The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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We sat in the sun, me naked and soaking it up, Lorenne in long sleeves and with a straw hat keeping all ultra-violet rays from her sensitive face. She pointed at my bushy crotch and said, “You lose all the hair down there, you know. You look like a little girl again.” She said it incredulously, as though she could hardly believe it even though it had actually happened to her. “I’m so surprised when I look in the mirror,” she said, examining the crepe skin and prominent veins on the back of her hand. “It’s the damnedest thing. Inside, I don’t really feel any different from the person I was at sixteen.”
That was August. In December Lorenne didn’t feel well on her seventy-ninth birthday. She had trouble swallowing — it seemed like her throat just closed up as her food approached. For a month the doctor told her to relax. Lorenne became angry, as well as thin and weak. Then the doctor said she must have had a mild stroke. This diagnosis sounded more sensible to Lorenne but didn’t help any. In February she went into the hospital and came back a few days later with an opening made directly into her stomach and a long tube through which to pour canned protein drinks. “I was so dehydrated I could have died,” she said with a touch of awe. She closed her eyes and the lids settled like tissue paper over the clear blue irises.
Soon Lorenne plumped up. Her skin regained a sheen of moisture and she grew a modest potbelly. To the doctor’s surprise, Lorenne’s throat began to function again. At first she had the ability to swallow for only a few hours a day, so during those hours she ate as much real food as she could hold. By the first day of spring she was walking the twisting pathways of her garden, leaning on a cane, talking in a querulous voice about what a terrible winter it had been. She returned to the doctor to have the hole in her stomach sewed up.
We all relaxed a little, though we noticed that she was not the Lorenne of the summer before. Something about her wavered and was not steady now, ever. She tired easily. Her skin was newly translucent. Her small outings were now great occasions to be savored. Though she regained enough strength to complain vigorously about Berkeley politics, the destruction of the rain forests, residential development in the hills to the east, and the wood rats that chewed up her basement insulation, we now more often than not found her tirades endearing.
Lorenne noticed the changes in herself too. For the first time in eighty years, she conceded that there were things she would never do again. She allowed the possibility that she might never recover her former energy, though she still talked about building up her strength, and she worked at it, noticing every advance and setback with careful precision. She also called her lawyer and updated her will.
Early in the summer Lorenne admitted that her left leg had become unreliable. When she stood up from her kitchen chair, the leg might refuse to take her weight. As she came up the path from the street, the leg might give way with no warning. Lorenne placed her cane carefully with each step, worried out loud more than usual, and set out to find herself a new doctor who would search for the problem until it could be found. “I want to get to the bottom of this,” she said, looking determinedly through her wild white eyebrows and hitting her cane against the floor for emphasis.
All summer and fall Lorenne’s left side weakened. The arm became as unreliable as the leg. Her work in the garden and on repairs around the property became supervisory, and her patience was thin when her deputies did not do things the way she would if she could. She visited several doctors and finally found Dr. Knight, a young woman not long out of medical school. “There’ve been a lot of changes in medicine since those old men went to school,” Lorenne said. She called the lawyer again and made more changes to her will. She located all her insurance policies, savings deposit books, and financial records and began to organize them.
It was December, past Lorenne’s eightieth birthday, when she went to the hospital for the latest in medical diagnostics — magnetic resonance imaging. Lorenne was impressed by the lasers and the immaculateness and the general air of hushed reverence for technology that lay about the machine like a fog. All her life Lorenne had been a proud participant in twentieth-century western civilization. She respected the opinions of experts. For eighty years she had lived as a practical materialist, and the magnetic resonance imaging machine did not disillusion her. It delivered its diagnosis. Lorenne had a tumor at the base of her brain, in a location impossible to reach by surgery.
The experts told her that six weeks of daily radiation treatments might shrink the tumor, and Lorenne decided to give it a try. These were the six weeks in which Lorenne lost her unquestioning confidence in experts, in modern medicine, in the materialist worldview — and gained, by slow and painful degrees, the real knowledge that she was dying. When her treatment started, the walk up and down the steps from house to street took all her energy. Then it took more than that. Neighbors tried carrying her down, which was frightening to Lorenne because of the crookedness of the steps and the narrowness of the path. A wheelchair proved to be equally unsatisfactory. An ambulance was hired for the drive because it was easier to get her in and out of it. After a few weeks, she confessed she thought the radiation was a mistake, but the doctors told her that the effect was cumulative: if she quit before the full six weeks, she would gain nothing. She continued the treatment. For the last week, she simply stayed at the hospital. She came home trembling and worn, glad to be finished with the radiation and angry that she’d done it at all. She came home talking about dying. She came home with no change to her tumor.
Some of Lorenne’s friends, especially the ones near her age, did not want to hear her talk about dying. Some became belligerent in their insistence on Lorenne’s recovery. Some sat by her side and wept, then did not visit again. Her younger friends, though, became more interested than ever in what Lorenne had to say, and they listened eagerly.
Lorenne had a lot to say. By March, when the hospital bed was delivered and set up in the living room, Lorenne’s main activity was talking. It was a job; she was thorough. Propped up in bed, she talked unceasingly to whoever sat with her — and she wanted someone with her every waking minute. She gave particular attention to her childhood, San Pablo Avenue in the time of horse-drawn wagons, visits to Mount Tam via railway, and both her grandfathers. One lived in the room behind her parents’ grocery store and stabled racehorses in the back yard; the other lived alone out on the Emeryville mud flat, in a house on stilts.
Lorenne lost the use of the left side of her body completely, and then the right side went, more quickly, as though the process had picked up momentum. But though she couldn’t use her body, her eyes expressed her feelings — and she continued to talk. While we listened, we learned how to turn her on the hospital bed, how to change the sheets with her in them, how to place a bedpan without pinching her skin, how to feed her spoonful by spoonful, in a way that salvaged her dignity. We listened, and Lorenne began to tell her dreams.
She dreamed she was running across a newly plowed field. The earth was rich and black, her legs carried her easily in long, sure strides, and by her side ran a little girl. She couldn’t see the girl’s face, but she noticed the hair — “tangled like she was a wild thing,” Lorenne said. She dreamed of her again, and began to look toward sleep with eagerness. One day she told me in a whisper, “That little girl is near me today.” “I’m glad,” I said.
Lorenne had never been religious. Her thoughts all her life had remained firmly in the physical world. Now she wanted to hear about death and life after death. Patty, Lorenne’s chosen heir, read to her in the afternoons from an assortment of traditional and new-age spiritual texts. Ida, the professional nurse who came almost every day, talked to Lorenne about Jesus from her rich Pentecostal point of view. Lorenne heard it all with careful attention, nodding her head the slight bit that had become her full range of motion.
When all Lorenne’s affairs were in order, when she had said everything she needed to say to every person in her life, when her financial records were clearly organized, when she had given away keepsakes or left instructions for what was to be given away after she died, then Lorenne settled back in her hospital bed to dream and talk, and to let the dreaming and the talking blur into each other as she approached the edge between this world and whatever lay beyond. “Dying is like making a tiny hole in a balloon, and very slowly the air leaks out,” she said.
Lorenne dreamed of blue shoes. New blue shoes of an old-fashioned high-button design, in her size exactly. She dreamed of looking up a bright chimney of clean white tile. The next afternoon, the shoes and the chimney were in the room with her when she was awake. It was not that she became confused about her own sanity or the nature of reality. It was very simple. The blue shoes were there, dangling over her head. The white chimney began above the shoes and extended far up out of sight.
When Lorenne tried to describe the shade of blue, she began to cry because it was so beautiful and so impossible to name. I watched her tears intensify the blue of her eyes and I thought of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen, a shade called cerulean blue. The heels of Lorenne’s blue shoes were low; they would be comfortable shoes for walking. The buttons were black and shiny, and there were a great many of them. The blue leather had a soft sheen.
She talked about the chimney — how carefully the white tiles were placed, how clean they were, how round and bright was the passageway. We imagined out loud how, when the time came, she might leave her body, put on those blue shoes, and go up the chimney into the light.
The next day there were two pairs of blue shoes — the one in Lorenne’s size and another pair, identical in design but much smaller, for the little girl. Lorenne still had not seen the girl’s face, but she felt her presence nearby. On the table by Lorenne’s bed was a photograph made sixty-five years before, showing Lorenne and her family on a holiday at Stinson Beach. Lorenne stood wiry and confident, dressed in bloomers and with a visor pulled low over her eyes, shading her face. The two pairs of blue shoes remained suspended side by side over Lorenne’s head, with the white-tiled chimney opening above them.
The next week Lorenne lost the ability to speak, and then to swallow food. She grieved out loud for a day, moaning, with tears running down the papery skin of her cheeks. The next day she was calm, even peaceful, and in that peace she slipped into a coma. She lay quietly, listening now, as we sat with her and told her the final things we hadn’t known we needed to say until then.
Lorenne waited until April 23, when seven of us had gathered around her bed on the evening of the third day of her coma. As we watched her intently peaceful face, she slipped from her body, the last bit of air slowly escaping from the balloon. Her face was lit up. She looked happier and more deeply calm with each shallow, infrequent breath; suddenly but gently she was not there at all. “She did it,” I said, and we all jumped up and hugged each other in an excess of joy. We talked in loud voices, we laughed. Someone mentioned going out dancing. When we looked back at the hospital bed, Lorenne’s body looked dry and empty.
I realized then that the blue shoes were another gift from Lorenne to those of us left behind. Lorenne didn’t need them in the moment of her dying. I needed them — and still do — to imagine familiarity in the most mysterious of transitions. I needed to think of Lorenne and the little girl, hand in hand, running in easy, loping strides into that bright immensity, and, buttoned up past their slim ankles, shoes of the most beautiful blue.