Exiting the elevator, Olivia and I turn right and make our way down the long, carpeted corridor to Mrs. Everley’s room. Air freshener poorly masks the smell of urine. I wonder if my baby, who rides peacefully in her stroller, is bothered by the odor. It is a peculiar smell, one I have come to associate specifically with the dying.
The residents we encounter in this assisted living facility fawn over Olivia when we pass by. They ask the usual questions: A girl or a boy? How old? Is she your first? But they ask with a stronger curiosity than younger people do. In the Nigerian language Bole, the same word is used for both grandmother and granddaughter (dìya), and grandfather and grandson (dìka). And in many African cultures grandparents jokingly refer to their grandchild as their “husband” or “wife.” There is a mysterious kinship between the very young and very old, a kind of recognition: we are standing on the edge of the world.
We have been visiting Mrs. Everley, who is ninety-four, every week since Olivia was seven weeks old. Before my daughter was born I assumed that I’d take a hiatus from my hospice volunteering, just as I’d be taking a leave from work. But then it occurred to me that my maternity leave would be the perfect time to sit with hospice patients, as long as I could bring my baby along. With a whole semester away from my students, my schedule would be free of lecturing, grading, and other work obligations. My baby would be too young to have her own agenda, outside of nursing and napping.
Mrs. Everley has always loved children, but is not interested in having an adult volunteer sit with her. She barely tolerates the nursing assistants and other paid caregivers. She isn’t cold or unfriendly, just particular. She complains about the aides who dress and bathe her, help her in and out of her recliner, and bring her meals. But she needs help with more and more tasks, and anxiety creeps in when she is alone. Before Olivia and I started visiting, the only person who seemed to soothe her was her granddaughter, Janice. But with her own family and busy life, Janice needed relief. Janice wondered whether a baby might offer some comfort, or at least a diversion, for her grandmother.
Janice’s intuition was spot on. Each week, we are greeted with plumes of adoration, all in Mrs. Everley’s pillowy, lilting Virginian accent: “My precious angel! My darlin’! She is the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen! Bless his heart.” She always says, “Bless his heart,” even though she knows Olivia is a girl.
Unlike the other patient we visit, Mrs. Everley knows exactly who we are, even though she’s not quite clear on why we show up every week. Mrs. Everley has told everyone about Olivia: her whole family, other residents of the facility. She even confided to the hospice chaplain, “Don’t tell anyone, but a woman comes to see me and brings her baby!” She missed us the week we were out of town. Olivia has, in fact, been lifted to something like celebrity status.
When I first met Mrs. Everley she was lucid and chatty. Between gilded praises for Olivia she would stroll through her orchard of memories and pick stories to tell. Happy ones: when she had her six-year-old daughter’s hair curled into shiny ringlets for her first professional photograph. Sad ones: when she learned she couldn’t have more children, or when her daughter passed away. Stories about the future: she would point to paintings in her apartment, such as the Chinese-style one across the room, and tell me which great-grandchild wanted to have it after she was gone. When she couldn’t find a word or lost part of her story she would gently laugh at herself, like my grandmother did before her dementia became severe.
Mrs. Everley reminds me a little of my grandmother, a Southern Christian version of my Californian Jewish grandmother. Three years before Olivia was born I sat beside her as she was dying. Her irregular breathing had slowed, her already unsteady mind tilted further from its erstwhile balance. Over the course of three days I learned to read her unspoken signals. When she pointed to her lips, I kissed them. When she reached for my hand, I let her hold it. When she touched my face, I leaned forward and let her stroke my hair. I watched in wonder as she touched her own face, feeling the ridge of her nose, the curve of her brow, her long-turned-silver hair, her parched lips. The body saying goodbye to itself.
After this experience I sought out a hospice organization I could get involved with as a volunteer. Partly I was inspired to help others traverse this awesome and terrifying path, as I had my grandmother. Partly, though, my motivation was selfish. I wanted to be in the presence of this profound change, a body stepping into the borderlands. Sitting with the dying reminds me to ask unsettling questions: Will I be comfortable in my body when I can’t walk or use the bathroom without help? How will I feel when my mind no longer remembers itself? Will I hold on with a vise grip or surrender to the tide of the universe as it pulls me away from this Earth? Sitting with the dying also reminds me, importantly, of the essential sameness between us humans. Someday I too will be like this. Incredibly, so will Olivia.
Details of daily living don’t stop mattering to the dying. Mrs. Everley fretted over a stain on her blouse, losing one earring, a hoarseness in her voice. She didn’t want us to come on Tuesdays because that was when she had her hair done. Southern hospitality had saturated her bones over the years. One week she insisted on sharing with me some chocolates brought to her by friends from her church; another week she offered me the last of her favorite cookies.
Once when we arrived for our visit, Mrs. Everley was being helped by an aide with her toileting. When I knocked on the apartment door the aide came out and asked who I was. I told her I was a volunteer. I could hear Mrs. Everley asking in the bathroom, “Is it the woman with the baby? Please ask them to wait!” It distressed her that she might miss us. Afterwards she apologized profusely for having kept us waiting.
Early on in our visits Mrs. Everley cradled Olivia in the crook of her arm. “Yes, darlin’, there’s your momma right there,” she reassured her, even though Olivia never cried. “She won’t ever leave you. That’s right. She won’t ever leave you, precious angel.” Later, when Mrs. Everley didn’t want to hold Olivia, she would just gaze at her sitting on my lap.
During last week’s visit Mrs. Everley told me how her husband, who had been a Methodist, converted so that they could worship as a family at the same Baptist church. She asked me if I belonged to a church. I was a bit reluctant to tell her I was a Buddhist, thinking she might not approve or understand what it was. But when I told her that I attended a local Zen Buddhist center, she seemed satisfied. She even commented, “You know, I can tell you are a Buddhist. You look like you would be a Buddhist.” I don’t know what she meant by that, but it seemed to be a remark of approval. She wanted to make sure Olivia would grow up in a spiritual community.
Since we started visiting Mrs. Everley four months ago, Olivia has been growing in all the myriad ways babies do: smiling, cooing, holding her head up, rolling over, babbling, and now sitting up and grabbing things. And Mrs. Everley has been un-growing in the ways of the dying. In the past few weeks her mind and body have edged further toward frailty. She has more and more trouble coaxing words from the corners of her mind, more confusion about where she is. She no longer understands how to use the phone to call her granddaughter, Janice.
I wonder if today’s visit will be our last. Mrs. Everley has left her recliner for a hospital bed, where she lies curled on her side. She moans a little but is otherwise unresponsive when Janice tries to wake her.
Like the labor of childbirth, which can telescope into a days-long affair, the process of dying can stretch on for days or even weeks. Mrs. Everley is “transitioning,” as they say in hospice lingo, but we don’t know yet if she is actively dying. My own grandmother lived for two more weeks after my visit, without eating or drinking—she did suck on water-dipped sponges. Her spirit took its time unwinding, her body undoing, her mind unknowing. But death can also, unpredictably, happen quickly.
I wait a long while before approaching.
“Mrs. Everley? I brought Olivia to see you.”
As if Olivia’s name were a magic word, Mrs. Everley’s eyes spring open and she lifts her head. “Oh, you came to see me! My darlin’, precious angel…” she trails off. Olivia is particularly lively, excitedly proclaiming “Da da da da da!” in her cute, singsong voice. She jumps on the bed while I hold her body, my small bundle of energy. Every time Olivia jumps or babbles Mrs. Everley smiles and laughs a little. She drifts in and out of consciousness, in and out of intelligibility. For a while Olivia leans against her fragile hip, grabbing her bony fingers or the loose, mottled skin of her arm. Mrs. Everley doesn’t seem to mind at all.
We stay for half an hour like this, me holding Olivia as she jumps on the bed, Mrs. Everley sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking. Finally I sense that Mrs. Everley needs to rest.
“Mrs. Everley, we’re going to go now. We really enjoyed our visit.”
She quickens. “Oh, please come back again.”
“We will. We’ll come back and see you again. Goodbye now.”
I don’t question the genuineness of Mrs. Everley’s enthusiasm over Olivia, but I confess it surprises me. Her response is so visceral, it’s as if Olivia channels a line of adrenaline straight to Mrs. Everley’s tired-out heart. Maybe Olivia does have magical powers. Maybe all children do. They who have so recently entered through the doorway of life have the power to forge a profound connection to those about to make their exit. New skin touching old skin, two beings passing one another on the great highway of life. I can conjure a soft-focus image of their private conversation: The elder asks the younger, “What is it like on the other side?” The younger smiles and coos.
Or maybe Mrs. Everley is simply charmed by youth’s vivacity and fascinated with its unspent possibilities. For Olivia’s part, I doubt she is actually aware of what she sees before her: a long ribbon of life now fraying. She encounters this dying woman with the same emphatic curiosity she does everything else in her rapidly expanding world. In some sense, their affinity is to be expected. They have much in common: few teeth, little hair, incontinence. A close proximity to laughter and to tears. An uncertain degree of awareness of exactly where they are and why they are there. Neither of them will remember these visits. How wonderful that they should know one another.