“Is this it?” Mildred clasps my hand tighter. Her voice is eager. “Am I dying?”
One of the nurses frowns a little and glances up at me.
I look at the young ER doctor who is leaning over her with his stethoscope. He raises his eyebrows.
“She’s been praying to die for years,” I say. “So is she?”
He shakes his head. “Not today. Not right now.”
I stroke her arm. “Not now, sweetie. Not today.”
She makes a face and seems to sink back into herself.
“Her skull is fractured,” the doctor says. “There’s pressure on her brain.”
She knew my touch. I’d been her hospice volunteer for more than a year. But then, instead of dying on schedule, she got a little better and hospice dropped her. So then, for another year, I was just her friend until she died.
She told me she was ashamed of herself. Her son had died more than forty years before, and she had forgotten his name.
“How could I forget my own son’s name? What kind of mother am I?” she said softly.
“Bill? Oh, it’s been so long now, hasn’t it? And you’ve been so busy,” I said.
On that day in the ER, Mildred was 101, almost 102. The bruises around her eyes made a purple and black raccoon’s mask, and her eyes weren’t working right. Early that morning she had fallen face-first onto her walker. Her daughter was a day away in northern Wisconsin, and I was her only other contact person. The assisted living center had called me to meet the ambulance at the hospital.
She was 99 when I met her. Her diagnosis was “failure to thrive,” as if she were a baby that wasn’t growing right. The staff said she had grown disinterested, speaking and eating as little as possible. She was fading.
They assigned me to her because I was a musician. She was tiny and drifted from bed to bathroom to easy chair to piano. She had her things around her. The antique dresser by the bay window had come from the farmhouse in Michigan, and her children’s pictures hung above the bed.
Holding the old sheet music on the piano, I picked out some melodies—“Pretty Baby,” “Pickles and Peppers” and “The Broadway Rag.” The only music I knew was by composers like Vivaldi. With ragtime, I was in over my head. To get the rhythm right, I had to count the half-beats out loud. “One-and-two-and-three-and-four….” She grinned.
Music was an old part of her. She told me she’d been a farm girl in Michigan. “Mama took it into her head that I didn’t have to work the farm. I guess she thought I was better than that. My brothers could do it, but not me. Somehow she found the money to pay a teacher and to get me an old piano. I had to get into town for my lessons—I played for hours, like I was a lady. Mama’d work in the kitchen and listen to me. It’s all I ever did, but they never made me do the rough work.”
During World War I, she’d been a young girl, and in 1918, the Spanish Flu left her in a coma for weeks. But her adventures really began after she recovered.
“After I left school, why, they gave me a job, just for playing the piano. I played the organ down at the movie theater.” She looks at me and laughs. “There wasn’t any paper music for those shows, you know. I had to play music that fit the story as the movie went on, and I had to know all those songs by heart…love songs, car chases. I had to keep playing for the audience when I didn’t even know what was coming next.”
“But however did you manage it? Not knowing what would come next?”
She laughs and shakes her head. “My first husband was no good. No good. There I was, a young girl, just 19 years old, playing up in front, and he came up behind me and started talking, just like that. We weren’t introduced. He didn’t know anything about me. Oh, but he was so handsome!” She nods. “My son Bill, that was his father. But he was no good.” She sits back in her big chair. “I’ve had three husbands.”
“I was divorced too,” I say and she glances at me.
“I scarcely remember the second one,” she says. “The third one was the one who had the resort. We worked so hard! I had the children and all those cabins to do. And I ran a little store. But it was beautiful…. The lake was right there. Sparkling water. The children could swim and ride their bikes. And there were bears. We picked blueberries.”
After we got to know each other, she tried to play a little, even though she’d broken her wrist the year before and her fingers were stiff and crooked. Just a few bars and she’d rest her hands in her lap.
“I can’t play any more. It’s no good.”
“Maybe it’s okay to be done playing,” I said. “Maybe you’ve played enough.”
“Well, maybe. I have played a lot, it’s true.”
She perked up instead of dying. Hospice dropped her, and so I was supposed to stop visiting her. But I knew our friendship was true, and so I kept coming, just as a friend.
She liked it when I plunked out old hymns on her piano. The three-quarters time of “Great is thy faithfulness” came out as a slow waltz. But when I played “Rock of Ages,” her face seemed to close down. That day even the music couldn’t reach her.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
For some time, she’d been drifting back and forth between this world and the next, delighted that her long-dead brother had stopped to see her and worried that her assisted living care was too expensive. When I stopped to see her after her 100th birthday party, she was in tears. She and her banker had figured 100 years was a safe bet. “My money’s gone. It’s all gone. I have to move.”
Her daughter, who was in her late seventies, arranged for a smaller room, but it was darker too. It was about that time she had her worst fall. Old skin is like wet Kleenex. She had wobbled a bit on the way to the bathroom and fell against the wall, tearing a 9-inch gash in her upper arm.
“Oh, it’s so ugly!” She frowns and moves her bandaged arm on the pillow.
“Scars give you character,” I say. “And this one’s huge. When you wear sleeveless dresses, people will think you’re some kind of wild woman.”
Her eyes are wet. “Why doesn’t God take me? Why am I still alive?” She turns her face towards me. “I think…” She looks away. “I think I’m not fit for God to take me. He doesn’t want me in heaven. That’s why I’m here. He doesn’t want to take me because I’m not good enough.”
Under the sheets she looks like a scrawny little girl with messy hair. I think back.
As a little girl, I was supposed to be good, but I didn’t really know how to do it. Sometimes I tried reciting the prayers I knew.
“Be with me, Lord, throughout the night, and wake me with the morning light. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
What made a child bad? I remembered my father spanking me because I had been bad and Mama hitting me when she got mad. I could see that I had been bad, but I often wasn’t sure exactly what my badness had been.
Later, when I was a little older, my father, who was a minister, taught me how it worked.
“You can’t do it by yourself. Saying you’re sorry isn’t enough,” he said.
“But then how do I know I’m forgiven?” I said. “Do I forgive myself? Do you forgive me? Where’s the end of it? When is it over?” By now I was crying.
“It’s not that easy. It’s not up to you. Only God can forgive, and we can never comprehend God. You have to take responsibility for what you’ve done. You can’t just say you’re sorry and think it’s all right. None of us can do that all by ourselves.”
My father was not at all a hellfire-and-damnation preacher. A quiet, bookish man, he rarely got angry. But this teaching was much bigger than he was. For centuries, the whole Christian world had taught that all people carried original sin, fundamental badness—“We’re born bad, and only God can make it right.” And like all parents, my father believed that raising a child meant teaching right from wrong, making sure the child knew about the badness none of us could help. His father had used a leather belt to teach him the same lesson when he was tiny.
In later years, he stopped working as a minister, and as an old man, he stopped going to church. Instead he bought a telescope and studied the stars and the galaxies. He said he enjoyed finding proof of God’s complex immensity.
So when Mildred whispered, “I’m not good enough for God to take me,” I knew exactly how she felt.
She started lying awake at night, worrying. I called her daughter to see what she thought.
“Is it okay if I pray with her?” I asked. “And could we do some calming meditations? Sometimes it helps.”
Her voice was warm. “Of course. Anything that makes her comfortable is wonderful.”
“Here, let me take your hands.” It feels like I am holding a sparrow. “Close your eyes.” She nods.
“Lord, I’m here,” I say. “I’m Mildred. I’m ready to go. My friends are all dead, I’m out of money, and I can’t even play the piano. I know You forgive everything. You know I love you.” Her face relaxes. “Please take me as soon as You can. Please. Amen.”
We sit holding hands. “Just feel the quiet come into your heart,” I say. “Feel the peace of God touching your heart.” Her breathing comes easier, and we sit for several minutes.
“What are you doing?” A visiting nurse frowns in the doorway. “What is that?”
“We’re meditating,” I say.
“Do you have permission to do that?”
“I do. I asked her daughter last night.”
She presses her lips together. “I’ll check on that.”
But it works. For several months, Mildred feels better. She still has her ghostly visitors, family who had been dead for more than fifty years. She smiles about it. “Mama was here again last night. Maybe it won’t be long now.”
That’s why, in the ER, her eyes are so eager.
“Is this it? Am I dying?” Maybe God has finally relented. Maybe she doesn’t have to be punished any more. Maybe now she is good enough to die.
They move her into a hospice facility with a grand piano in the hallway, fresh flowers on the tables and a staff who speak death fluently.
I stop for a visit. She’s alone, propped up in bed. Since the day of the ER visit, she has not spoken, eaten or taken a sip. I take her hand, sit a moment and move over to take her in my arms as if she were my own child.
“It’s almost time, sweetheart. You’ve done such a good job. You are so good. God knows how wonderful you’ve been, and He wants you to come. He’s waiting for you. I’m so happy for you.” Her body feels as light as a baby’s.
A hospice nurse comes in and watches us. I don’t move. She smiles quietly, turns and leaves.
“It’ll just be a little while. You’ll see Bill and your brothers. Mama will be there.” Her breathing is soft.
The nurse comes back and waits by the door. I kiss Mildred’s cheek and stand up. The nurse’s mouth is gentle as she bends over the bed.
A day later, I am on my way to see a friend when I know I have to see Mildred right away. It’s almost suppertime. I nod to the nurses at the desk and push open Mildred’s door.
She—whatever she is at that instant, whatever she is becoming—is light, mother-of-pearl, glimmering pink and lavender and white, fragile as a wish, soft as a last note. I could worship what I see.
A nurse holds her hand. Afraid to break the spell, I take a last look and step back. She dies two hours later.
by Jean Gendreau
©2015 by Jean E. Gendreau