by Carol D. Marsh
Muriel looked like an Old Testament prophetess, striding through the house on long, bony legs, her gaunt face aimed at us in shrewd observation. She was the only person I had ever seen whose eyes actually did show a rim of white surrounding the dark iris. And she was so very thin. Were it not for the intensity of that wild-eyed glare one would think she was about to disintegrate. From her issued a commanding impression of bone and sinew held together by sheer power of will.
I didn’t relate to Muriel, I experienced her. The force that was Muriel came at me like a storm front on the open prairie. Nowhere to hide. So when she decided she wanted to share some thoughts at our first anniversary celebration, I held my breath. She stood up and looked around and she was all wild dignity and native assurance. She made me remember why I was here.
February 29, 1996: Ella, the first resident to move in, slowly eased herself up our front walk with the cold, clear late-winter day behind her and Miriam’s House before her. Her eyes were focused downward as though wary of a sudden shift of the sidewalk beneath her feet. Finally, she looked up and saw me holding open the front door. She called out.
A straight-banged, bob-cut wig that emphasized the broad face and complemented her brown eyes sat elegantly atop the bulky form that seemed, somehow, more affected by gravity than the rest of us. As she passed me in the doorway I noted perfectly applied make-up.
I remember nothing else about that day, just the way Ella looked as she came up our front walk and the way her greeting rang warm. For the rest of that summer and many years beyond, this was how we welcomed women into Miriam’s House. We held open the glass-paned front door and in they came, their bags and spirits stuffed to bursting with the detritus of lives lived in defiance of the odds. They came from dope houses, treatment programs, jail, park benches, relatives’ couches, hospitals and basements. They moved from lives of abuse and neglect, childhoods lost to poverty, incest, and rape, adult years lost to drugs and alcohol, education lost to low-performing schools, self-esteem lost to an uncaring world, trust lost to the deceitful actions of those supposed to protect them, and health lost to asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and, finally but not necessarily most tragically, AIDS.
Muriel stood up to speak at our first anniversary celebration, not yet one week with us, but as sure of herself as Moses overlooking the Promised Land. With a voice coming at us as though from beyond our reality, straight and tall, eyes wide, she declaimed about … what? I had no idea at all of the meaning of her screed. And as I glanced around at the other faces in the crowd of residents, staff, and visitors, I could tell that neither did they. We all sat there with that peculiar expression one assumes when trying to listen politely while simultaneously hiding growing concern and marked desire to be somewhere – anywhere – else. I was not the only one who was blown away by Muriel.
On the Saturday after that celebration, Muriel, too unsteady to manage well in the kitchen, came downstairs hungry. Lucy, the aide on shift, had just helped her bathe and dress and was still upstairs tidying her room, so I offered to make waffles.
“Yeah, waffles be okay.”
I found the little, round waffle iron that – as far as I knew – had never been used. I set it on the counter, a simple appliance with just the electrical cord and a light on the lid. No on/off switch, and, because it had been donated, no instructions. I picked it up, stumped by its simplicity. How would I know when the waffle was done? Tentatively, I stuck the plug into a socket. The little top light lit up. Seemed straight-forward enough – the waffle is cooked when the light goes out.
“Ain’t that waffle ready yet?” Muriel called from her chair in the dining room. Lucy had, by then, finished upstairs and had come to sit with Muriel. Lucy turned her broad, apple-cheek face and shot me a look as though to signal, she said it, not me.
“I’m just trying to get used to this waffle iron – never seen one like this before.”
I heard no response, though the impatience radiating from the dining room seemed to take on a distinctly gloomy cast. But I mixed the batter and continued to feel competent right up until the moment I realized quite a while had passed since I’d applied waffle batter to hot iron and the little light had not yet turned off. I gave the lid a tentative tug. It budged not. Wisps of steam rose from the edges where batter had oozed beyond the perimeter of the iron. Had I added too much batter? Too little?
I waited a bit, then jiggled the lid harder. Reluctantly it gave way, and there was the waffle, a tad on the brown and crispy side, perhaps, but looking good. I made another one and, balancing the syrup and butter in the crook of my arm and left hand, carried the plate of waffles out to Muriel.
“I’ll put some more batter in – just wanted you to get started.” I went back into the kitchen to start another waffle on the iron. As I returned to the dining room, Muriel’s voice rose in bitter complaint.
“These is some hard-ass waffles.”
I sat down across the table from her as she glowered at the waffles and struck them with a knife. The knife sort of bounced, making a slight ping. “Put some syrup on it, that’ll soften it up,” I said, ignoring Lucy, still sitting next to Muriel and carefully not looking at me.
I pushed the syrup bottle toward Muriel and popped open the lid. She poured a generous helping, watched the amber fluid spread, thumped the bottle down, and stared at her plate. She smacked the knife at the waffles again – “still some hard-ass waffles” – splattering syrup over the tablecloth.
I stood up, reached over and cut the waffles into pieces and rolled them around in the syrup until they softened. “There. Now you can eat.”
And she did; Muriel ate those waffles and the next one, watching menacingly as I smashed her breakfast into small, syrup-soused bites. She ate every last piece then left for the TV room, leaning on Lucy’s arm. One final comment floated back to me on the wings of a satisfied belch.
“Them was some hard-ass waffles.”
That fall Muriel, already so thin as to seem one-dimensional, lost weight. She weakened and became quiet, spending hours upstairs in her room. When we asked her what we could do to make her more comfortable, she replied, in her emphatic way, that she wanted a real hospital bed because that hard-ass bed in her room was too damned uncomfortable and how did we expect her to sleep in it anyway? We called her hospice provider, who ordered the hospital bed and reminded us about the on-call procedures and the medication-filled emergency kit they’d given us.
Muriel’s death was heartrendingly slow.
Our routines anchored us moment by uncertain moment. Into Muriel’s room we rolled the wire-shelved, wheeled cart that held diapers, soaps, creams and lotions, disposable bed pads, cleansers, room freshener, and extra sheets and towels. On the wall outside her door I tacked the chart we used to track our visits, ensuring that she was not left alone very long, if at all. Staff members completed forms telling me when and how they wanted to be notified of Muriel’s death. I checked with each resident and kept notes of their preferences for being told. The forms and these notes and all the hospice instructions we kept in a folder in my office labeled, In the Event of Death.
As Muriel deteriorated, we found comfort in these details and activities. Nothing could halt her dying, but I could keep the care chart on her door supplied with fresh sheets and double- and triple-check the In the Event of Death folder. Our nurse met twice-weekly with the hospice nurses, aides kept her clean and comfortable, interns massaged her hands and feet.
On her better days, the nurse and an aide would help Muriel into her wheelchair and bring her downstairs into the dining room to an enthused welcome.
“Muriel! Where you been, girl? Been missin’ you! Want some of my bacon?”
“I got this new color nail polish. Pretty, ain’t it? Let me go get the bottle, I’ll do your nails. Then I’ll do your hair. You got a comb?”
“Her skin look ashy. Here some nice lotion, put it on her when you take her back to her room.”
“Muriel, you comfortable all slouched down like that? Don’t you wanna sit up straight? Here, let me help.”
When I would enter Muriel’s room in the early morning to check on her before going to my office, I’d often find one of the women tiptoeing out, whispering, “She ‘sleep, look peaceful.”
Or one who could not bear to see Muriel in her skeletal state and had never so much as peeked through her door, would stop me in the hall to ask if Muriel had plenty of gospel CDs, or say, “Carol, I bought some of that red punch Muriel like. If I give you a glass of it, will you bring it to her an’ tell her it’s from me?”
Later, when Muriel began to spend all her time in bed, I would find women in her room, chatting, putting a new CD in the boom box or just popping in for a quick hello before leaving for an appointment. Some would sit with her for an hour or more, watching television, styling her hair, sharing the latest gossip.
Muriel’s dying had become a community event.
One evening about a week before she died, I stepped into the kitchen to see what was going on. Jan, an intern, had offered to sit with Muriel for a while and I was grateful for the break. The kitchen was alive with the after-meal bustle of women washing their plates and pans, wiping down counters and stoves, putting food away.
Theresa, who had checked in earlier when I was with Muriel, caught me as soon as I was through the kitchen door, worry creasing her forehead. “She be so thin, Miss Carol. She ain’t got no meat on them bones. Why y’all staff don’t feed her more?”
“She’s refusing food, Theresa. It’s awful, I know, but she just doesn’t want to eat.”
“Can’t them other nurses make her eat? Them hospice nurses?”
The others in the kitchen, some of them witnessing a preview of their own death, had frozen in place, caught mid-swipe with a dishtowel, holding a now-forgotten pot or turning down the burner under half-cooked food. Serious and silent, they listened as I explained that hospice care is about comfort, and Muriel had not wanted any feeding tubes or IV needles or hospital. I described how, when Muriel looked to be in pain – moaning, frowning and restless – we gave her pain medication, and when she became agitated we had calming medicine for her. The aides kept her clean and massaged her limbs so her muscles wouldn’t tighten, they changed her position in the bed to make sure the pressure of sheets and mattress wouldn’t cause sores. “And we can always call hospice any time, day or night, for advice and support. She’s getting a lot of care and love.”
But some still looked apprehensive, so I added, “No one has to get hospice care if they don’t want it. It’s your choice, not ours.”
A couple of the women exhaled. Relief drifted through the kitchen like an off-shore breeze.
“I ain’t want it. I want a ambulance, hospital, one of them breathing machines, everything. I ain’t ready to die.”
“Nor me,” someone said.
“And that’s fine. It’s your choice. Just make sure our nurse knows…”
“She know, all right.”
We laughed at Theresa’s vehemence. The somber mood broke on waves of cheer that curled around us and lifted us above, for the moment, fear’s cold depths.
Later, when I returned to Muriel’s room, I told Jan about the conversation in the kitchen.
“I think I’d run screaming away from seeing someone die of the very same disease I had. Yet they come in here, sit with her. They ask how she’s doing. Where does that kind of courage come from?”
“I don’t know. Maybe that they’ve been through so much in their lives already. Sometimes I think they’re so much stronger because of that.”
Jan, a petite, thoughtful woman near my age, looked reflectively at Muriel and mentioned that she might be in pain – she had been moving a lot and had just started to moan. So we left the room to find Lucy, who told us that it had been long enough since the previous dose of pain medication for Muriel to have another one. But by the time we got back upstairs with it, Muriel was restless and shiny with perspiration.
“Wow, she’s real uncomfortable now,” Lucy said, going to the head of the bed and smoothing the hair off Muriel’s sweaty forehead. “Can you help me turn her after you put that pill under her tongue, and we can clean her up and rub some lotion on her?”
Although she was not heavy, Muriel was tall, with long, gangly limbs. The work felt awkward, bending over the bed at a forty-five degree angle, trying to lift her as gently as possible and without haste. I reminded myself to breathe deeply and slowly, to will my hands to soften. Lucy washed her face and fixed her hair. Jan massaged lotion into the skin on her arms, hands and shoulders, while I smoothed it onto her legs. The small room, crowded with medical supplies, smelling of lotion and dying breath, seemed a holy space. We three women, bending and swaying and reaching like riverside willows over the form so tenuously moored to life, were freed by Muriel’s permission to hold her in that spaciousness of love.
But that was not her dying night. Many long nights later, many bathings and shiftings and massagings and soothings later was the night. I wanted to be with her, had promised to be with her, when she died and so I sat by her bed for a week of nights, repeatedly dozing and starting awake, then going to my apartment for a few hours’ sleep before beginning my work day.
At what turned out to be just an hour before she died, I gently combed Muriel’s hair, settled her head more comfortably on the pillow, straightened her arms and pulled the sheet smooth. Then I sat in the chair at her shoulder and settled my forehead onto the arm I’d propped on the bed rail, too spent to hold up my head. My other hand clasped hers, lying cool and bony on the clean sheet. Muriel had been very, very still for hours. The room held a waiting that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with Muriel. Eyes closed, I listened to her irregular, sighing breath.
There dawned in me an awareness of another presence in the room, tall, next to the bed. Momentarily disoriented, I lifted my head thinking the aide had come in. She had not.
But I had felt it, scintillating, ineffable, supremely attentive to, serenely heedful of only Muriel. Aside from what I imagined to be a faintly luminous quality to the light in the room, I saw nothing, no one. Just Muriel, long and slight and quite still in the bed. Yet we were three, there in the waiting place, and Muriel was not to be alone for these last faltering steps of her journey home.
I remember waking up the women who wanted to know, I remember them going slowly to Muriel’s side, lighting a tea candle, saying a prayer, sitting quietly, so very quietly. We waited hours, first for the hospice nurse to come, then for the black-suited and grave mortician. We watched Muriel, encased in a long blue bag, being carried out our front door on a stretcher. We stood at the curb as she was placed inside the dark van, we watched as it drew away. Then, as one, we turned to go inside and make breakfast together.
Carol D. Marsh is a student in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program at Goucher College, from which she expects to graduate in August 2014. Her masters thesis is a memoir of seventeen years as founding executive director of Miriam’s House in Washington, DC. A story from the manuscript, chosen as Runner Up in the First Publication Contest, will be published in Soundings Review in June 2014.