Tuesday, April 30, 2013

new jersey

. . . a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

-- Macbeth V. v.

When I came to see her again she was sitting as before in the armchair by her window, looking across the river at New Jersey's bluffs.

She was glad to see me, but she was discouraged.  She didn't see the point of going on.  "What kind of a life is this?"

The are others worse off, I could have said.  She was sitting upright.  She was alert and sharp.  Not in pain at the moment.  No tubes running out of her body.  But if she had been worse off she wouldn't have known her grief, couldn't have described the difference between the live body and the wasting soul, couldn't have brought her crisis into focus.  This is where she was.  You meet them where they are.

"I never wanted to be a burden to others."  Proud and autonomous she was.  The time still to be lived seemed a mockery of everything precious.

We looked across the river together.

I named it.  "You're grieving," I said, "for who you were."

We think grief is for those left behind, but the ones who are leaving grieve as well.  They anticipate the end of loves, the disappearance of possibilities, the finish of tunes whose cadences they will not hear.  The mask won't stick to the face, the body won't perform the old theatrical tricks, and they don't know who they are.  They can't take care of things, and they watch themselves become a thing to be taken care of.  We can assure them it's not like that, but that's how they see it.

The social worker came in to say it was all arranged, the patient was leaving the hospital.  She would go this evening to one of our residences.  "We call it the penthouse.  You can order a filet mignon if you want."  (Clinical irony there, which we usually keep to ourselves, but this client was one of those who crave it.)  She was quite literally going to a better place, with nurses round the clock but with amenities and decor more human than those of the hospital.  And better food.

"Any day you leave a hospital," I said, "is a beautiful day."

"I don't want my money spent," she said, "just to keep me alive."

It was a beautiful day on the bluffs of New Jersey, across the Hudson River.

Here's the hard thing, the thing you have to keep learning.  You can't bring the good news with you.  Not in a book, or in a prayer, or in an exhortation to faith.  You can't bring the good news unless it has already arrived.  You can only, with grace and skill and good fortune, sometimes reveal it.

You want to make things better.  Of course you do.  Anybody would.  Friends and relatives often try.  You say, cheer up, it's not so bad.  You say, have faith.  You say, God doesn't send you more than you can bear.  You can't stand to see them suffer, so you argue.  That's your role, you think -- to vanquish their suffering.  If they don't cheer up, you feel offended and futile.  And your militant cheer defends you from infection.

And this is the simple thing we keep learning, over and over again.  If you're gong to help, you have to enter their world and walk the road with them.  That's where the good news is to be found, somewhere on their path of fear and grief and regret.

"That money was for my niece.  I love that girl more than . . . "

She couldn't finish the sentence, so I ventured.  "Perhaps she already has a gift from you.  Perhaps she wants to give you something in return."

As clouds shifted shape over New Jersey, I thought, I've put my foot in it now.  How could I so lose my nerve? Why commit myself, so soon? Why was I arguing with her?

She didn't know how to own the life that remained to her.  And I couldn't tell her.

That's the rule.  That's what we're supposed to know, and must learn again every day.  It's not a sermon.  It's a revelation, a discovery, an apocalypse.  She says the life ahead of her has no meaning, that it signifies nothing.  But it's not as if there is a something, a significance that should be brought to her.  She doesn't need something; what she needs is negation of the nothing.  If she knew what there was to do, what the next step might be . . . 

"You haven't given up yet.  You love that young woman.  You want to make her life better."

She thought about this.

"We call it generativity -- that as a person nears the end of life, they take care of the youth.  You care about the world that you're leaving.  You're pouring your love into the future."

From a picture window on the ninth floor of a Manhattan hospital, you can see the sun set over New Jersey.

"You've helped me," she said.

I was stunned.

"I feel better than I did when you came.  You didn't argue with me.  You let me live in my sadness.  You didn't try to talk me out of it.  And I feel better."

Can I believe this? it's too good, I thought.  I've talked too much, and been too smart, and now she's seen my vanity, praising me in the tropes of our textbooks, seducing me; -- or else she's saying the things that will get me out of the room.

"We both have places to go," I said.  "You have a new place to live, and I have to go home."

"Be sure you wash your hands on the way out.  Mustn't take any unexpected gifts home from the hospital."

I turned to her.  "You're taking care of me.  You haven't given up."

Sitting up in her chair, she was grinning at me.  I never saw her in a bed.  The record says that an hour after I left, they moved her to the new residence.  An hour after that she died.

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