The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Faithfully, every week, I visit Elsie, age ninety-two. We’ve been friends for thirteen years. For the first ten she was my neighbor on a street of homes built in the 1930s and 1940s and shaded by large sycamores. Then, three years ago, I left my husband behind in the gray duplex we shared, and ever since, I have driven twenty minutes from the neighboring town for our weekly evening of chatting and bad television.
We have little in common: not our age or our history or our passions. So why do I go?
Not because I want to cling to my old life. I don’t want to return to my former neighborhood and be reminded of the sadness of a long, failed marriage, to see the old details I loved standing just as they were when I left them: The silvery cherry tree in the front yard. The blue paint flaking from the trim of the picture window. The profusion of star jasmine pouring over the low brick wall. The big weeds my ex-husband won’t pull from the patio, because they blossom into purple flowers in the summer.
I also have to face the neighbors watering their lawns or walking their dogs. At first they didn’t seem to know whether to ignore me, just wave, or speak. We’d been a pleasant, reliable couple, so the breakup was a shock to us all. My stoic contractor husband started to cry all the time, which disconcerted everyone who saw him. And then there was the rumor started by Iris, who sees everything through that crack in her curtain, about the man who helped me move. I smile and greet the neighbors and cheerfully ask about their pets and jobs and children. Finally, after three years of my regular visits, the strain has eased from their faces, but most conversation is still embarrassingly stiff.
Not because I have spare time. I’m a busy high-school teacher, and my unscheduled moments are my most valuable resource. I ration them carefully.
Not because Elsie is a lesson in how to live a long life. My parents died relatively young: my mother at fifty-nine, my father at sixty-three. My father’s mother, the one I’m said to resemble, died in her nineties. I want to know how to live a long life — or, at least, how to live well — so I read the newspaper articles, magazines, and books with the newest conclusions: no alcohol, except a daily glass of red wine with a meal; a diet low in saturated fats; regular exercise; participation in a religious community (whether the benefits come from the religion or the community, the scientists can’t discern); an active social circle; a meaningful way to contribute to society. New research suggests that slightly undereating lengthens life — although I think I’ll reject that advice. A long life span seems, also, to run in the genes.
It’s true, Elsie doesn’t eat much, but before her son hired her caretakers, she subsisted on cheap, preservative-stuffed danishes from Walmart. Before that, when she was still mobile, she’d carry a tray of home-baked cookies and cupcakes to my house in her bright-red polyester pants. In her late eighties she was hospitalized several times, and after each hospitalization a physical therapist would come to her house for three free sessions of exercises. Elsie was charmed by the earnest young therapists, but a few weeks after their last visit she’d return to her sedentary ways. She refuses my offers to drive her to the community center: most of her friends have died, and she claims not to know anyone there anymore. She can’t get up the stairs at her church, but she won’t let me take her to a stairless church just a block away. Her social circle has been reduced to her neighbors, a friend and a few relatives who occasionally call, and, most recently, the Ethiopian women who care for her four hours a day.
Years ago I asked Elsie the secret to a long life, and she answered, “A sense of humor. Laugh a lot.” And she does, with a real old-lady cackle. She has told me she and her longest-lived sister — who once mailed her a chamber pot as a gag — laughed the most in their pack of siblings. But lately Elsie has unaccustomed bouts of sadness. Referring to her family, she said to me again the other night, “I’m the last one left.” And yet she lives. And lives. Even when she shakes her fist at the “man in the sky” and tells him she’s tired and ready to go.
Not because Elsie is living history. I’m one of those rare specimens who actually enjoy other people’s home movies and slide shows of their vacations. At a party you might find me in the corner with someone’s grandparent, enraptured by their rambling stories of the olden days. But the past doesn’t much interest Elsie. When we watch television, I try to steer her toward the black-and-white movies on PBS that might remind her of her youth. She doesn’t have cable, but, of the five channels we have to choose from, she’d rather watch Dr. Phil or Entertainment Tonight or any sitcom with a laugh track.
Only through years of listening carefully and catching the rare dropped detail can I begin to glimpse where Elsie sits in the flow of American cultural history. She was born on a farm in Missouri, the seventh of thirteen siblings. Her father was jovial and liked to play the piano, but, with so many offspring, he was benignly neglectful. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse and adored her teacher.
When Elsie first got sick about five years ago, she was suddenly awash in memories of the Dust Bowl years, during which her family boarded up the farmhouse windows, and still the wind drove grit through the cracks, covering everything inside. In her near delirium in the hospital, she asked to read “that book.” I brought her The Grapes of Wrath, pleased she wanted something other than the large-print version of Reader’s Digest. But sure enough, as her health began to improve, her Dust Bowl memories, along with her longing to read, receded.
Elsie moved to the San Francisco Bay Area more than sixty years ago — to what is now Silicon Valley — when the land was still covered in orchards. Her husband got a managerial job at the Libby’s fruit-processing plant, where Elsie worked the line, pulling out bad peaches and apricots. They moved into a newly constructed house and watched the neighborhood transform from humble, middle-class residences flanked with agricultural fields, to a blue-collar town squeezed by strip malls with old muscle cars jacked up in driveways, to today’s upscale community where the land is worth three times the value of the houses built upon it and high-tech executives scoop up and painstakingly remodel the aging bungalows. But Elsie never speaks of the rapid change of her surroundings. Her only complaint: strawberries don’t taste as good as they used to.
Not because Elsie will give me her story. Elsie collects teacups, which she keeps in a glass cabinet in her dining room. Her neighbor Iris collects pink furniture and mouse, frog, and elephant figurines. I collect personal stories. My bookshelves are overflowing with memoirs and hundreds of my own journals. When I meet new people, I search for their central defining narrative: a life-transforming event; a driving passion; a trauma; a rope-tight tie to a person, place, or idea; a vocation; a hope or a terrible fear — whatever it is that pulses within them and forms their life into its particular shape.
I try to find Elsie in her house, with its wood paneling so popular in the seventies; the lacy pink fan on her wall; her decorative wooden telephone like the one from her childhood; her musty floral couch with the hand-crocheted polyester throws; the year-round Christmas figurines like the ceramic mouse in a Santa hat; the framed, fading elementary-school photographs of her grandchildren, now grown and with children of their own. A note from a favorite great-granddaughter, who no longer visits, has been taped to Elsie’s fridge for fifteen years. It reads: “I love you Grandma.”
I try to find Elsie in her likes and dislikes as well: Her favorite color is red. Her favorite bird is the cardinal. She likes nuts but can’t digest them. The same with garlic. In fact, she’s always had a sensitive stomach. She likes hot chocolate but not chocolate candies. Her favorite cookies are Walkers Scottish shortbreads, which I buy for her almost every week. She loves anything made primarily of butter, sugar, and flour, but she doesn’t eat too much. She’s barely over five feet tall and slight, but she doesn’t like to be called “little.” She doesn’t care for football or basketball but likes NASCAR races.
Elsie and I do not — as I do with my other women friends — put our heads together over tea and analyze our childhoods and our love lives. Elsie came of age in an era when hardworking farm women didn’t have the luxury of dissecting the subtleties of their parents’ child-rearing decisions or monitoring the delicate ebb and flow of personal emotions; there was urgent physical work to be done and crop failures and disease and death.
So I can’t push Elsie toward the deeper stories. For one, her short-term memory is getting fritzier, so that now she might ask me three times in five minutes, “How are you?” or, “How’s work?” She tells me the same stories about the neighbors from week to week: “Iris is having trouble walking.” “That couple gave their little dog away.” “Margaret goes to chemo now. It’s painful, she says, and she looks awful, but she still takes good care of those children.” I make the same acknowledging sounds I do every week. But the repetitions circle only her current life. Her long-term memories remain mostly intact, a great untapped well. When I try to access them with my questions, I usually hit dry dirt. But if I listen long enough, memories bubble up of their own accord, one detail at a time, pushed by a reference on TV or, just as often, by some internal shift I can’t see.
Elsie has one gimpy foot that is shrunken and twisted, so that she has to walk on her toes. I guessed polio, but it was some other childhood sickness that lodged itself in her leg and destroyed her fantasy of being a tap-dancer. In her town there was a “colored” boy her age who used to tap-dance for money on the street. She wanted to be like him.
When Elsie’s husband, Ted, was sixty, he died of a heart attack. She had always baked him the pies he loved, so when she learned what contributes to heart disease, she blamed herself.
Not long after his passing, her daughter, only forty, died of lung cancer. Three years ago her granddaughter, who had two children and was mentally ill, died from an overdose of prescription medications. Just this year Elsie’s sister — her favorite sibling and the last one living — died.
And then this: We were watching Dr. Phil as he harangued some bad husbands. Suddenly Elsie turned to me and said, “Ted never told me he loved me.”
I had never before heard her say anything disparaging about her husband. “That must have been painful, Elsie.”
“And he slept with my sister. The alcoholic one.” There was a sharp, uncharacteristic hurt in her voice.
I was stunned, this news having burst forth so unexpectedly. I sat in the sadness with her, not knowing what else to say.
“That must have made you feel so sad.”
Not because visiting Elsie is a habit. Over the years there is much I have done from habit or duty, but, since the death of my parents and my divorce, I’m apt to hold every object and activity to the light and examine it for its usefulness. I’ve donated dozens of overstuffed boxes to Goodwill, resigned from committees, and withdrawn from cluttering relationships. Nothing stays in my life unless it’s essential. So Elsie must be essential.
Not because Elsie is my ideal grandmother. When I was a kid, I had a vision of the grandmother I should have: The matriarch of a historic house on the coast of Maine, where a gaggle of school-age cousins could stay all summer, tumbling over one another like puppies. She was an intellectual with loosefitting clothes and wild hair who presided over dinner conversations that flowed from politics to philosophers to modern art. Under our wise grandmother’s watch my cousins and I would be free from judgment and expectations, our minds blooming like the wildflowers that surrounded the house.
What I really had was this: A single mother, gripped by mental illness that kept her full of rage, estranged from her family, and constantly on the move in the Front Range of Colorado. An ex-hippie father with unfulfilled dreams of getting a doctoral degree whom I visited in Canada during the summer and whose own sadness made him increasingly withdrawn. One younger sister. And grandparents I rarely saw.
Elsie resembles neither my fantasy nor my actual family. But perhaps Elsie and I are becoming family. (I’m reminded of the Oscar Wilde line: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” I know the deaths of my parents are not my fault, yet I can’t help but feel there is something flawed about me to have lost so much.) Before I leave Elsie’s house each week, she kisses me on the cheek and says, “I love you like you were my own daughter.” The statement is both true and not true. Elsie didn’t raise me, and she can’t hold in her mind the details of my personal history or even my daily life, but the affection that rises in her is real, as is my affection for her. We try to name it, and “family” is as close as we can come.
Not because Elsie is my community-service project. I send monthly donations to charitable organizations, participate in events for my friends’ causes, and assure myself that teaching, with all its unpaid hours, is community service. Still I feel guilty that I don’t do more. My friends are reliably impressed that I visit Elsie. “Your former neighbor? You visit her every week?” they ask, as if this were a charitable act. But I know it’s not.
In college I read a line in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” This turned my sense of service on its head. I asked myself who had truly assisted me in my life and realized that, in the chaos of my childhood, the people who’d helped me the most hadn’t been aware of my pain at home: the eighth-grade teacher who asked me to be an aide in the class for the hearing-impaired, or the high-school English teacher who always demanded high-quality work from me and once nominated me to represent our school in an essay contest. They helped me by believing I had something to give.
This I know: if I visit Elsie only because I pity her or feel obligated to her, I will be of no service at all.
Not to earn karma points. In the years of Elsie’s mysterious and debilitating health issues, when I was still her neighbor, the hospital would often release her before she was well enough to fully function on her own. I’d spend the night on an air mattress in her hallway so I could help her to the bathroom. Neighbors did her shopping. My husband assisted with her bills.
Watching Elsie, I began to fear disability in my own old age. I have no children. My retirement accounts are modest. Although I have a new love, I have no guarantee of a partner at the end of my life. Once, after a torrent of panic, I comforted myself by thinking that maybe by visiting Elsie I was depositing end-of-life-care points in a karmic account. But as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. I understand little of the intricacies of karma, but life has taught me this much: the good I do, from a place of genuine love and generosity and without a balance sheet, always returns to me. And this I also know: there is no formula I can discern, no tidy one-to-one correlation between what I give and what I receive, no neat trick to escape future suffering. The minute I serve Elsie for my own future good, I am no longer serving Elsie.
Not because Elsie is a guru. My friend and fellow English teacher Marc asked me why I visit Elsie. “She’s wise?” he guessed. “She gives you good advice?”
I remembered Elsie’s most recent complaint: “There are too many black people on TV.” (She had originally called Barack Obama “that black guy,” and then, because she couldn’t remember his name, “Boo-Boo.” And then she voted for him.)
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
Marc asked me a few more questions, and I answered awkwardly and vaguely. Marc finally concluded, “It’s a rest for you, being with her.”
In a sense he’s right. My schedule is full, and I compulsively try to improve myself by setting goals, eating right, exercising, and using every moment productively. My visits with Elsie, however, are a pause, existing in a slower time zone.
Elsie reminds me to be in the present moment. Like a Zen nun, she doesn’t mull over the past or plan for the future. She doesn’t define herself by her education, achievements, connections, or possessions. Her attention to the present doesn’t come by philosophical training. Her now-ness arises from a combination of her upbringing, her native personality, and the demands of her age. Due to her physical limitations and failing memory, she can’t impose her will on the future, fulfill new ambitions, or heal the past by ruminating on it. This isn’t mysticism; it’s being ninety-two.
But being with Elsie is not always restful. Some days she’s exhausted, and the contagious weariness soaks into my bones. On her more muddled days conversation is a struggle for us both. She’ll ask the same question over and over, and I’ll have to decide which details to repeat while trying to keep my tone fresh.
I’ve learned the hard way that I must be careful about what I tell Elsie: disturbing stories can get stuck in loops in her mind. Several years ago she heard on the news that a student on her way home from my school had been kidnapped, raped, and beaten before escaping from the back of the car several towns away. I was still raw with my own grief when Elsie asked me about it, and I admitted the girl was a student of mine. Every week for the next six months Elsie asked me, “How’s that girl?” always remembering the attack but never my updates about the student’s steady recovery, the money the PTA had collected for her, or how she’d started taking classes at a community college.
I now monitor what I say to Elsie. I try not to infantilize her — I want our friendship to be based on honesty — yet I don’t want her thoughts to be constantly revisiting some instance of suffering that she has no power to ease. So, for the most part, I don’t ask her to carry my sorrows with me. We generally keep to small talk, and then we watch TV turned up to a mind-rattling volume. Sometimes we eat cookies or dessert breads. During the commercials we turn toward each other and smile or laugh about nothing, or Elsie tells me proudly, “When I was a girl, my family put me in charge of making the ice cream.” And it is a break, really, to sit next to each other yelling out the answers to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and admiring the routines on So You Think You Can Dance.
Not because Elsie teaches me how to face death. Before I met Elsie, I knew little of what it meant to grow old. All my grandparents died far from me, before I saw significant signs of deterioration. My father, who lived in Canada, died seven years after his diagnosis and, in his stubborn solitude, hid his suffering, kept his end-of-life thoughts to himself, and allowed no one to care for him until the last possible moment. I hadn’t known my mother was ill until she asked my sister and me to visit, just a week before her death. Her bones showed through her skin, and all the expressions I’d ever known her to make flitted over that emaciated, hollow face. And then she was gone.
I want to know what it’s like at the end of a life, when you measure your future not in decades but in years or months. But what I’ve learned from Elsie is that, for the most part, her thoughts do exactly what mine do: buzz around in their orbit of habitual, day-to-day concerns. She worries about her neighbor’s chemotherapy. She complains that her Ethiopian in-home aides can’t cook American food well. She wants a new armchair with a hydraulic lift, because pulling herself up to her walker has become an ordeal. If she had the money, she’d replace the mint-colored carpet she’s had since the 1960s. Look at Iris out there, going for her daily walk even though her legs have been hurting. And have I seen how tall Sam down the street is getting? He’s going to high school next year.
We do not speak of death.
In the hospital with a serious illness, Elsie, in that frail, small body of hers, will fight vigorously for her life. But later, when she gets a touch of the flu, she will wail, “Why won’t God take me?” Usually her fears settle not on her own death, but on being forced to leave her home. “They’ll have to take me out of here feet first,” she says.
When Elsie was ninety, she stopped driving Tammy Tomato, the little red Ford Tempo I’d given her, because she backed it into my ex-husband’s car and wasn’t aware of it until he told her later. By that point she could no longer bend over to pick up things she had dropped. She was having trouble cooking but wouldn’t accept food from Meals on Wheels. Her legs were frighteningly thin, and she fell down so often that the paramedics kept copies of her house key. Doing laundry one day, she tripped in the garage and hit her head on the fire extinguisher, spraying fire retardant everywhere. The paramedics — “They’re so nice” — whisked her to the hospital, and I spent an afternoon in her garage, cleaning powder off every imaginable surface.
Given her difficulties, Elsie’s son, Billy, already in his seventies, flew her to Alabama to live with him and his cheerful wife, six little dogs, cable TV, and Sunday after-church barbecues. But Elsie talked her way back to her own house in California. Billy hired attendants to be with Elsie four hours a day, which isn’t enough but is more than she’ll admit she needs. Her mobility has decreased, but her health has steadied, with no more falls nor mysterious pains that warrant a trip to the hospital. She seems content.
Another of my elderly friends, a therapist who knew she was dying, read books on dying well, met with her clients until her last months, and invited everyone she loved for quiet visits at her bedside, which she had surrounded with flowers. She designed her own memorial service with her favorite Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi prayers and music by Bach. Perhaps we all die just as we live: gracefully, awkwardly, in wisdom, and in ignorance. Perhaps Elsie holds no secrets about how to face my own end.
But I do feel differently now about the elderly. If you look hard enough, underneath the wrinkles you can see the faces of all their other ages, held in place by the shape of bone. I remember my grandmother once checking her lipstick in the rearview mirror and saying, “That face never ceases to surprise me. I’m always the same age inside.” Elsie laughs so easily, she makes the aging of her body seem like a joke. She seems astounded sometimes as she says, “I’m an old lady.” Then she cackles as if she were only wearing a costume.
I used to say, watching two elderly women crossing the street in flowered hats, holding each other’s arms, “Look at those cute old ladies.” I didn’t mind the stereotypes that pepper movies and television shows. Now old people are no longer cute or mean or silly or wise to me. They are people, in all their broken fullness. Despite the glitches in faculties and functioning, anyone who’s lived that long has learned something the rest of us don’t know.
When Elsie was in the hospital with her joints aching, her nose bleeding, and bile in her mouth, the physicians took an MRI and looped a miniature camera through her body. A young doctor with a clipboard finally diagnosed her, in a flat, dismissive voice, as “just old.” She was sent to a convalescent home, where she was expected to die. I wanted to scream at her doctors, “What if she were your grandmother?” and, “Someday you’ll be her age!” Eventually, through the care of wiser doctors and the enigmatic process of healing, she became well enough to leave her hospital bed and return home for another five years.
Maybe simply because she is there. I heard an interview on the radio once with a professor who had a proximity theory of romantic love. According to his studies, the most common cause of romantic love is proximity. You fall in love with those nearby: At your workplace, your gym, your antique-car club, or your monthly trip to the opera. In your neighborhood.
Maybe because, in each other’s presence, we can feel. I cry regularly at Elsie’s, usually during episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, which Elsie calls “that doctor show.” She can’t remember the characters from week to week nor follow the convoluted plots. Elsie sits next to me. She doesn’t look at me, and then she does, and when I cry, I don’t know if she sees my tears.
Since my divorce and the deaths of my parents, I feel as if a frozen fountain of emotion inside me has defrosted into a watery river. Anything will bring tears to my eyes: A piece of music. Wildflowers on the side of the road. A father walking hand in hand with his toddler. Not to mention the suffering of any animal or person anywhere on the planet. My feelings are larger and more physical now, and they wash through me more quickly.
About four months ago Elsie told me she’s been crying often. This is new — she has never been a crier — and it worries her. She cried when her neighbor’s old black cat died. He was a curmudgeonly creature, slinking through her backyard, hiding behind the tomatoes, pouncing on the songbirds, marking his territory on fences and flowerpots. He’d never even let her pet him. But he’d been a regular visitor for fifteen years. I figure she’s grieving not only for that reliable life now gone but also for the cat’s human, who is struggling through cancer.
Elsie told me she also cried when she watched a news report about a firefighter who’d died in a massive blaze. She wept during images of the memorial service, when the father was handed his son’s helmet. Baffled by her response, she told me, “I don’t even know them.” Only later did I remember that she, too, is a parent who has lost an adult child.
Six months ago Elsie spoke with her doctor about her crying, and he put her on antidepressants. To me it seems fitting, not a medical problem, for a woman of ninety-two to look back on what has been beautiful, exquisite, or unfulfilled and cry for all her accumulated triumphs and losses; to look forward and see that the rest of her life will be, at most, a few years, and cry, because preparing to die is a fear and a relief and a great sadness and maybe the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do.
Maybe because we don’t judge each other. For many months I didn’t tell Elsie that my husband and I had separated. I parked on the street and pretended I was trotting over from my former home. It was hard enough to carry my own suffering, and I wanted to spare her: Elsie loves my ex-husband. Before he stopped visiting her, he was the man in her life. He helped her with finances, fixed her porch light, settled her fears when they arose. She loved us as a couple, and I didn’t want to take that from her nor add the burden of her distress to my own.
But Elsie already knew. My husband had told her, sobbing on her front porch. She respected my silence for several weeks before finally asking where I was living.
“You’re going to get back together?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“I just can’t stand to see a grown man cry.”
I was silent. I didn’t know what was going through her head: the forces of her Christian upbringing and its view of divorce; her own faithfulness to her complicated marriage; her need for a substitute family; the puzzle of our separation, as our marriage had seemed pleasant enough?
She asked, “You’re happy?”
“Good. Life is short. You should be happy.”
She would repeat the question to me in the months and years to come. When I answered yes, she would smile widely, flashing those small teeth of hers.
When Elsie moved to her son’s house in Alabama, I had only a week’s notice. I cried, but I was also relieved. In her efforts to stay independent, she had become a weight for the neighborhood. People struggled to help her and still meet the obligations of their own lives. Personally I worried about her falling, her convoluted finances, her transportation, the cleanliness of her house, her nutrition, and her loneliness. At her son’s she would be safe. So when she moved back home several months later, I couldn’t understand why she’d left home-cooked meals and little dogs and a big family and better television. The only reason I could squeeze out of her: “They’re clannish down there.” I knew there had to be more, but she couldn’t seem to articulate it. I wanted to attribute it to her stubbornness or some kind of denial, but I finally admitted that I had no business judging where Elsie should live and why. So I gave her the same gift she had given me: I wrapped her in the wish May you be happy.
Because I want to know what it means to be faithful over a few things. Sometimes, when I am getting ready to visit Elsie and my night is busy and my house is dirty and I’m low on sleep, I hear in my head a passage from the Bible: “Thou hast been faithful over a few things.” This settles any complaints I may have and urges me, against all argument, to go to Elsie.
The passage continues: “I will make you ruler over many.” My visits to Elsie are marked by devotion, but I’m uncertain how this might make me a ruler over something bigger. I do understand this: if I visit Elsie primarily for my own gain, our relationship will suffer, just as it will if I visit her only for her sake and sacrifice too much of myself. Our moments together must be more than habit, tradition, or a tribute to our past. Our relationship must be alive, living and breathing in the present moment.
I feel an undercurrent of guilt for not being equally committed to my wedding-day promise to my ex-husband. Is visiting Elsie some attempt at repentance, a way to give to one relationship what I couldn’t fulfill in another? By the end of my long marriage, I was wedded primarily to the vow I had made, to the memory of the young man I had met years before, to the history we shared, to the place we occupied in our extended family and group of friends, to the idea of faithfulness itself. But, all the while, the actual relationship shriveled. I shriveled. My vow had been “until death do us part.” A friend once comforted me by saying, “You have died. You can part now.”
Faithfulness, in my new, slow beginning, must begin with faithfulness to myself.
Because she lets me do right by her. The first time Elsie was hospitalized, she fretted over how long her fingernails and toenails were growing. She wouldn’t let my husband or the nurses touch her but allowed me to hold her narrow feet. While I clipped and filed her nails, I felt a thread of connection to women all over the world, throughout time, who had cared for other women. In the past few months Elsie has needed my help getting into bed. She scoots her walker to her bedside and eases herself onto her too-tall, too-squishy mattress. I gently lift her legs and put them under the covers. Then I adjust her nightgown. With her head nestled on her pillow, her hair a light cloud, she laughs like a little girl. Each time we do this could be the last. I am going to lose Elsie, and I sit with her anyway.
Only recently has Elsie begun to give off the smell of a live body decaying, and when I lean over her, I feel a physical urge to turn away. But I don’t. I reach down and press my lips to her cheek, and she kisses me back.