I sat in her apartment watching a white-haired woman losing the will to live. I felt baffled and inadequate. As an experienced clergywoman, I wasn’t usually so lost. I’d been witness to several deaths. When you’re gray-haired and hold a degree in religion, you think you’re an expert on dying, but I was in new territory here.
For two weeks my dear friend, at 91, had been haunted by fear and regret—she called them her demons—and she wanted to die. In the twelve years I’d known her she’d been a wise and talented person who seemed to have made peace with the past, but she hadn’t. Some awful memory I knew nothing about had stepped into her mind to haunt her with uncontrollable images. Her fears had led to a refusal to eat, loss of weight and sleeplessness. Before this, she’d step outside into the dark every night and sniff the air, address the stars. Now she couldn’t turn off the light; she kept the radio going until morning. I watched her with my hands bound and my spirit frantic.
This tormented woman, a former choir director, lived in a tiny apartment in the lower level of a home in Arizona where the fall season was beginning to break into our hot summer. Her rocky yard bloomed with sprouts of purple iris, and the patio had two apple trees shading two green chairs. That shade was where we’d have our talks, discussing matters like Garrison Keillor’s Unitarian jokes or the disappointing leadership of George Bush. Beyond the patio was a canyon alive with cottontails, rattlers and songbirds rustling and singing. The San Francisco Peaks loomed in the distance. None of the surroundings mattered anymore. She wouldn’t go outdoors.
The only comfort I could offer in this crisis, clerical or otherwise, was to tell my friend she was a good person and remind her how she’d laughed at my cynical remarks and supported my passion for writing. She’d listened to my stories about teaching and the wonders of Prescott College, I told her. Her attention mattered when I’d needed to be heard, and her choir had been central to my life. But my words didn’t help. The black dog howled in her dreams.
While I waited for the inevitable, my life at home was chaotic. I stumbled over remembering my phone number, forgot the day and time, drove erratically, lost lists, couldn’t manage a voicemail, and — most alarming to my husband — sprayed coffee on the kitchen ceiling as I fought with a cappuccino machine. My cool ministerial persona was gone. All the while I continued to write in bursts of creative energy. What’s that about?
The patient wouldn’t leave her apartment, and we of her musical coterie took turns standing watch. I was in control of visits, the admired saint, and when my decisions were questioned I felt annoyed beyond anything normal. Alison wouldn’t accept the visitor list I created. She wanted to come to the apartment before her turn. She wanted to see the results of blood work and suggested special meds. How dare she question? Couldn’t she see I was in command? The only time I remember anger like that I felt for Alison’s disobedience was when I’d done battle with my teen daughter, who wouldn’t follow the rules.
The soprano, Connie, was the perfect visitor — modest, soft-spoken, small — as she sat bedside with her knitting. Her presence seemed necessary but at the same time was reserved. I wanted to be like that, angelic. When I was there at the apartment, I felt huge, clumsy, loud, unlike the gentle Diane (also small) and smiling Margie (lithe and pretty). I tried to be the compassionate one, a minister, for God’s sake, a model to everyone. Instead, I barged into the room with my lists.
I was invited to be at my friend’s hospice evaluation, and liked being chief witness at the bedside. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t special or her favorite, but had been asked because of my clerical title. The hospice doctor sighed and left, saying he found no terminal disease. It pained me to see the patient’s disappointment with that diagnosis, the frustration of unexplained suffering. I felt I’d failed in some way.
While weeds took over the patio, the iris turned brown and apples dropped unnoticed, I stood a hapless witness to the descent of demons on what I’d known as a contented mind. Under me, the planet wobbled, tilted and careened as I tried to find footing on unstable ground.
Until one day when the patient sat up and asked for lentil soup.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.