Helen sat dozing in her rocking chair, a hand-knitted blanket draped loosely over her lap and legs. Occasionally, one foot would touch the floor, and the chair would rock easily back and forth, back and forth, a soft creak punctuating the movement on the back side of the fro. For awhile, Helen would sit still, after the chair had slowed to a stop, then touch the floor again with her foot, and the rocking would resume. I sat on the edge of her bed, quietly waiting for her to wake, not wanting to disturb what seemed to be a peaceful slumber.
Oxygen tubing ran from her nose to a machine nearby, humming out a low drone. Helen’s hair was silvery-white, and it looped in short, easy curls around her face. One curl fell softly over her right eyebrow, and it would shift ever so slightly from the brow to the bridge of her nose as she rocked in her chair. Her breathing seemed easy, with a deep sigh every so often. Her face and lips were pale, but I could picture her as a younger woman, with lips of ruby highlighted by a flush of color in her cheeks. Quotation marks etched the corners of her mouth, from years of laughing and crying and stern contemplation. Her eyelids sagged heavily down, and her eyelashes were scarce. She wore a flowered, flannel night-gown, with two buttons left open at the top. Her skin hung in little folds from her chin to her collar-bone. Helen was ninety-one, and her body showed its years of living life.
But Helen’s mind was anything but worn out. I was caught by surprise as her eyes flew wide open, and she peered straight at me.
“How long did you think you’d sit there waiting?” she asked me with a half-grin.
“Um, how long have you been waiting for me to leave?” I stuttered. I felt like a child, caught raiding the cookie jar.
She closed her eyes again, and I thought she’d returned to sleep. “Give me your hands,” she ordered. She reached out toward me with both arms, the elbows not quite able to extend fully, and I noticed a tremor in both hands.
I reached back to her with my own hands. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the firm plumpness of my own hands, and the loose skin of hers. I grasped her hands gently with my own.
“Oh, come now,” she said. “You can give me a squeeze–I won’t break.” She laughed, her eyes still closed.
I squeezed her hands more firmly. She tapped a single foot against the floor and rocked back and forth, still holding my hands in hers.
“You can come back and see me again,” she finally said.
“But–” I began to object.
“I know who you are,” she interrupted, as she released my hands. “My doctor sent you from hospice. You can come back next week.” She closed her eyes and appeared to sleep, though I couldn’t be sure she slept. I stood to leave the room, noting the intermittent tap of a foot and the to and fro rocking of her chair, the same consistent squeak marking the end of the fro. She neither frowned, nor smiled, she merely sat in peaceful repose. I thought I could detect just the hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. The oxygen machine hummed on, and Helen breathed a deep sigh. I left her to be with herself.
Before leaving Helen’s home, I gathered as much information as possible from her daughter, then arranged to return the following week.
“Mornings are best,” her daughter told me. “That’s when she’s most awake.”
The following Tuesday at nine in the morning, I returned to visit Helen. She was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. Occasionally, she would extend her arms and move her fingers, as though grasping at invisible strings. She seemed unaware of my presence. Her arms opened, as though welcoming an embrace. She smiled at something I could not see, something in mid-space. Quietly, she spoke a question that I could not understand, then she seemed to wait, as though listening to an answer. She shook her head “no”. “Not yet,” she said. “Not til I’m ready.”
The daughter stood behind me. “She’s been like this for the last three days,” she said, and shrugged. Her face screwed up into a mixture of fear and disgust. “She’s been talking about her mother and her sister, and some people I’ve never heard of.”
“Is she talking about them, or to them?” I asked, taking the daughter gently by the elbow.
The daughter’s expression turned to one of panic or horror, her mouth opening into a wide “O”, then she covered it with a hand. “It’s like she’s talking to them, I think.” She turned away, and walked quickly out of the room, then stood in the hallway and beckoned me with one hand.
“Those people have been dead for years!” she explained. “It’s got to be the morphine. We’ve got to get her off the morphine. I think she’s out of her mind, and the morphine is making it worse!” The daughter’s fear was escalating, and she fled down the hallway and into another room.
I sat in Helen’s rocking chair, and found myself tapping a single foot on the floor, making the chair move gently back and forth, as Helen had done.
“I see you came back,” Helen spoke softly, startling me out of my thoughts.
“I said I would.” I leaned forward, as I spoke.
“Let me hold your hands,” she said.
I rose and stood next to the bedside. Helen once again took my soft hands into her fragile-skinned squeeze. “You know,” she said. “You will understand me when I tell you.” She smiled vaguely at me, her gaze locked firmly on mine.
She squeezed my hands again. “You won’t tell me it’s the morphine, because you know. You have been there.”
“Tell me where, Helen,” I encouraged her to continue.
“That place I’m going, where there is nothing but love. You know–it’s nothing like earthly love. I can’t describe it, and you know that, so don’t ask me so many questions.” She was adamant and instructive. “It is light and there are colors like I’ve never, ever seen before, and it cannot be described with words. And the people who are waiting . . .” Her voice drifted off, and a tear trickled down the side of her face. “The people who are waiting for me want me to come.” She was silent for several minutes, as she returned to her thousand-mile stare into the in-between. “I told them I’m not ready, and they will wait for me.” She smiled, and I saw a radiance glance across her face, the lines smoothing into younger skin for several moments.
“I do know,” I said.
“I told you, I already knew that. So you don’t have to tell me. It’s enough that I know you believe what I say. I know you’ve been there.” She smiled again, and squeezed my hands so hard that they began to ache. “Can you come back again?” she asked.
“How about Friday, Helen? Friday morning?”
She furrowed her brows for a moment, silent in thought. “Maybe you should make it Thursday, if that’s alright with you.”
“I can do that,” I agreed.
“It’s just that Friday will be too late.” A matter of fact statement of certainty.
“Can I ask you, Helen, are you afraid? When you see these people and talk to them, are you afraid?”
Helen laughed out loud, a strong, ridiculous laugh. “Oh, heavens no, dear. You should know that!” She patted my hand gently, and slipped away into quiet sleep. Her breathing was easy and even. And still, that hint of Mona Lisa’s smile lingered, just barely perceptible to me.
I sat with Helen’s daughter for a while, before leaving. “Your mom is crossing a bridge, she’s transitioning from here to there, from physical life to what we think of as death.” I watched her daughter’s face closely, trying to discern understanding.
“I think it’s the morphine.” Her daughter was defiant.
“When your mom talks to these people, does she seem afraid?”
“No,” her daughter admitted, “but it’s crazy talk! She can’t be talking to anyone, because there’s nobody there!”
“Well,” I began carefully, as though maneuvering carefully through a field of glass, “perhaps your mom is sometimes here, and perhaps she’s sometimes somewhere else. Somewhere we can’t see, but it’s real to her. It’s comforting to her.” I waited for Helen’s daughter to process what I had said.
“I’m not sure I understand.” She fiddled with her fingers as she waited for me to respond.
“This is part of dying, and it’s very common for people to go back and forth, just like your mom’s rocking chair–people go from this world to somewhere only they can see, prior to dying.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do when she talks like that?” her daughter asked, flustered.
“Ask her how she feels, ask her if it is good to see that person she’s seeing or talking to, then just listen.” I paused for several moments. “Most of all, let her know you believe her.”
“But, the morphine!” her daughter objected.
“Have you tried to withhold it?” I asked.
“Yes, of course.” She flushed, and looked away from me.
“And what happens when you withhold it?”
“She has a hard time breathing,” her daughter answered, then heaved a loud sigh. “She has a hard time breathing, and she keeps seeing and talking to those–those–people.” She rubbed her hands across her face and cried. I waited til she wiped away her tears.
“Letting her know you believe her won’t make her worse,” I said. “It will be the best gift in the whole world that you can give her, just to let her know you believe her. And giving her the morphine will help ease her breathing.” I tried to be reassuring and comforting, while knowing that nothing that I could say would take away this pain of anticipatory grief and fear that Helen’s daughter was feeling. “If you will just listen, she will tell you what she wants you to know,” I said.
She sat silently for ten minutes, as the grandfather clock in the corner of the room tick-tocked the seconds away. At last, a gong sounded out the hour, and Helen’s daughter startled. Her shoulders were slumped. I stooped and gave her a hug, and she hugged me back.
“How long–I mean, how long do you think it’ll be till–” she started crying again.
“Your mom says by Friday,” I said, making my voice as soft and gentle as I could.
Helen’s daughter began sobbing softly, again, and I waited until she stopped. “Call me if you need me, even if you need to talk,” I said. “Can you promise me that?”
She shook her head in affirmation, and walked me to the door. “See you Thursday, then?” she asked.
“See you Thursday.” I hugged her again.
On Thursday morning at seven o’clock, I called in for my usual report, left by the night call nurses. Helen had died at five o’clock that morning, her daughter by her side.
I waited until eight o’clock and called Helen’s number. Her daughter answered, and I could hear the fatigue and relief and anguish in her voice, all at once. “What can I do?” I asked, simply, knowing there was nothing, really, that could be done, except perhaps to listen.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Helen’s daughter spoke. “I got to talk to her, and I told her I believed her–she seemed so happy when I told her that!” I could hear her soft, muffled cry across the telephone line. “It was only about an hour later that she went away, but I had the chance to tell her, I got to let her know.” She was silent for a moment. “She finally crossed that bridge, I guess, and now she’s somewhere else.”
©Janet Mitchell, May 2012. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.