I was a newly trained hospice volunteer, and E. was to be my first patient. I had to work up the nerve to cross the threshold.
After gently clearing my throat and shuffling my feet in an attempt to wake her, I bent low to look at her face. Suddenly, her eyes opened wide.
She was as startled as me and said, in a forced whisper, “Who are you?”
“I’ve come to visit for a while,” I replied.
“Why, are you being punished?” she deadpanned.
I laughed a little, mostly with relief. I introduced myself to the dying woman who was a few decades my senior and then nervously began a monologue, telling her all about me. She listened attentively for a while but soon closed her eyes. On a tray table was a wedding photo. I peered at the circa 1940s picture and was taken aback. “Wow!” I said out loud. In her youth, E. had been stunningly beautiful. Bright eyes, fresh face. I looked up and saw her once clear but now milky eyes examining my face, watching my reaction to the photo.
She was bedridden, her bones fragile. During our next visit, I asked the nurse if E. could go outside in a wheelchair. The nurse said it was up to E. We rolled out into the sunlight and fresh air, and that’s when everything began to move faster for us, literally and figuratively.
I maneuvered her down the cracked and bumpy sidewalk into a nearby neighborhood. She lifted her face to the sun and opened her mouth to its warmth. She stayed that way until I parked the chair under a shade tree. I sat down with the trunk as my backrest.
For the longest time, she simply stared at me. Until she slowly stretched out her arms and beckoned me to her. I jumped up, although she didn’t seem in distress. I leaned toward her and she gently cupped my face with her hands. I could feel the pressure of each finger on my face. Suddenly, with purpose, she pulled me close and kissed me. On the lips, with a dry pucker.
I was not made uncomfortable by the gesture. Quite the opposite. I sensed in her a genuine joy and appreciation. So she kissed me. Perhaps the most meaningful kiss of my life.
Those meetings under the tree became our routine, where we shared stories of our lives. We quickly bonded through unabashed, intimate conversations. I told her things about myself that I had never, nor would ever share with anyone else. We simply started talking to each other that way. Instant trust, instant karma. Instant honesty.
E. told me she wasn’t so much afraid of dying as she was of going to hell. She had married young, to a very ambitious man, and as the years progressed, his business flourished, but their marriage did not. He increasingly spent more and more time at the office, with colleagues and away from her. Estrangement set in.
She found a job as a secretary and over time fell prey to the attentions and intentions of her boss — afternoon “lunches” at a motel.
One day, on the ride back to the office, her boss spotted his wife in town, waiting to cross a street. With a violent shove, he sent E. into the passenger side footwell, hissing at her to stay down until he was sure he had avoided detection.
It was a humiliating and illuminating moment for E. She ended the affair. But the deed had been done. She was officially an adulterer. Worse, a mortal sinner. And now, as her life was about to end, she could not shake the guilt and dread that God was about to deliver her to the eternal fires of damnation.
She wept as I knelt beside her chair and held her.
I know something about the Catholic church, having been an altar boy. I reminded her about the convenience of confession. “From what I just saw, I’ll assume you are truly remorseful.” “Yes of course,” she said. “And you have formally confessed this, yes?” “Once a month for the past 66 years,” she said. “Well, then, I think God has gotten the message … you’re off the hook!” “Do you think so?” she asked earnestly. “I know so,” I told her.
As our visits continued, I also shared stories I was not proud of, of my regrets, sins, character flaws, abuse of drugs and alcohol, tales of ruined relationships and marriages and career paths gone awry. How I blamed others and circumstances as if the bad things that happened in my life were not of the choices I made. She was at times scandalized by what she heard, but never judgmental. The process was cathartic, cleansing, transformative.
I felt a lightness of being I had never experienced before.
Within a year, she began to rapidly decline. During the day, I’d find her in a deep sleep. The nurses said she’d lay awake most nights and was eating very little. I started setting my alarm for 1:30 a.m. to make the 40-minute drive to her facility in the San Fernando Valley. I’d sit on a folding chair and move in close, so our whispered conversations would not wake others.
She was comforted and calmed by my presence. She was grateful that I had re-arranged my visiting times. (I know because she told me so.) And she also told me that she loved me. Too weak now to even raise her hands to my face, I fulfilled the need for that contact by tenderly kissing her cheek and forehead often. I needed it too. Time was slipping away.
I soon realized her truth, raw honesty and tenderness had created in me a level of introspection and self-examination that had previously been inaccessible. Was this a cause and effect of true love? And I did grow to love her — for her courage, candor and kindness. She was well aware her days were numbered. But for all of her failing health issues, she never expressed bitterness. It was another lesson learned for me.
For the first time in almost two years after I started visiting with E., I was going to be away from her, to make good on a long-planned vacation in the Yucatán. I told her that I’d be gone only a week and during that time there would be a full moon. I suggested that since she was awake at night she should look up for the full moon, and I promised I would too, and maybe we’d do it at the same time. Corny, maybe, but she didn’t think so.
One night during the middle of my trip, I couldn’t sleep and walked outside to where a hammock was strung between two palm trees. I laid back and looked up at a crystal clear moon and said out loud, “See? I told you.”
Upon returning home, it took me a few days to get back into the groove of work and life. But before I could make my next visit, I got a call from the hospice volunteer coordinator. E. had died while I was away. Peacefully, in her sleep, at age 87.
I often think of E., of how a dying old woman helped me to access and express my true, honest feelings about life and love. Not only did I get to learn from my mistakes, but from hers, too. I was able to affect the quality of her life for a time, but not the direction. She did both for me.
In real ways, we set each other free.
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