Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine
The first time I met Patricia, I was prepared not to like her.
I was at a rehab and nursing facility recuperating after a hospital stay. I was weak, frightened and in pain.
Nights were the worst. I was awake for hours at a time. My husband stayed overnight with me. The sound of his breathing in the next bed reassured me.
One day, we received crushing news. I was getting a roommate. My husband would have to go home at night.
To my surprise, my potential roommate wheeled over to meet me before moving in. She treated it like a job interview.
Her face was in shadow. I couldn’t see much from my prone position on the bed, other than a slight woman with straight, blondish hair.
Patricia spoke with perfect diction. Underneath, a hint of a southern twang crept in.
Her room was cramped and uncomfortable, she explained. She had to share with two others. Would I allow her to move in with me?
What could I say? My room was airy and spacious. It had a shaded patio in the back that looked out on a small park. There was plenty of room for both of us. And anyway, someone would move in soon enough. It might as well be her. I nodded.
“I hope I’m not going to be an annoyance to you,” she said.
Of course, that was what I was afraid of, too. But I couldn’t say that. I muttered something about how she shouldn’t be concerned about it.
“I can see you’re having a terrible time,” she said. “I want you to feel you can lean on me.”
This was a rare offer. But was it sincere? I had no way of knowing. Even if it was, she had her own problems.
She told me the basics. She’d had cancer for decades. She was there because she’d broken her leg, which had been made brittle from all the radiation she’d undergone.
“We can lean on each other,” I said.
The next day, Patricia and her husband arrived. The pair were both in their early seventies — not much younger than our parents. But even as her husband leant on a stick, while mine was in the prime of his life, in this world we were all peers.
I wondered what I was in for. Was she the type to watch game shows all day? Would she be a grouch? Or worse, cheerful? But it was too late to turn back.
With her arrival, I had to get used to a new rhythm. Patricia had a steady stream of visitors. They ranged from teenagers to elders. She introduced me to all of them, and several took to stopping by my bed and chatting with me.
I had to admit they made the day go by faster. And I marveled at the parade that trooped in and out of our room from morning until night. Where did they all come from?
When I asked, Patricia waved the question away, saying something about church and her work as an English tutor. But I couldn’t help wondering what drew these people to her side day after day.
After each visit, she sent a thank you text using her iPhone’s voice recognition. It always began, “Dear ____,” and ended, “L0ve, Patricia,” as if she were dictating a letter.
One night, about three days after she moved in, the dinner tray arrived. Patricia sniffed at it.
“This food is so awful that no one could possibly eat it. But that’s okay, because I know what I’m going to do.”
She took out her iPhone and spoke to it.
“Dear ____, Please bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as soon as possible. Love, Patricia,” she said.
Ten minutes later, there was a knock at the door. An older couple entered. The wife carried a brown paper bag.
“We came as soon as we could,” she said.
I heard the crinkling of the bag.
“Ah, perfect timing,” said Patricia. “Sunshine, do you want some, too?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” I said.
After a few moments, she spoke.
“This has to be about the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’ve ever had,” she said.
“I didn’t know there was such a range,” I said.
“Oh, yes. There’s ordinary PB&J, and then there’s a masterpiece like this. Perfect placement of the jelly, on top of the right amount of peanut butter.”
“We pride ourselves on our peanut butter and jelly sandwich making abilities,” said the man.
“Now, you must do one more thing for me,” she said to him. “Throw the tray food away.”
As I was to discover, she did this a lot. She’d pick at the food and then make sure it got trashed before the tray went back to the kitchen. One time she even had a friend flush a serving of ice cream down the toilet.
Patricia’s husband chided her when he learned of the PB&J caper.
“If you need something, call me. Don’t ask our friends to do it,” he said.
“But they were happy to,” she said. “They like doing things for me. It gives them a sense they’re helping.”
I began showing signs of recovery. It was slow and involved more pain than I thought I could bear. But I kept at it. One day, I made it into a wheelchair. It was the first time in two months that I’d seen the world from a sitting position.
My husband wheeled me outside to our patio. There was Patricia, sitting across from me in her wheelchair. She had pale skin and brown eyes. Her face was lined, but radiant. She wore a flowered dress that showed off her curvy figure.
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
“So are you,” she answered. “It’s good to see you sitting up. In fact, it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
I wondered aloud if I’d be in pain the next day.
“Let’s just enjoy right now,” she said.
“You’re right,” I said.
“I feel as if we’re two Edwardian ladies having tea on the veranda,” she said. “Would you like a biscuit?”
She reached out her hand as if holding a plate. I took an imaginary biscuit.
The next day, pain did come on. But it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.
“Those biscuits must have had healing powers,” I told her.
“I always make my biscuits that way,” she said.
Patricia didn’t talk about her pain to me. But you can’t hide these things from roommates. I heard her moaning at night. And I knew that when the nurses came in every evening and closed her curtains, it was to dress a wound that never seemed to heal.
Our days revolved around the certified nursing assistants, or CNAs. We depended on them for everything. An inept CNA could mean the difference between a good day and a bad day, or worse.
One afternoon, a CNA showed up we’d never seen before. I got a bad feeling about her right away. Her uniform was ill fitting, and she had a bedraggled, overworked look about her.
She managed to wheel Patricia into the bathroom without any mishaps. But after that, everything went wrong. Patricia asked for her walker. The CNA ran all around our room looking for it, even though it was right next to the bathroom door.
Then Patricia asked her to bring something from the drawer. A look of panic crossed the woman’s face. She opened the closet. Patricia called out her request again, telling her again to look in the drawer.
“I’m looking in the drawer,” she said.
I could feel Patricia’s patience wearing thin. I’d never seen her lose her temper with a CNA, but I wondered if this would be the exception.
“That’s the closet,” I told the CNA. “The drawers are to your left.”
The woman went to the next closet, which was to her right.
“Your other left,” I said.
By the time she had helped Patricia out of the bathroom and into her clothes, the CNA looked like she’d been through a war. She flopped down in a chair next to Patricia. I’d never seen a CNA do that. They were always on their feet.
“It’s not your fault,” said Patricia in a soothing tone. “It’s the pain. At my age, I don’t have the patience I used to.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d have been throwing things at her by then.
“Things can happen at any age,” said the woman. “My son is only thirty and he had a stroke.”
Okay, I thought. Now, she’ll lose it. This wasn’t the time to pour her own troubles out.
“What’s your son’s name?” Patricia asked.
“Reynaldo,” the CNA answered.
Patricia took the woman’s hands in her own.
“Let’s sit here and pray for Reynaldo,” she said.
She launched into one of the most beautiful prayers I’d ever heard.
Patricia wasn’t always so saintly. I once heard her go off on a nurse for not getting her medications on time, almost reducing her to tears. When the nurse defended herself by saying it was her first day, Patricia snapped, “you still have to do your job right.”
But her generosity, when it came, was like an overflowing fountain. She often gave the most attention to those who were on the lowest rung of society.
When the janitor came in, she greeted him like an old, dear friend.
“Ah, buenos dias, Marcelo, so good to see you,” she said to him.
I had never bothered to learn his name.
She told me all about the driver, Eddie, who took her to her chemo appointments. His son was disabled, and so he had to work two jobs.
“I worry about Eddie, I really do,” she confided to me.
Patricia and I talked in the evenings when all the visitors were gone. Sometimes she read me poems by Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. An English teacher her whole life, she could talk about books forever.
But other times, our talks got more personal.
“I think I may be losing the will to live,” she told me.
She said it with her usual matter-of-factness. I tried to hide my reaction — a combination of fear and self pity. She shouldn’t have to take care of me.
We went on to other topics.
One afternoon, she sat up in bed and said, “I want junk food.”
“They have ice cream in the kitchen,” I suggested.
She shook her head.
“Not junky enough.”
“How about Jell-O?” my husband asked.
We’d taken several containers with us from the hospital. I never wanted to touch it. It reminded me too much of that place.
“Jell-O!” she cried. “Yes, Jell-O, Jell-O!”
My husband brought her the container. She dug into it with the gusto and joy of a three-year-old.
When Patricia was out one day, I told my husband about the mystery of the food trashing.
“What’s she up to?” I asked.
He shrugged. I made him promise to find out.
One night, I woke up from a bad dream. Panic threatened to take me over. I told myself to calm down. Patricia was in a deep sleep. Her breathing was regular and soft.
It wasn’t the same as listening to my husband. But it helped. I had a friend nearby. I fell into a fitful sleep.
My husband reported on his detective work. He overheard Patricia telling a friend that she threw food away because she didn’t want to offend the cook.
“But it’s just lousy institutional cooking,” I said.
“Yeah, but someone’s cooking it,” he answered. “That’s how she thinks.”
Patricia’s leg was healing. She was able to walk, with help from the walker. I was happy for her. But we both knew what this meant. She’d be leaving soon.
The day came. Neither of us wanted to say good-bye. We kept our conversation light. We promised to visit each other.
We made plans for afternoon teas at her house. No more imaginary biscuits. We’d sit down on the patio and enjoy our time together, both of us happy and healthy.
Just as she was getting ready to go, the doctor and nurse came in to examine me. They closed my curtains.
“I need to say goodbye to my friend,” I told them.
“No, it’s best you’re behind the curtain,” Patricia said, her voice cracking. “That way you won’t see me cry.”
By the time the curtain was open, Patricia was gone.
After that, the room was empty and quiet. My husband didn’t stay overnight with me. He’d gotten into a routine, and in any case I didn’t need it anymore.
Patricia’s side of the room was barren. I couldn’t bring myself to look there. It was like touching the tender place where a tooth been pulled out.
We spoke on the phone every day. She sent me texts as well. I could see her in my mind’s eye, sitting in bed, talking to her phone in that special, formal way of hers.
Things were going well for her at home. A friend had given her an electric wheelchair that she could take out on the street.
Her husband sent me a video of her driving down the sidewalk in it. She looked like a daredevil, careening around and having the time of her life.
I was discharged less than a week after she left. We drove straight to her house. She was lying in bed. They’d set her up downstairs in what had once been a dining nook.
She took our hands in hers.
“It’s so lovely to see you two,” she said.
She got up from the bed and we all sat together in the living room. She looked pale and seemed to have lost weight. I pushed my worry away. She was getting better. We both were.
She didn’t call me after that. I sensed she was too tired to talk. We communicated by text. I tried to set up another time to visit. But she was never able to manage it.
About three weeks after I’d last seen her, I received this text from her:
“How very much I love you both. I wish that I could have seen you again. However that does not seem possible as I am going toward the end of my life. I am very weak, and my breath comes quickly. I believe in heaven and I hope that I will be there today. If I can have my memory when there, I will remember you and if I can do anything for you from heaven I will do it. May God always bless you, and may you always believe in miracles that took place when we were together. Love love love to you both, for me.”
Alarmed, I texted her husband. Was this as serious as it sounded? He wrote to say that yes, it was. Her body seemed to be shutting down.
My husband I lit candles all around our apartment. We said prayers for her.
The next day, her husband texted to say she had died the day before. I remembered a Mary Oliver poem she read me one night, “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sunshine Mugrabi’s memoir, “When My Boyfriend Was a Girl,” was called a “must read” by The Advocate Magazine.
Image: By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons