Jules was at the hospice with Mrs. Grey, an elderly woman suffering from terminal sarcoma, a rare form of heart cancer. She felt a filial affinity for Mrs. Grey; It was a fondness that caught her by surprise one visit over a cup of tea. The old, keen woman, blind in one eye, had reached over more than an arm’s length to the tray from which Jules was preparing the cups, and gracefully snatched the paper tags, pulling each tea bag out of its respective mug. Her usual polite and reticent nature was intercepted by an abruptness that startled Jules. You over-steeped it, sweetie, she said. It will be bitter. Jules had looked down at the ruddy tea bags bleeding out a scent of hibiscus, and when she looked up and met Mrs. Grey’s gentle amusement, she felt an opening, a release, an echo of moonlight.
Today Mrs. Grey looked different. She looked softer, dewy even, and more awake. Her famous droopy eyes perked up somehow. Jules took a greater interest in her, was more curious about the life she had lived, the things she had felt. A nurse walked in for a vitals check. A nylon cuff was secured around Mrs. Grey’s sinewy arm; Jules hastened to loosen it for her. The nurse tried to adjust it, tighten it; Mrs. Grey squirmed; again, Jules loosened it for her. The nurse let out a histrionic sigh. A reverberation went through Jules and danced around Mrs. Grey’s constricted arm. Mrs. Grey looked like a sultana preparing herself to receive the news from a battle. It’s lower today, said the nurse, you’ve been having a good week. She looked at the monitor and read her vital numbers aloud: one forty over twenty. A cottony ease enveloped the volume of the room; the nurse could now relax and maybe even text her boyfriend while on duty, and Jules and Mrs. Grey would be left in peace for a while. The nurse rolled the vital signs monitor out; the sound of which scraping against the linoleum floor always left a wake of tightness in a patient’s chest. Mrs. Grey shifted position in her hospital bed.
Jules was doing an internship for her major in public health. She thought the position at the hospice would settle the two-fold affair of getting both extra credit and time to relax before her night shift at the Macy’s beauty counter. Plus, she liked some older people. Not precisely ill older people, but older people nonetheless. She liked the way their inner wisdom could become apparent in the most simple of sentences, the way they offered themselves to you unfiltered; they didn’t take themselves too seriously and so you could really get to know them. Mrs. Grey had not said much at all to Jules, not until the teabag incident. In the two visits, Jules had sat in with Mrs. Grey as her “Compassionate Companion”- the literal and formal name that the hospice bestowed upon her service- Mrs. Grey communicated with Jules through a random series of winks and nods. She was busy at work doing embroidery for her daughter and granddaughter. Subtle, elegant bouquets of yellow roses were sewn onto designer purses; poems in the calligraphic font on pillowcases; real, freshwater pearls on shirt collars. Mrs. Grey was meeting the girl where she was at. She was simply waiting and sewing. Waiting for the girl to confront her evident discomfort of this sick old woman with outdated practices. Watching for her to traverse her avoidant fear and become curious. Jules had looked at the woman’s patchy scalp and her beautiful hands with their palpable veins. It was as if she was made with a piece of her heart in her hands. She wondered how she would relate to this quiet-seeming lady and her detached noble quality?
Was she like one of those exquisite swans from that Irish myth The Children of Lir, a youthful soul trapped in an aged body?
The exchange of a fleeting glance, a reflection of light, a shared compassion, transfigured the awkward system the two had into an exciting one. All of the sudden, for some time, each of their sufferings dissolved into one, and they began to fall into love. From that moment on, it would become easier to relate with one another. They began with small talk and, before long, would reach the universal. And what was it that triggered this unity? Was it mutual feminine interest? Was it Jules looking for her mother, and Mrs. Grey for her daughter? Was it mere compassion, or a mixture of all and more? Whatever it was, the two women, one habitually taciturn and the other commonly hasty, both disposed to different ways of relating, fell into a rhythm of exchange; a pure integrative coherence with words, and thoughts, and feelings, that connected, fused, and expanded upon both, until the experience of each woman became one.
My mother was cold, said Jules. Her mother had in fact been cold. On certain days it seemed like no amount of warmth could heat her, like the leftovers of a homemade meal, tucked away in the back of a freezer, that always took too long to defrost. Jules told Mrs. Grey about the way her mother had brushed her and her sibling's hair. She would run the bristles of the brush along the scalp and down through the ends with a fierce urgency, as if the heat, the empathy, that she possessed, was an endangered species always on the brink of survival. She couldn’t replenish these reserves; She didn’t know how to. My mother taught me how to shout, Jules explained. I spent years trying to shout my way to sanity. Finally, after so many years of resistance, I learned that this wasn’t the way. But somewhere rooted inside, in the deepest and most central part of my existence, is the soft and quiet despair I feel for her, for us. That place speaks to me and tells me that there is another way.
A shudder went through Jules. What was the use she thought, of telling this all to a strange woman whom she did not know, who did not know her, and who happily and heartily sat here sewing for her children, offering them her art, and herself. What elements was she made of that her own mother was not? She felt herself shrink, the limbs of her body curling closer around each other, holding her together.
Mrs. Grey responded with a few lithe nods. Jules’ confidence in her pressed on deep, quelled memories of her past. She could not remember right away what they were; the feelings, the emotions of these times, came to her first, superimposed upon the ways she had so assiduously tried to organize these impressions on her soul with words. A mood fell upon her that made the space around her seem slow and dense. What is it? What was it? She asked, conversing with her other self, her mental self. And then the two selves converged, conciliated an agreement. It was the hairbrush; the brushing of the hair that Jules had mentioned. Mrs. Grey with a half-formed awareness saw a bathtub, smelled the oatmeal Aveeno bath treatment she once used so often, and then, in the instant between remembering and seeing, the back of a baby’s head, bobbing up and down. A pain shot from her gut to her head; her head started to throb. She heard the baby crying, disjointed from the rest of the recollection, as if threatening pieces of the memory gradually arrived only to explain the rapid onset of her migraine, the extra gravity in the room. All that was necessary to remember came not from the vision that piece by piece emerged, like an empty room being furnished, but from the strange thrill in her being that preceded the rest. And then, all at once, the room was complete, full, bright. It was her own daughter, her baby girl, drowning in the tub. She imagined thrusting her upper body into the tub to save the child. But no, it was not time yet. She could not bargain with her being enough to renovate the event completely; the feeling was still there; would always be there; the sensation, the tiny hollowness within the immense contraction, it lived unconditionally somewhere deep down inside of her, with greater loyalty than any of her other units of thought, the visual, the lingual. She would have to wait for it all to happen again.
A boundless sympathy rushed forth from Mrs. Grey. Floodgates opened; tears rolled down her face, sprinkling the embroidered purse on her lap with tiny, dark spots. She too, she thought, had probably been like this mother at times; chilly; feigning a detachment that was only the result of a confused and unlimited attachment.
Love isn’t static, Mrs. Grey told Jules, it is an inescapable wonder that echoes ceaselessly. It’s not something you can turn off and on, especially not for a mother. It’s an eternal and exhausting performance. Just like an opera singer, the more tension there is, so too then the harder it is for the mother to sing. Tenseness in the muscles uses more oxygen, explained Mrs. Grey. Have patience with your mother; She had the endurance of love, just not the efficiency. She did not want to open up, for fear of letting any of it go. And can you blame her?
Jules thought about this. Microphones appeared. Where had her mother’s microphone been? What instrument could have been there to amplify the love she did relinquish? Where had it been, Jules wondered.
Mrs. Grey wiped her eyes and let out a fresh, clearing sigh. She placed her right thumb on her left pulse. Do you want to hear something? She asked Jules. Jules said she did. Your phone, Mrs. Grey replied, do you think I can search for a song on there? Jules wiggled her cell phone out of her book bag and handed it to Mrs. Grey. The old woman stumbled her way to Safari and searched for Maria Callas, the opera singer who had died of a broken heart, who was rumored to have seen her love in the crowd of her show with his new woman, the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. She clicked on La Mamma Morta.
A deep reverential silence pervaded the room underneath the loud, resounding voice of Maria Callas. All mental and physical noises submitted themselves to her song. Jules and Mrs. Grey forget themselves in its purity; every warble unpeeling the violent manifestations of the love they held within themselves. Jules did not know the Italian like Mrs. Grey, but that was no matter; the cosmic current flowed through each the same.
When the song was over, the old woman lifted up her overturned palms and recited by memory for Jules a portion of the song:
Fu in quel dolore (It was then, in my grief)
che a me venne l’amor! (That Love came to me!)
Voce piena d’armonia e dice: (And murmured in a sweet, melodious voice:)
‘Vivi ancora! Io son la vita! (You must live! I am life itself!)
It was her first intimation of the language of the heart.