at least making one of us feel better.
I watch her chest rise and fall for an hour and a half. Every time I take my eyes off her for even a second, when I look back I think for a moment that she is dead, that she has drawn her last breath while I was studying the pattern on her curtain valance, or contemplating what I’ll have for dinner. But always there is the slight rise again of her chest, and my shoulders relax.
I can’t get over how warm her fingers are, almost sweaty. When a nurse comes in and I comment on it, she pulls the bottom corner of the comforter back and shows me Louise’s feet and legs, cold to the touch and bluish-gray, death slowly creeping up from her toes, now past her knees.
“She woke up two days ago,” the nurse says. “Got up, had a little oatmeal. She told me she loved me. Told a few of the other girls she loved them too. She told us that night it was her last night. That was … Wednesday, I think. We all kind of expected her to go then.”
But she didn’t go then. She hung on, tough girl, and now it’s Saturday evening, and I’m so glad she hung on because I got to see her again. I got to drive here one last time and sit in this room with the incessant country music playing, and the oxygen tank humming, and her stuffed bear smiling, his little pink tongue making him look playful, excited, like an adventure is right around the corner. She sometimes said more to that bear than she said to me. I wonder who will inherit him. I hope it’s a spunky great-grandchild who will take him on adventures. He’s been in that bed for two years, too clean, too perfect. But definitely loved.
The nurse says her older son came by for a bit on Wednesday, cried, asked to take her home. “He said he wished he’d done things differently,” she says, pulling her mouth to one side.
After the nurse leaves, I have an urge, very small, that seems crazy but feels right.
“Would you like me to sing to you?” I ask Louise. “I was thinking I could sing you a song.” Amazing Grace, I hear inside my head. Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ to her.
I lean back and glance out the door to make sure nobody’s coming, or in earshot. Then I lean in real close. “I should warn you, Louise, I’m really not a good singer. Like, if anything’s gonna make you either wake up from your coma or follow the light, listening to me sing might do it. So pick a side.”
I start trying to run through the verses in my head but decide it’ll come back to me once I start. I sang this classic to both my babies for countless months while rocking them to sleep. Singing an old song is like riding a bike, I reason.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like meeeee….” I start quietly, tentatively, perhaps slightly off-key. She doesn’t move a muscle.
After the second verse I stall out. “When we’ve been here 10,000 years.. wait, no.” I stop cold. That’s not the third verse. That’s like the fourth or fifth verse.
We sit in silence for a moment. Part of me is relieved to be done singing. Well, I tried. I look at her. It feels unfinished. This is the last time she will hear a song. You can’t half-ass it, Robyn.
“I can’t remember the words, Louise,” I say. “I’m gonna have to look them up.”
I pull out my phone, Google the song, come up with the lyrics, glance again out the bedroom door, see no one, then lean in and start from the third verse. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. …”
I sing two more verses, then the first one again for good measure. When I finish my little concert for one it feels extra quiet in the room. Then the country music comes back on – I swear it wasn’t playing a minute ago – and some guy is drawling about a woman needing directions, something about sweet tea.
Louise’s body jumps a bit, small tremors involuntarily jolting her muscles. I watch and wait. She settles. I think about what an enormous privilege it is to be present for someone’s final hours. Who would have foreseen that? Obviously we all know who we spend our first moments of life with, but nobody knows who will be with them at the end, whose is the last voice they’ll hear? Louise certainly couldn’t have imagined it might be a random middle-aged single mom with no ties to her family or even her hometown.
But I think there’s incredible beauty in that, in an anonymous hand of humanity reaching out, on behalf of this world, to say goodbye and well done, to whisper “you have been loved, and you will be missed,” right into her ear.
And that’s what I do next. I stand over her and whisper those things and more, things for only me and her to know. I kiss her forehead many times. I caress her face and her shoulder. I watch for signs of recognition, any twitch or flutter or smile that would show she can hear me, feel me, will miss me too. There is nothing. It doesn’t matter.
“I’m gonna go now, Louise. But I’ll be thinking of you. You’re in my heart, OK? You are not alone. I’ll be right here.” I touch her chest gingerly; the words and gesture make me think of E.T., and I chuckle through my tears.
“I love you, sweet friend.” We cannot hear that enough, I figure. One more glance at her chest. Yes, still breathing. I walk out of her room, past the sign that for so long reminded her where she was. “LOUISE’S ROOM.” She could never remember it; I will not forget it.