Lexie dropped the pint bottle of Ensure into her cloth bag, slung the bag over her shoulder, and held the bouquet of dyed pink daisies over it for camouflage. With her other hand, she put the phone back to her ear.
“All right,” she said to Allyson, “I’ve got it. They’ll never notice it under the flowers.”
At the top step, the big automatic doors swung open, not too fast, not too slow, and she walked through the entryway. Turning right into the big hallway, she didn’t glance at the small sign that read, “Hospice Care”; she knew the way.
“This place always gives me the creeps, ” she told her sister. Allyson was sitting safe at home in Cincinnati, more than a thousand miles away.
“Why?” Asked Allyson. “Because it’s full of dying people?”
“Maybe partly,” Lexie said, “but I think it’s more the way they kinda package the whole thing here, like everybody’s getting ready for a birthday party. I mean–
A woman’s voice interrupted. “Can you help me?” It sounded weak, but piercing. “Can you help me?” Again.
Lexie slowed and glanced to her right. In a lounge doorway a woman sat in a wheelchair. Her hair was tousled, her hands outstretched, reaching toward Lexie.
“I, uh — I” Lexie started, then noticed that the woman’s gaze was fixed somewhere behind her, and her eyes seemed unfocused. The image came to Lexie of someone caught in a swirling river at floodtide, about to be swept away.
Lexie swayed uncertainly. Both her hands were full. She heard Allyson saying, distantly, “Are you there?” as if the call had dropped, which it often did. And looking closer, she saw the woman was strapped into the chair, with what looked like a seat belt.
Lexie thought, I bet she’s from the Memory Unit at the other end, and she was parked here while the attendant is outside smoking. She probably doesn’t remember how to unbuckle the belt.
The woman repeated her call, “Can you help me?” and Lexie snapped back to her own reality. “Sorry,” she told the woman, and started walking again.
“I’m here,” she said into the phone. “Just got derailed for a minute.”
Lexie was headed for the second last room in the long hallway. Each door she passed had someone’s last name in block black letters on a card in a slot, and she knew most of them by now: Callahan, Bradley, Washington–
— No. Washington’s slot was now empty. Washington — Lexie didn’t know if it was he or she — was dead.
“Looks like another one bit the dust,” she told Allyson.
“Since when?” Allyson asked.
Since yesterday. Lexie explained that hospice staff wasted no time: the body was wheeled to the morgue, the room cleaned, disinfected, and aired out for a day or so. Then someone else was moved in, and a new card went into the slot.
It was all done very quietly, even the dying too, usually. She remembered an overheard wisecrack in the break room, some big guy, with a gray beard and a semi-booming voice: “Yeah, man, people are just dyin’ to see us.” She hadn’t laughed.
Hancock was the name on the next door. That’s where she was headed. The door was closed, but the nametag — yes– was still there. “Okay,” she said, “I’m here. Wish me luck.”
“Call me back when you can,” Allyson said, as Lexie touched the red button.
She stood for a moment, fingers on the door handle, remembering the woman on the card, Sally Hancock, before she ended up here.
Lexie let go of the door handle and touched a multicolor dot on her phone screen. A photo album popped open, of Sally the Happy Peaceful Warrior.
Sally had inherited some money from wealthy parents. She gave most of it away, lived simply on the rest, and made a career of protesting every war the USA got into in her long life. She spoke about them in the Quaker meeting, maybe a bit too often. She took her protests downtown, every week it seemed like, usually outside the main post office.
Several photos showed her standing alone, holding her big homemade signs. Every April she refused to pay half her income taxes; that part paid for wars, she told the IRS.
There seemed no end of them, the wars that is: the oldest image, a black and white snapshot showed Lexie with Sally denouncing the Vietnam war; Lexie was in second grade. Central America after that, and all along the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. And more, all the way to Iraq & Afghanistan, the wars of today which were supposedly over, except they weren’t.
So the names of the wars on Sally’s signs changed. And her curly hair went from brown to grey to white. But the post office was the same. Along with Sally’s stubborn smile.
And Desert Storm, that mad four-day orgy of killing that set off victory parades here and all over. Sally was protesting there too. Lexie still got a little choked up recalling when Sally was knocked down by some hulking teenager in the victory parade afterward. The guy had wrapped himself in wide yellow ribbons. Sally was holding a sign that said “Shame! Shame!”
Later, when Sally sat down in front of the gates by the old airbase, trying to stop buses bringing in troops bound for Iraq again, Lexie hadn’t gone with her. Those sitdowns got Sally arrested, and Lexie wasn’t really up for facing jail, at least not yet. She was grown up, working now, and had school loans to pay back.
But after Sally’s third arrest, the judge sent her off to a federal penitentiary for three months.
Lexie did visit her there, after a long drive across the wintertime desert. She found Sally in good spirits, in a bright orange jumpsuit. But Lexie’s more lasting memory was the bleakness of the gray family room, and the quiet desperation in the eyes of so many children there. Families divided and crumbling, all around her.
On her release, Sally was greeted like an antiwar hero at the Quaker meeting. But when Lexie gave Sally a hug, she felt smaller, and fragile.
Sally was, Lexie admitted, getting tired. After all, it had been forty years since Vietnam had ended. She was almost eighty; and Lexie was now middle aged herself.
But there were still new wars. And Sally still kept showing up downtown. Her steps were slower, and she didn’t stay in front of the post office as long, especially in bad weather. For awhile she wasn’t alone: another Quaker her age, a widow named Eleanor, “felt a concern” to join her vigils.
Album photos of the two of them showed women who were proudly wrinkled and stubborn: the two of them taking on a trillion-dollar war machine. It could have been completely ridiculous, except somehow it wasn’t. Besides, their signs had new words on them: “Drones,” and “Torture,” and more.
Then last spring, after four years of standing together, Eleanor had a stroke. When she woke up from her coma, she couldn’t speak, or walk, and only occasionally recognized Sally, or the other Quakers who came to sit with her.
And last autumn, Sally herself got pnuemonia, and was in bed for three weeks. She seemed to bounce back, and was on the corner by the post office the week before Thanksgiving. There she passed out flyers calling for a boycott of the “Black Friday” buying frenzy, urging shoppers instead to send donations to peace groups and homeless shelters.
But that Sunday, at the Quaker meeting, the Clerk announced Sally had asked for a special called meeting the next week, at which she would be sharing some important personal news.
The announcement caught Lexie by surprise. Was this some new protest effort? The Clerk, when she asked, shook her head, but wouldn’t say more, insisting it was up to Sally to do that, and that a special clearness committee had been working with her, and Friends were not to pester her about it beforehand.
Lexie was on edge all week, and showed up at the meetinghouse early, fidgeting in the front row as Friends filled in the seats around her. Then Sally came in, with the Clerk and two other Friends, from the Clearness Committee. They sat down at a small table, and after an opening silence, Sally began to speak.
She spoke calmly, but clearly. In recent years, she said, her body had grown weaker. And during her recent bout of pneumonia, the weakness had increased. As she recovered, it seemed to be sending her a message, that grew clearer and firmer each day: after eighty-five years, her body was done. Finished. It was time to go.
Lexie’s jaw dropped. Surely, Sally couldn’t be saying this.
But she was. This message, Sally went on, was deepened when she had visited Eleanor, now bedridden, unable to care for herself, and who didn’t recognize her. “I felt so sorry for her,” Sally said, wiping tears. “And I have other friends who are in similar shape, or near it.”
Her expression became firm. “I don’t want to spend months or years like that.” She took a breath. “I won’t do it.”
Then a smile, and she raised a finger. “Now don’t anyone tell me I still have a long and happy life to live. I’ve already had one.”
Lexie had to join the chuckles despite her own tears.
“So what am I going to do? I remember a poem by Dorothy Parker. Do you know it?” She quoted it, grinning mischievously:
“Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.”
More tearful chuckles. “But Friend Parker didn’t mention food,” Sally said. “No food, no fuss, no muss. And there’s no law saying you have to eat.”
So that was it. Beginning the next day, Sally intended to stop eating. She had researched this, and after a few days of increasing weakness, she could expect to slide into a kind of coma, and after a few more days, in time for Christmas, it would be over.
“I’m at peace, and feel happy and free,” Sally said, “and very much loved by my Quaker family here.” She invited the group to close the meeting by singing her favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
As the voices rose, Lexie stood and rushed out of the room, down the walk to her car.
She was devastated, horrified. Sally couldn’t possibly mean it. She couldn’t be ready to do this. It was, it was suicide. She must be depressed.
That was it. Being so sick, then seeing Eleanor, it would depress anybody. She’d snap out of it. Lexie decided she would help her.
And that was why, two weeks later, she was standing here at the door with Sally’s name in the slot, smuggling in contraband.
There was still a chance Sally would change her mind. Or if she was awake, maybe Lexie could persuade her she still had work to do, and friends who needed her.
She closed the photo album, slipped her phone into the bag and reached for the door handle.
And just then the door was pushed open. Lexie stumbled backward and lost her balance. Her bag and the flowers tumbled to the floor.
A big hand caught her arm, and she scrambled to her feet. She blinked, and was looking into the bearded, alarmed face of the big guy from the break room.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he said, “I didn’t know anyone was there.”
“What–what are you doing here?” Lexie demanded.
“I’m with hospice services,” he said, and pointed to a photo ID on his flannel shirt: “Ken” it read by the thumbnail photo. He leaned down, scooped up her bag, and handed it to her.
“Your phone is over there,” he pointed across the hall floor. “Better check and see if it’s okay.”
Lexie picked it up, her hands a bit shaky. The screen wasn’t cracked, and the buttons seemed to work; there was a text from Allyson waiting. “Later” she typed in, and sent it, no problem.
She was putting it into the bag when he said, “Um, is this yours too?” In his hand was the bottle of Ensure.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly nervous. “Um, yes.”
Ken rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Why don’t you come in.” He opened the door.
Inside, the shades were drawn, and the light was dimmed. A hospital bed was at the center of the room, with the head end elevated a few inches. Sally lay on her right side, almost in a fetal position. She was covered by a large bright afghan, crocheted in Christmas colors, red green and white, in a zigzag pattern. It was one of her favorites, a flea market find; Lexie had been with her when she bought it.
Sally’s eyes were closed; her white hair looked thin. Standing very still beside the bed, Lexie could barely make out the slow, ragged rise and fall of the afghan.
Ken bent across the other side of the bed, and drew his fingers slowly across Sally’s forehead. Lexie noticed that while his hands were large, their touch was gentle, almost tender.
“Won’t be long for her,” he said quietly. He glanced up, “What about you?”
Lexie was flustered by the question. “Me?” She said. “I guess — I guess I haven’t given up hope.”
“Well, ma’am,” Ken said, “I might could say something about that,” he said.
“What?” Lexie said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Ken said, “worked with, I don’t know, several hundred folks, their families, friends. And overall, it’s been harder for some of the families than for the patients themselves.”
“What do you mean?” Lexie asked.
“To deal with it,” he said. “To let go. After all, by the time most people get here, they get that the die is pretty much cast, know what I mean?”
“And some of them are ready to get on with it.” He shrugged. “After all, sooner or later we’ll all end up in the same spot. If we’re lucky, passing through here.”
There was a chair next to the bed. Lexie collapsed into it.
“But even here,” Ken said, “some people are still helping others. Like Miss Sally here.”
Lexie gave him a sharp look. “How is that possible, in her condition?”
Ken half-smiled. “Oh, that’s simple. Sally is showing us how to die.” He scratched at his ear. “I heard her story, from some of the Quakers. And I remember seeing her down by the post office.”
“But she was getting better,” Lexie protested. “She’d been sick with pneumonia, but she beat that.”
“Maybe so,” Ken said, “but she and I talked about it when she first got here, and she said her body told her it was done, and she listened.”
He shook his head. “Too many of us don’t listen to our bodies, ma’am. But we all have to live in them, and eventually they give out. Sally listened, in time, and took charge. I really admire that.”
Something buzzed in his shirt pocket. He took out a phone and looked at it.
“I have to go see another patient,” he said. “Feel free to sit here as long as you like, ma’am. And um, if anything changes, just push the call button there.” He closed the door quietly.
Lexie looked down at Sally, under the colorful afghan. “Teach me, Sally,” she whispered into the silence.
And what came out of the silence was an echo. Quiet but clear, from the Dorothy Parker poem Sally had recited to the meeting. Not the mocking list of ways to do oneself in, but the insouciantly upbeat last line: “You might as well live.” Or maybe, when the time came, you might as well not.
“Sally, you’re right,” Lexie whispered. “I’m sorry I’ve been trying to hold you back for me.” She stood, then leaned down and kissed Sally’s forehead.
Once in the hallway she picked up her pace. But halfway down she was interrupted again. “Can you help me?” Came the plea. “Can you help me?”
The woman in the wheelchair. Lexie turned to her.
“I don’t know if I can help you,” she said. “But I can at least give you a ride. Okay?”
The woman looked confused, as if she didn’t quite understand. But a furtive half smile began to spread across her face.
“Let’s do it,” Lexie said, and began pushing her down the hallway. As she sped up, the woman’s smile got bigger.
Lexie pushed to the end of the long hallway, made a gentle wheelie, and pushed her all the way back, just fast enough that the woman’s stringy hair stirred a bit in the breeze.
“There,” she said. “I hope that was fun. Take care!”
As the big automatic doors swung open, she heard the woman call again, in the distance now, “Can you help me?”
But Lexie was on her phone. Allyson picked up. “How did it go?” She said.
“Better than I expected,” Lexie said. “I’m on my way home now, to make some peace posters.”
“For the corner by the post office?”
“You got it.”
“That,” said Allyson, “is truly awesome.”
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