A dying woman, born in 1925, moved permanently into our house this week. The woman, “Mildred”—whom I wrote about a few weeks ago when she was still dividing her time between our house and hers—has a bush of gorgeous white hair, and doesn’t want to spend her last days alone.
Mildred recently wound her arm around mine and told me about her life at age 10. She had lovely long blonde hair, and her brother Gordon cut it off in her sleep. Her family lived on the riverbank in Campbell, N.Y., where water came through the floorboards. She played clarinet in the band and got three piano lessons from an old maid in exchange for brown eggs. The lessons terminated when her mother wanted to keep the brown eggs, so with the old maid, Mildred never got out of “Three Blind Mice.” But on her own she learned to play all the hymns out of the hymnal.
I held Mildred’s hand the other week while I sat next to her hospital bed, watching her outrageously high blood pressure drop. I sang to her, hymn after hymn. Her hand felt silky. I sang “Up from the Grave He Arose” and Mildred started to hum with me a little through her lips, then lamented that I could remember the words and she couldn’t.
I crawled in bed beside her again last night in the spare room. After we had watched Shirley Temple as Heidi dance in wooden shoes for a while, Mildred told me some more stories. She told me about the set of heavy bowls under her sink—one blue, one green, and one yellow—which she bought 70 years ago and had never seen the like of since.
I added this bit to my growing and glittering collection of Mildred’s life facts. I now knew the story of a guy she used to love to square dance with, who wanted to marry her but died of heart trouble. “I hope it wasn’t on account of me,” Mildred said.
I knew about the little deer, Malibu, which Mildred domesticated years ago. I knew she quit high school during her 18th Christmas to marry a man her mother told her not to. Her story contained more heartache than I understand, or have space to explain.
She told me that when she came here for the first time, when mom tucked her into bed, kissed her head, and said, “I love you,” Mildred said in her heart, “Is this real? Is this even real?”
And suddenly we have become the stewards not only of her sparkling fact file but also of her last days. Us, the four-membered family of short-legged people who grow our own corn and believe staunchly in community. What are we going to do about it?
Hospice nurses, relatives, chaplains, and pastors have made us wish we had a revolving door on the house for convenience. So Mildred’s last days are busy and people-full. And I guess they should be. When Mildred’s desire to have someone with her all the time restrains our freedom, I try to contemplate the stories only she can tell. They will vanish before I have time to catch them all.