John Clark apologizing in advance for a long post. It’s something I wrote many years ago. This year has brought more losses of friends than any I can recall., so I’ve been remembering some of the people who stayed with me in spirit. This is the story of one in particular.
I’m a vague shadow blocking the hazy sunlight streaming through the front door. Her face mirrors the mix of feelings inside as she tries to place my voice and decide: Am I expected, or someone who has stopped for a more sinister purpose?
“Good afternoon, Mrs. B, I have brought you new audio books,” I say
Her thin body, most of its remaining flesh puddled around her hips, relaxes and she leans forward eagerly as I pull boxes from the plastic bag, reciting title, author and reader slowly and distinctly.
Mrs. B fumbles for her glasses and holds each container inches from her face, scanning the synopsis, exclaiming over each one. ”Ah, I love Stuart Woods. Tom Brokaw, what a man!”
I listen gracefully to an oft recounted story, her voice full of anger and lament as she recounts the trauma inflicted by a New York who robbed her of her eyesight, one of many such events in her 97 years that might have brought down one of lesser spirit.
She pulls me back to the present, interrogating me about the offerings I have brought today. Mrs. B has two steadfast rules regarding the books I bring: No homosexuality and no abortion. Each time she reiterates them, she pauses, and in her dry Russian accent adds with a chuckle, “Profanity, I don’t mind, after all I lived for many years in New York.”
Her odyssey would make a wonderful oral history, if only I had the time. I have heard enough to have patience, affection and respect for this woman who now sees the world more with her wisdom and spirit. She motions for me to sit. I move aside some of her knitting and drop softly to the couch. There are countless children on the Boothbay peninsula who have hats and mittens thanks to the endless motion of her knobby fingers.
“How is the library?” she asks. I catch her up since my last visit two weeks ago. She nods and sighs, sharing my lament about lack of space and lack of progress towards a new building. Her conversation circles back to her losses; her eyes, her relationship with her daughter who hides upstairs most of the day, lamenting her own devils. I step around this pitfall. I know her daughter well and like both of these aging women with their European manners and distinct accents. I have witnessed laments flung in both directions, knowing this dance has been going on for more than 60 years and there is little I can do, or that they would accept from me that might change anything. It is an affectionate bond, one that will shatter when Mrs. B. Dies, leaving a gaping hole of silence in this small house nestled in the pines at the far end of an island.
I look at her face as she talks about the escape. I always return to her face. The eyes, more expressive in their sightlessness than those of most who can see. They’re separated by a nose as rugged and angular as the mountains she fled through at the end of World War Two, her ten-year- old daughter in tow. Eyes that have shed a million tears over the years for losses that would eat the soul of lesser women.
Mrs. B was born to Russian nobility, her admiral father a naval hero to the Italian people for his rescue efforts during the Messina earthquake. Her growing years were spent playing with the Czars children until the Bolshevik Revolution when her family fled for their lives,first to Sebastopol, then to Istanbul.
As she speaks, I imagine her father’s struggle to support the family as a dock watchman before being recognized by an Italian naval officer and who offered asylum in Messina.
Mrs. B. pulls me back from my reverie, apologizing as she does numerous times during our chats. Her laments, like those of most elderly people who have lived a rich and important life, are few, but they occupy an increasing space in her head as her mobility and sight have continued to evaporate. I tell her I do not mind, and mean it.
She returns to her strong opinions regarding the War in Bosnia, another area she knows intimately. In between her words, I slide back into her past, remembering the family move from Messina to Yugoslavia. There, many years ago, Mrs. B. fell in love and married Wladimir, a mathematician and engineer. Not long after, their daughter who remains upstairs as we chat, was born.
I watch Mrs. B’s face alternating between outrage and sadness from events and memories unspoken and wonder: wasn’t one desperate dash ahead of an advancing army enough for a lifetime? Not for Mrs. B. She has lived with the uncertain grief of a lost husband for more than half a century since that day when Wladimir disappeared into the Nazi war machine and was never seen again. Circumstances left her no time for grief or lament. At the end of the war, mother and daughter fled across Europe, often on foot, sometimes in cattle cars, surrounded by strangers, every moment filled with the possibility of capture, rape, or death.
She pulls me back to the present. The sun is setting behind Westport Island and I will be late for supper. She apologizes for keeping me. I smile, and remember she cannot see it, so I put it into my words, assuring her I do not mind. On the hour-long drive home, her face lingers in my mind.
Linda answers the phone and motions to me, “Telephone for you,” her standard way of alerting me that the outside world is intruding on my planned workday again. I immediately recognize the wheezing voice on the other end. Mrs. B. Is in the hospital. Could I find time to stop by and bring her some fresh audio books?
Only the setting has changed. She lifts her head as my shadow falls across her face. It is a tiny bit softer, even though there is additional gauntness. A fall, several months ago has finally overwhelmed her. She apologizes for her weakened voice, the result, she laments of hitting her diaphragm in the edge of a chair as she fell. I recite the authors, titles and readers from this latest batch of audios. I have depleted the library of Stuart Woods, one of her favorites. Mrs. B. Has taught me a lot about being old and blind. It doesn’t matter that you have heard a book before. In the filmy gray world behind her eyes, these are old friends, not something already heard.
Can I do her a favor? Would I buy the Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel tapes she listened to last month? They have become icons of comfort and integrity in her dark and shrinking world. I agree and help her write out a check for the library. Another integral fact of blindness is the trust she must place in others, having only their voices and prior actions to guide her choices. I promise to return the following week.
A couple weeks have passed when Mrs. B. Calls again, half apologetic, half impatient. She is now in the local nursing home and wondering what has become of her audios. I blush, feeling a wave of guilt. I had forgotten to order them. I do so immediately.
This time, she doesn’t respond until I take her hand and greet her by name. The gauntness has progressed. Where her nose had once been one of the Pyrenees, separating her sightless eyes, it has now become the Matterhorn. She no longer tries to sit and act the part of hostess. She and I share the same unspoken thought. Her days are dwindling. I bring her the Ted Koppel tape which arrived that morning, apologizing for not having both of them. She grips my hand tightly and I can hear the sadness of terminal resignation so unique to the elderly in her voice.
”I will be 97 on March 28th. I have survived two wars, I speak seven languages, I worked as a bookkeeper until I was past 80, I sailed on steamers by myself and am being treated like a child!”
The soft roll of her Rs echoes through the sterile white room as she slumps back, exhausted from her brief diatribe about her present arrangement. After collecting herself, she lists a few simple desires that do not seem outrageous to me. One staff member allows her to have her nail file and scissors, on the next shift they are confiscated. She pays for a telephone in her room, but no one will get a cord that allows her to have it beside her bed. She does not want food heated in a microwave-she can sense a metallic taste and this practice continues over her protests. She wants thin hot cereal in the morning and gets thick hot glop.
As she lists her issues with the staff, I see a brief flash of animation and determination return to her face. It‘s the Mrs. B. I have come to love and admire: the feisty, blind, strongly opinionated Russian lady who moved from New York City to Boothbay and settled with her retired daughter on a dirt road at the very end of an island when neither had a car or a drivers license. I hold her hand for a long time, watching her face change as she returns to her memories and her losses. There is a long and not uncomfortable silence we share before I say goodbye and return to work.
The following Friday, I am away at meetings all day. The Tom Brokaw tape arrives. On Saturday, I find it sitting in my chair when I return to work. The day is hectic and I am unable to make the trip to the nursing home. It‘s just as well. On Tuesday, when we reopen, I find a thin strip of newspaper taped to the side of my computer screen. It is Mrs. B‘s obituary. Her face, the image that followed me whenever I left after a visit, is finally able to relax, no longer required to reflect the pain and sadness of nearly a century of loss, no longer finding itself pulled into twists and scowls of righteous indignation and outrage. The face slowly fades from my memory as the years move on. It was a privilege to watch the face and know the woman whose face it was.