Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Loving people before they die

I want to keep this short. Tom is baking zucchini bread for the church potluck Thanksgiving tomorrow, and I want to sit in the kitchen and knit and listen to NPR with him.

Sunday, a lay leader at our church - Unitarian - came up to me during coffee hour to tell me a certain woman was in intensive care, and had been asking for me. I'll call her oh, Mary. A common name in the generation above me. Mary is a sturdy 83 years old and has been causing me trouble intermittently during about thirty of those years. I'll spare you (and myself) the details, but on one occasion her gossip caused me what I saw then as grievous harm. Over the years, however, I came to think she was a ship without a pilot, and we no longer felt like enemies.

Dependency syndrome" hardly begins to describe her affliction. It was dangerous to let her into your life the least little bit. She would then call you time after time. Invite you repeatedly to lunch. Get you to come over for dinner and then try to give you anything she owned, everything in her freezer, all the food in the house, cast-off clothes. A compulsive shopper, she had a huge ever-growing wardrobe. I talked once to a woman who was in a church discussion group with Mary, who told me Mary had inveigled the entire group into helping her move, and it was an endless nightmare.

For years Mary came running in late to church on Sunday morning, because she had been changing clothes, she told me once. She always ran all the way down the center aisle to the very first row, where she could hear. She came running in late to my meditation groups, too, where she insisted on making people move so she could sit right next to me and cup her hand over her ears. During discussion she wanted compulsively to hear every word, every word, so she would cry out, "What? What did he say?"

She was a hypochondriac and a lapel hanger-on, a person whose loneliness was so excessive that she interrogated you with staccato questions, one after the other, interrupting your answers, to keep the conversation going, so you couldn't get away. So of course, everyone learned to avoid her, to avoid eye contact with her. Including me. That made it sad to think I was someone she asked about when she ended up in the ICU, kidneys failing, heart having stopped and started again, everything failing. Why me? It took me a while to remember.

She had called me last summer, worried about her kidneys. She had many anxious questions. And I decided to sit down and stop tapping my toe and give her whatever time she needed. We talked for quite a while. I assured her that I felt her kidney doctor was doing the right things. Toward the end I remember calling her, "Hon." That was unlike me, but she so clearly needed some affection. Her life strategy had been such that it denied her what she wanted most. After that phone call, I hoped being nice to her wouldn't lead to problems, and indeed, she called not long after to invite us to a potluck at her retirement community. We turned her down politely. That was the end of it.

Now she was asking about me. So I did what anyone who read this far would do, I suppose, stopped by the hospital Sunday afternoon, setting aside my rigid policy of avoiding places that might give me antibiotic-resistant TB (for new readers, I have very low immune function).

Intensive Care is always sobering, even if you're used to medical stuff. It takes all the Zen you can conjure up to accept death in such a cold, impersonal place.

She was sleeping when I got there, propped up in bed with an IV in her jugular vein, and neither her glasses nor her hearing aids. She did most of the talking in a low, hoarse voice I could hardly hear. She told us her daughter had gone back to Chicago. She told us nobody had been to visit her but Eric, the minister. She said she just isn't hungry, she said they told her she doesn't qualify for the kidney transplant list, all she likes is Sierra Club to drink. Sierra Mist, she meant And pudding. She likes that. She was bored but hadn't turned on the TV. She couldn't see it anyway. She said she did things wrong, she should have managed her diabetes better. Blame, I thought. Is that how she's coping with this? I hovered close over the bed and shouted that everybody cheats on the diet a little, and I thought she did pretty good, that making it to 83 was a long life. "Really?" she asked, with a kind of childlike gratitude.

I don't really expect to go back - we used up every bit of conversation we had. I suppose her daughter will be back in town over Thanksgiving, and maybe stay. I keep thinking about how when someone is dying, all your dramas with them, all your little preferences, fall away, and you see the simple, resounding truth of life and death, the same for all of us.

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