by Tom Schmidt
The state-run convalescent home is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile, helpless, and lonely people who are waiting to die. On the brightest days, it seems dark inside and smells of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.
On this particular day, I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking for a few who were alive to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or wheelchairs, and looking completely helpless.
As I neared the hallway’s end, I saw an old woman strapped in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told said she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. A discolored and running sore covered part of one cheek, and it has pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new nurses arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything there. I learned later that his woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.
I don’t know why I spoke to her — she looked less likely to respond than others I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, ‘Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.’ She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, ‘Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know. I’m blind.’ “I said, ‘Of course,’ and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, ‘Here, this is from Jesus.’
That’s when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent home. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomachaches, and then cancer. Her three roommates were all human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was often overpowering.
Mabel and I became friends over the next weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words were usually an offer of candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I read to her from the Bible, and when I would pause she’d continue reciting the passage from memory. Other days I took a book of hymns and sang with her, and she knew all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely memory exercises. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she faced on certain lines in certain hymns.
It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say. During one hectic week of final exams, I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to think about. The question occurred to me, ‘What does Mabel have to think about — hour after hour day after day, week after week, nor even able to know if it’s day or night?’ So I went to her and asked, ‘Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?’
And she said, ‘I think about my Jesus.’ “I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote … :
“I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know … I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied … Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.”
And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad he makes me glad.
He’s my friend.
This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening —and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?
The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.