My sabbatical is winding down with classes beginning Tuesday. That’s okay. I’ve gotten lots of work done, which I’ll write about later. I’m might keep this thing going for a while even while not on sabbatical. I’d like to keep it up to keep track of the days passing so fast. This is Norah’s senior year. How can that be? She moved here in the sixth grade. I’ll write more about that later too. But for now, this is an essay I wrote last year about “Service Learning” and the day I had to let it go and become “Vicki from the Sheriff’s Department.”
It’s the first Sunday that feels like fall in Alabama, and I wake knowing I need to go see Pearl today. I’ve only had one experience with hospice before, but it’s been so long I have to make myself remember. Then I do. My grandmother, Mary Patricia Morris Madden, passed away in Bethesda, Maryland in her daughter’s home on the farm under the care of hospice in 1999. We were all with her. It was a week-long procession of cakes, casseroles, and rosaries carried to the farmhouse on River Road to a room bathed in sunlight that faced a rambling barn and fields of green. I wrote a story about it in 2000 for Salon because I was writing a shadow soap opera during the week of her death. Worlds collided when I would feed my grandmother Cream of Wheat and then go upstairs and write inane lines like, “My goodness that bathrobe looks familiar.”
GrandMary, my grandmother, was born March 16, 1913 and died October 1, 1999. She was born so close to Saint Patrick’s Day she claimed it. The essay was called “Death and the Days of Our Lives” and it was about getting to be with my grandmother during her last week of life when my daughter, Norah, was a baby. It was about arriving on a hot September afternoon alone and leaving on a cold October morning with my entire family.
This is the beginning of that essay:
“Monsignor said we can use ‘Danny Boy’ but not ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ at the funeral Mass,” explains Aunt Sally.
We are at the wake for my grandmother, whom we called “GrandMary.”
“Why not ‘Irish Eyes’?” I ask.
“It isn’t Catholic enough for church. The Irish tenor is afraid to sing it without Monsignor’s permission.” Aunt Sally sighed.
There was an audible groan from those standing closest. It was one of the GrandMary’s few wishes; a woman who rarely asked for anything for herself. It seemed such a small thing too.
But I knew no one was going to call Monsignor on it because she would have hated that more. “We’ve got ‘Danny Boy,’ I could practically hear her say. “Now leave it alone before Monsignor axes that one too. God love him.”
“We should have just asked for forgiveness,” says my mother. “Not permission.”
“That’s right,” Aunt Sally says with sigh. “What are they going to tell us? That she can’t have a funeral Mass at St. Ann’s ever again?”
But I don’t think about any of this as I go to visit Pearl somewhere between Hoover and Bessemer, Alabama. I bring Pearl a tiny old-fashioned bottle stuffed with mostly baby’s breath – dyed different colors – raspberry, orange, white, and purple flowers. This is my first experience with “service learning” where we go out into the community to connect with people in Birmingham whose stories don’t often get told; whose voices and stories are cut off from the everyday freedoms of being healthy and doing something as simple as taking a walk or remembering a face.
I teach creative writing, and my beginning nonfiction workshop visits adult day care at McCoy in East Birmingham in groups. The advanced workshop does hospice with each student having his or her own patient. It feels weird asking my students to do these things – to visit the old, the sick, the dying – without doing it myself too. (Although, I have plenty of excuses as to why I shouldn’t have to do it, but I also want to do it – I mean part of me does – the other part would like to go to the movies.)
The GPS leads me to a shuttered gate somewhere on the border of Bessemer. I know city of Bessemer only from a dreary DMV office that doesn’t process driver’s licenses after 1:00 pm and from Gip’s Place, an old-time juke joint open only on Saturday nights that plays the blues with hot and sweaty drinking, dancing, and singing until the wee hours. A Saturday night at Gip’s commences with a group prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance led by Gip himself. Gip can’t remember how old he is, but he knows the blues and musicians from all over the Delta come to Gip’s. But if you a show up on any other night but Saturday, it’s said you’ll be met with gun and a “Who the hell are you?” Ten dollars will get you inside and a string of Mardi Gras beads is proof of payment. BYOB.
(This week at the Sidewalk Film Festival is the premiere of Gip’s movie, and I know the filmmakers, Melanie and Jeff Jeffcoat and how hard they’ve worked to make it happen, and Gip is going to see it, which is thrilling.)
Pearl’s home in Bessemer is another kind of joint all altogether. The gate appears locked, but I get out and fiddle with the chains to discover it’s not really locked. I unthread them and open the gate and then wind up to the top of the hill where I come to a sprawling facility in the middle of well-manicured lawns. I don’t know Pearl’s room number or even which building, so I call Julie, our hospice guide, and she directs me to the correct building.
There is a secretary at the front office. She is not chatty nor interested that I’ve come to see Pearl, so I over-compensate by saying “Yes ma’am” too much. She directs me to sign in and mark the time and tells me the room number, 47.
When I ask her what time it is, she replies in the voice of someone who gets asked that question way too often: “There is a clock right there on the wall beside you. But you’ll know that next time you visit here.”
I mark the time as 4:07 and thank her. I want to ask her which way to go, but I’ve annoyed her enough already. I’ll figure it out. I wonder if there is a football game on, since the place is so quiet. It’s Sunday – maybe a pro game? Saturdays in public in Alabama – stores, roads, parks – are so quiet during football season since everyone else is tethered close to the score, which makes it a wonderful time to be out and about with the roads empty. Is Pearl an Alabama or Auburn fan? You have to be one or the other living here.
I make my way to Room 47, but the nurses say I must have the wrong Pearl. Then they correct themselves and say I have the right Pearl. There are two Pearls here, apparently, with the same last name. Is that possible? I follow the nurse to Room 47. Pearl is in there in her bed, attached to oxygen and television. She looks at me and says, “Where you’ve been? My feet are throbbing. I just need to leave them alone. My legs are short. See.”
She doesn’t want me to turn the television down, and then we are talking about how much we love coffee. She’d like to make me a cup of coffee. I say lame things about coffee being so good. She’s excited to see me as if she knows me.
“How are you, Vicki?”
The television and oxygen machine are on loud. I ask her about her favorite kind of coffee but she doesn’t answer.
She talks about people I don’t know as if I do know them, but then she says, “You look good. You’ve have had a real hard time of it, haven’t you? And you look good.”
(For a minute, I wonder if she’s some kind of seer. How does she know about my hard-living son and the demons that wake me up like clockwork in the middle night as I wonder where he is sleeping? But she can’t possibly know. She just thinks I’m someone else who’s had a rough time of it.)
She talks about how she fell down hard. “One time I fell and broke both vertebrae in my neck and I broke my arm. Got up in the morning and made a pot of coffee. I dropped my coffee and it went everywhere. I had to leave it alone.”
I make sympathetic responses, and then I ask if she has kids.
“Two,” but she doesn’t elaborate.
The television is so loud I turn it down. She looks at me as if trying to place me, and then she wants to get up, so we can go get coffee. She throws the sheets off determined to get up. And I want to take her out for coffee. Wouldn’t that be something? Spring her from her bed and into the October sunshine? But she’s not well enough to go anywhere. I go to get the nurse anyway, to be safe, since she’s trying her best to get up. The nursing station is empty – only cookies and some of kind of orange punch. I come back in the room with juice and see the call button. I turn it on and hope the nurses arrive soon.
Pearl inches down the bed, explaining, “I can do a lot for myself and they won’t let me.” She tries to get up but her body won’t cooperate.
“Your color is really good,” I tell her and it is. Her eyes are bright and curious, her skin flushed pink.
“Yes,” she nods and we confuse each other a while making conversation, and then she wants to the television changed to channel six. She keeps talking about Vicki and I say, “Is Vicki your daughter?”
She says, “Wild too.”
Two nurses come in and say to both of us, “What are you doing, lady? She can’t get out of bed. You can’t get out of bed, Miss Pearl, honey. She will try to get out, but she can’t get out. You’re to stay in the bed.” Their voices are kind and full of good humor.
I thank them for getting her back in bed and comfortable again.
“I’ve a lot people come by to see me,” Pearl says after the nurses leave.
“I’m sure you do. Where did you work?” I ask. “Go to school?”
But she wants to talk about Medicare and insurance and how it’s good enough for her and she’ll leave it alone on the advice of her old boss. I’m not sure what she’s talking about, so I ask her again about work, school, and where she grew up, trying to tease out a memory.
But these questions are of no interest. So we talk about other things, and I pretend to understand her stories about supervisors, wild children she knows who needs a talking-to (not that it did any good). She said she was recently hired for a job, and they’re glad to have her working for them because she’s a good worker and they can depend on her. I cover her up but she wants her hands uncovered so I bring them out. They are curled up tight. She wants to get her legs more comfortable and says, “I can do it myself. I don’t need a pain pill.”
I find some pictures on her bedside and show them to her.
“I can’t see them.”
I put them closer to her face.
“That’s a good picture.”
“Isn’t that sweet? They’re pretty. Are they your girls?”
“Can I have those pictures? Put them in an envelope so they don’t get all bent up. They are pretty. Did the coffee taste good?”
I tell her yes, the coffee was delicious.
She looks at me again. “Do you still work down at the sheriff’s office, Vicki?”
“I work in the English Department now at UAB. I teach creative writing. I’m just here to visit.”
This is way too much information.
Just be Vicki, I think, feeling dumb and self-conscious.
She looks baffled. “Fix that blind.”
I fix it. “Is that better?”
“I fell and hurt my elbows. The doctor operated, and we rode and rode to another hospital. I had to go back two or three times. Some days it just ‘frust-er-ated me.’ Because I had to wait and wait.”
She says she went out today for tests and had to wait and wait some more. Somebody wanted to give her pain shot, and she said to the woman, “What’s it gonna do? Drive me nuts? And the woman said, ‘It’ll help.’”
Pearl talks some more about a woman who gave her a shot who actually needs to retire. “We’re going to make her retire, and her sister will stay with her. She’ll like that.”
I ask if she has a sister.
“How is the sheriff’s department?” she wants to know.
“I work at UAB. In an office.” I am floundering.
She’s not having it.
“Are you still at the Sheriff’s Department, Vicki?”
I nod. “Yes, I am still in the sheriff’s office. Did you used to work there too? I’m trying to remember if we worked together?”
Then I because I don’t know what else to say, I go to my default mode and say, “My father was a football coach.”
“Mine too! A lot of times when I think I’m having heart attack I just breathe and stay still. Then I can go to the doctor and they can figure it out.”
I ask if her daughters visit her, and I try to describe my kids, which is too much information.
“Do you like the flowers?” I put them in front of her face so she can see them.
“They’re pretty. Thank you, Vicki.”
We talk about how it’s important to leave flowers alone so they won’t droop. She discusses a rather contrary worker, whom she didn’t like at all at first, but who grew on her, but that worker “never could leave the flowers alone and made them droop, fooling with them too much.”
Then she says, “You had a baby, Vicki. You have two children now.”
“Actually, I have three.” I hold up three fingers. “Two girls and a boy.”
“Well, y’all didn’t waste anytime.”
I nod, but I don’t say they are 26, 24, and 16.
Pearl doesn’t like the orange punch at the place, but tolerates it. She looks sleepy. I ask her about her grandchildren, and then a lady from across the hall howls, “Momma! Momma!”
It’s haunting. Pearl doesn’t notice. “Momma! Momma! Momma! Momma!”
It reminds me of how my grandfather used to call out for his brother, Clare, late at night after he’d developed Alzheimer’s. “Clare! Clare! Clare!”
Who will I be shrieking for? Will my son be okay by then?
Pearl blinks back tears and talks about her eyes and how they give her trouble and she’s had operations. I wonder how much she can see. She wants to know again if I still work at the Sheriff’s Department, and I say, “Yes,” and ask her again if she’s ever worked there. She doesn’t say. We sit in a silence for a bit. I tell her it’s almost Halloween.
“It’s good to see you, Vicki,” her eyes begin to close.
“Do want to sleep? Are you sleepy, Pearl?” I want to call her by her surname, but I can’t remember it at that moment.
“Yes. I’m sorry. You going to go back to work at the Sheriff’s?”
I tell her yes and that I’ll visit her another time.
She smiles at me and says, “I love you.”
I say, “I love you too.”
“Promise you’ll come back?”
“I promise.” I wave and walk out into the hallway and take a deep breath. Old folks are gathered in chairs out in the lobby. If I were kinder, I would sit and talk to them for a minute. Two women smile in my direction, and I know they would probably like to talk. Maybe next time. I walk outside into the warmth of October glad to have met Pearl and glad to go home to my daughter and dog. I think about my son and wonder where he is, and I think about Pearl and wonder how she got the name Pearl. Who named her Pearl? Then I drive away and pass by a Target in the neighborhood. I go inside and buy a hundred dollars worth of clothes I don’t need.
* * *
A week later I visit Pearl, thinking morning might be better. Pearl is much more alert but I can tell right away that I make her uneasy the second I walk into the room.
When I say, “Good morning,” she gives me a concerned look.
“I don’t know you.”
“I’m Kerry. I’m from UAB. I visited you last week.”
“I don’t know you. I can’t help you.”
I say, “I’ve just come to see how you are. Visit with you.”
Should I say, “I’m Vicki from the Sheriff’s Department? Remember me?”
But I don’t. She looks too irritated.
“I can’t help you. Go see the nurse. She’ll help you.”
Today, Pearl reminds me a little of my grandmother who didn’t like visitors either. She was afraid they’d come and stay and not know when to leave and break the springs on her couch.
“How are you feeling today?”
“I don’t know you!”
“I brought a picture book to show you.”
“I can’t see.”
“It’s big.” I show Pearl Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. I know she can’t see well, but the colors are lovely She’s mildly interested as I turn the pages, but I can tell she’d like to get back to her show. I’m bothering her and this makes me tense.
“What’s your favorite food?”
I’m an idiot, but she says, “Sushi.”
“Sushi – when did you eat Sushi?”
“When were you in Japan?”
“When my husband was in the service.”
We talk about food for a minute. I asked about Japan, but this is a no-go. Still, I’m so glad she visited Japan.
“Go ask the nurse to help you,” Pearl says. “I can’t help you.”
I decide to leave. She doesn’t mention or call me “Vicki” or ask me about the sheriff’s department. I touch her arm to say good-bye, and she says, “Don’t touch me. I hate to be touched.”
I tell her I’m sorry and head out into the bright sun and call the director, Julie. I tell her it didn’t go well. She assures me in a kind voice and says, “Well, give it another try next week. Some days are just like that.”
I thank her, but I still feel like a failure, which is silly. I am making it about me, and so I decide I will visit her again, but part of me dreads it. My students have patients, and I know it’s challenging for them too. A few have decided to shadow Julie at a program called JOURNEYS in a nursing home instead of visiting private homes. This will work – I only want them to get out of their comfort zone and try their hand at literary journalism and maybe connect with someone.
A woman in wheel chair sitting outside asks me for a Kleenex, and I get her one. We wish each other a good day, and I drive away.
* * *
I never do get back to see Pearl. Days and weeks go by and I mean to go, but I don’t. I get wrapped up in visiting McCoy Adult Day Care with my other students, and then Julie tells me at a Gentiva Workshop called “Journeys” that Pearl “passed.”
Only I hear that Julie says, “She got mad.”
“She got mad?”
“No, she got bad. Then she was gone. It was fast. Faster than expected. This is what happens.” Julie tears up and I feel like crying too.
I wished I’d gone back Bessemer to visit Pearl. I wished I’d understood that being Vicki from the Sheriff’s Department and Pearl wanting to go out for coffee was one of her good days.
I think about good days sometimes, and I hope Pearl had her share of them having coffee with her friends or her daughters. I hope that on one good day in the future that I will be able to go out for coffee again with my son, and it will be an ordinary, no-big-deal kind of outing. Maybe he’ll be running late or I will be, but we’ll both make it and find a table and order strong coffee with a little milk, and we’ll feel the warmth of the mugs in our hands. We’ll catch up on nothing and everything the way people do – and it will be a good day for both of us.
In the end the majority of my students connected with people and wrote amazing stories about their experiences. Some were melancholy tales and others kind of hilarious. One girl wrote that during a group discussion of childhood memories, a lady shouted in a grovely voice, “When I was a little girl I saw the devil come up out of the well.”
Julie, who was leading the group discussion, quickly moved onto the next person with a cheerful, “Next.”
So I’ll close now with Joan Didion quote:
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.
And before I forget here is the trailer of GIP, the movie, premiering at Sidewalk in Birmingham this weekend.
This picture makes me thing of memories all crowded up together – it’s sulphur springs up near Highway 7 in Blount County in Hayden, Alabama. My friend, Doug Baulos, took me there for research on Vulcan. He’s an incredible artist who teaches here at UAB.