Her 42 year old head rested wearily on the kitchen table among a Hello Kitty notebook, pink and purple hair bows and head bands, McDonald kids meal toys, a comb, brush, unopened bills, dirty dishes, and assorted magazines. Mornings came early as she made her daughter ready for school. Her little curly headed girl, Rose, munched on Frosted Flakes as she circled the cereal bowl with her Breyer horse. “Mom, do I get 50 cents for icecream at lunch today? Mom. Mooommm.” Rose reached over and tugged her mother’s arm which fell limply from the table. “Mom! What is wrong with you?” she yelled. Toby slowly sauntered into the kitchen rubbing his temples, “Rose, don’t scream. I have a headache. Nadine, have you seen the key to the Jeep? Nadine, come on. Wake up.” He began to massaging Nadine’s back and quickly realized she was unresponsive, in fact, lifeless. He grabbed her shoulders, and she nearly plunged unconscious to the floor. “Rose, dial 911 NOW!”
I arrived at the hospital that evening. I was more than familiar with this sterile unhappy place. Its wall held nothing but countless sorrows and pain for me and many others in my family. Nadine’s oldest daughter had died here a few years before. How could a mosquito bite lead to meningeal encephalitis and the quick expiration of a gorgeous, firey, otherwise healthy 12 year old girl named Leigh? A dear red headed aunt of mine perished from cancer in this hospital. Just a few weeks before Nadine‘s collapse, I sat on nervously with a perfectly normal Nadine, Toby and sundry other relatives as her mother, my Aunt Willa, underwent brain surgery. The family divided the waiting room with tension and harsh judgment of one another, and in retrospect I wished I’d have spent more time with Nadine that day. I had no way of knowing this would be my last opportunity to chat side by side with my cousin. I’ve always loved the way her southern words slid from her lips and ended in surprising careful annunciation. I can hear the unusual dry lilt in her voice as I think of it just now. Her speech came out like a lovely dance with a sudden halt now and then to punctuate the movements. Her talk was steady and never contained much urgency even in tragedy. She’s a woman who kept unwelcome company with tragedy. Her father, a Pearl Harbor vet named Frank, drew his last breath a few short years before her oldest child passed away. Frank loved to tell knee slappin’ stories. His odd looks added humor to every tale; his ears stuck out further from his head than anyone else’s I’ve ever seen. Nadine inherited her sparkly eyes from this man. Nadine’s brother , my cousin Luke, died young mixing meds and alcohol perhaps. He was buried proudly in his blue jean overalls.
Nadine’s hair has always been a full mane of red curls, and her crystal green eyes could pierce a soul- she had the air of an Irish mountain woman Her mouth is perfectly shaped like one I’d practiced drawing in high school art class. She kept her nails perfectly though you could not say the same of her dwelling space. I remember being enchanted with her otherworldly beauty when I was a child. My favorite memory, perhaps not even real, is tightly gripping her body around her thin waist as we cantered on a bareback horse through the woods around her house, her curls lightly brushing my face in the gentle wind. She smelled of moss and ferns in a fresh forest.
Since that day at the kitchen table nearly a year ago, Nadine has not recovered. In fact, she remains in a constant and unexplained vegetative state in the same nursing home as Aunt Willa. Nadine can respond by blinking her eyes. Once for “Yes”, twice for “No”, but I don’t get the impression anyone visits much for her to respond to. The nursing home staff I spoke with say they rarely see anyone visit, me included. I am almost certain Rose and Toby go once a week or so, but I think of the endless hours in between Sundays which Nadine spends entirely alone unable to use her body or voice. What could a woman a few years older than myself do to fill unfathomable periods of time staring at the mobile Rose hung above her bed. Over the course of this year of imposed solitude for Nadine, I’ve been to China, read twenty books, grown a garden, made it through another year of swim team, blogged, painted my daughter’s room, taught my children, cooked a zillion suppers, laughed till my sides hurt, eaten till I wanted to throw up, cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. All the while Nadine breathes the same stale air and listens to the constant moans of an elderly and confused roommate day upon day, night upon night.
I am comforted that Nadine’s rest home room contains a recent photo of Nadine and Rose sitting together in a pose from Wal-mart. Another framed picture features some young girl riding a horse; I cannot tell if it’s Rose, Leigh, or Nadine. At least the staff can see Nadine was once, and not so very long ago, a person like themselves if they‘d simply take a moment to truly look into the photos and think such thoughts.
I’m irritated that the staff address her by her first name- a name I’d never heard before but must exist only on Nadine’s birth certificate. Our family must have tossed her first name out in favor of her middle name before I was born, but the nurse looks at me like I’m ridiculous when I correct him. “Don’t call her Millicent. Obviously, she hates that name. It’s Nadine.” I suddenly want to sob that Nadine can’t rise up and say so for herself. “Are you her sister? You look just like her.” the respiratory therapist asks. “Cousin, but thank you for the compliment. What awful thing have you done to her hair?” It’s shaved in odd spots, long in others, and I’m unpleasantly jarred by a memory of her in ICU the day this crazy thing plunged her into stillness. I cringed thinking of the horrid blood draining shunts spouting from the top of her head like the funnel on the tin man from Oz.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a situation of visiting a person I love in a persistent vegetative state before. Therefore, I haven’t had practice, and no one has brought forth a manual I could read up on etiquette at such times. At the least, it’s awkward. At the most, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before. Nadine’s sharp eyes followed me as I approached her beside. It seemed she dared not blink. I asked if she knew me and she blinked, “Yes”. I think. I spoke to Nadine about her mother down the hall who couldn’t visit for several weeks because of a bout with pneumonia. I hoped someone had explained why she hadn’t been coming to visit. I talked about the pictures and cards around the room from Toby and Rose. I held her hand for a few minutes. I found myself wishing I was an expert at Yes and No conversation, but I simply couldn’t think of anyway to keep that going for more than one second. I told myself to sit still and not talk for fifteen minutes, “Just BE with her.” Time crawled, but I held fast . What drop of water is 15 minutes in a sea of immobility and continual loneliness? She didn’t look away from me, but in my discomfort with staring I glanced around at objects around the room every now and then. After 15 minutes, I told her I was going to find something to put on her lips. Her mouth appeared horribly cracked and dry. A nurse gave me a pack of Vaseline, and I squeezed it carefully across her lips. “Next time I come, I will bring a book and read to you. Some story I think you and I both would like. Would that be okay?” She blinked, “Yes”. I think. I sat a while longer and told her I was going to visit with her mom a while. I kissed her forehead and I back one step away from the bed. “I’ve always loved you. I hope you know that. When we were little girls, I wanted to be like you. I’ll visit again. You are precious to me.” Only I don’t think the words actually came from me that clearly. I fumbled and stumbled in my delivery. I turned to leave, and then I looked back curious to see if I still held her gaze. A single tear streamed down Nadine’s cheek, and she looked directly at me. I held my hand up in a wave and exited. Empty. I felt utterly washed out and full of guilt leaving my cousin like that. I stood for a few minutes in the hallway holding back tears and composing myself to brief walk to Aunt Willa’s room. I whispered some prayers of healing for Nadine and thankfulness for my own richly blessed life, and asked God to help me use my remaining time on earth well.
Deliver me. Place my feet on a solid rock so I might stand up straight and tall again.
Deliver me. All this sadness overwhelms but will not overcome me.
Rescue me. I am crushed but not entirely broken.
Rescue me. Grab my hand, lift me, and I will follow.
Trade in these ashes, and in exchange, give me beauty.
For my mourning, joy.
I will fly.
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