"Nowhere Else I Want to Be: A Memoir"
Someone took a photo of Patti during her only Christmas with us, sitting in the dining room with a smile so big her eyes crinkle up and just about disappear. She might have been comical, this 45-year-old woman who had no compunction about her smile revealing baby-smooth, toothless gums, except for the joy scintillating around her. It seemed perfect that a woman of such happiness would be with us over a Christmas season, the sole holiday during her short stay.
You might think life at Miriam's House would be depressing. You might think Washington, D.C.'s homeless women with AIDS would have little hope, little to live for. Once you'd learned that most of our residents were recovering addicts and many had mental illness diagnoses, you'd imagine a dull, sad place. You'd guess that a small nonprofit with a tight budget would be unable to muster the resources needed to lacquer bright season cheer over such lives. You'd be wrong.
That's not to say there wasn't some depression, especially on holidays. Women who had made choices they regretted terribly met celebration with mixed emotion. All of us, staff and residents, mourned the year's deaths, a sorrowful counterpoint to music on the stereo and voices exclaiming loudly over party preparations. But you'd need to have known women like Patti to understand Miriam's House. You'd need to look at that photo or hear her story in order not to simply dismiss her. I know because I, by then six years the executive director, once told myself I was too busy with too many important things to pay attention to Patti.
She moved in during November 2001, a medium-build, cheerful woman, her hair spiking reddish wisps above the beaming face and her outfit mismatched as though she may have been color-blind. Even a cursory glance would tell you she was mentally challenged. Her possessions were few – she had been either homeless or institutionalized most of her life. But little seemed to matter to Patti aside from her drum, a beautiful instrument that looked to be African in the Djembe style. She blithely told us she was a drummer, and we took that in the professional sense because she was so sure of herself. She offered to keep the drum in the living room so others could use it, and we imagined group drumming lessons. It was with some excitement that a few residents and staff gathered in the living room the next night after dinner to hear Patti play.
She sat at the drum, radiating pride, lifted her hands, bowed her head, and began pounding. And pounding. We could discern no rhythm, no indication of a pattern, nothing musical except the look of ecstasy on Patti's face. We applauded madly when she was done, cheering and standing up to clap her on the back. She again offered to teach us, and we had our first lesson then and there.
In a week or so we held our sixth Annual Holiday Party, which is when the photo was taken. Behind Patti you see the poinsettia tablecloths, a red and green popcorn tin decorated with snowmen, twinkle lights on the potted palm and fake snow on the windows. Patti wears a bulky white sweater with gold and red trim at the shoulders and down the bodice. She does look odd, with the huge grin innocent of any teeth at all, cheek muscles so vigorously engaged that her blue eyes are barely visible above them, and the fly-away hair.
We’d had a conversation on the day the photo was taken. I was on a break from the party preparations, sitting in the dining room and listening to Christmas music when Patti came in.
--Oh, I love this! She was referring to the carol playing at that moment. She halted, clasped her hands under her chin and closed her eyes in concentration, swaying. As the carol ended, she came out of her trance and sat at the table with me. --You know, I sang that in a choir. Which is it?
--The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
--Yes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
I stared, speechless.
--I also sang The Messiah with them.
Patti was Mormon? Oh yes, she had sung with them for twenty-five years when she lived out west. Just after graduating from the music college, of course. Momentary bemusement kept me silent (Mormon? College?) until I remembered the drumming. She went on. She had also been a ballerina. The swan in Swan Lake. She had toured all over the world. That was after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They toured, too. She had been to Russia and Egypt and Kenya.
Patti’s guileless eyes met mine.
--Oh, Patti, what a wonderful life you’ve had.
I mentally checked out of the conversation, my mind wandering to my apartment kitchen and the turkey I needed to run upstairs to baste. I could sit for a few minutes while Patti made up experiences but pretty soon it would be time to escape. Nodding vaguely and hmm-ing while she went on about another invented accomplishment, I turned my thoughts to more important matters like that un-basted turkey and the fact that the house would be full of guests in a few hours.
When I did allow myself to really pay attention Patti, it was on the night she died.
No matter how long I stayed at Miriam's House, the sudden slide into death of one who had seemed well always left me dazed. In some strange way I would forget she was ill, would somehow discount the severity of the diagnosis. As I shared life with these women and loved them, I think I began to believe we would all live forever.
It was sudden like that with Patti, and even more so because her habitual cheerfulness belied illness. Though she was with us fewer than two months, we came to rely on that cheer and the way she greeted conflict and concord alike with her gummy grin.
In late December, Patti was admitted to George Washington University Hospital with liver failure. We'd barely had time to adjust to this before we were told she had less than a month to live. And her doctor said that death from liver failure needed more nursing capability than we had at Miriam's House, so instead of coming home to us for hospice care, she was admitted to a nursing home. After waiting a few days for permission to see her, five residents and I got ready to visit one wintery early January evening. The women who couldn't go gathered around and gave us messages for her.
--Give Patti a kiss for me!
--Wait. Don't she like stuffed bears? We gotta bring a stuffed bear.
--I got a extra one...be right back.
--What, now we waitin' for Theresa to get a bear? Gettin' hot in this coat.
--Tell Patti I be keepin' an eye on her drum for her til she come back.
--Hey, shouldn't they take a plate? I got some pigs feet and biscuits and...
--No, not on this first visit, not until we know what her diet is.
--Here come Theresa. Let's go. Can we have the gospel station on in the van?
And so we headed out, stepping around icy patches on the sidewalk and shivering in the van until it warmed up enough to kick out some heat. The nursing home was not far, just over on Wisconsin Avenue. The trip lasted long enough for belting out a couple gospel songs as accompaniment to the radio.
Patti's room was near the nursing station, which occupied the center of a ring with the patient rooms on the perimeter. We found her sitting up in the bed, propped by several pillows, face haggard. Yet the smile with which she greeted us was just as brilliant as ever. As we hugged and well-wished and relayed messages she reached for the teddy bear and clasped it to her chest.
--I had the most beautiful dream! Patti leaned forward, frail yet eager, the bear's fuzzy ears framing her chin. The room was fairly large and Patti its only occupant. Her window, etched in frost, looked into a courtyard shrouded in drifts of snow. The winter evening lay serenely beyond, vigilant.
--I was asleep but not asleep. And there was an angel – a beautiful angel, all in white and gold and shiny. She filled the sky. And there was a tear on her face. But not a tear of sorrow. A tear of joy.
We left her fifteen minutes later in an uncharacteristic silence that lasted through the ride home to Miriam's House.
I ate supper, got back into the van and, three hours after we had left her room, walked into it again. We had been told on the earlier visit that the nurses estimated Patti had fewer than 24 hours left. Even though these guesses usually turned out to be wrong, I wanted to make good our promise to her that she would not die alone. Someone could come take my place if she made it to the morning.
And there I stayed through the peaceful night, my back to the window with its crystalline tracings and my face to Patti, who was unconscious and had been so, a nurse told me, since shortly after we'd left her. Occasionally a nurse entered, checked her pulse and breathing, nodded at me and left. Several times an aide came in to apply gel to her chapped lips, run a moist swab around her parched mouth and turn her in the bed.
Otherwise I was alone, there with Patti, her dream, the onyx night and my thoughts about turkeys and being busy and stories bubbling up through mental illness's porous filters unheeded by the careless listener. Occasionally I soothed lotion on her hands and arms and chatted quietly about goings-on back home. Once I rearranged pillows discommoded in her sole bout of restlessness and picked the teddy bear up off the floor. At around 3:00am, she coughed and gagged. I jumped over to her, grabbed her shoulders and turned her on her side. Dark crimson vomit flowed over the sheets and onto the floor. I found a care aide and told her. She cleaned up the vomit and left with a significant look, it's good you're here.
After that, Patti returned to the peaceful state that had marked the entire night. So still was she, I worried about falling asleep, that she might die while I was not awake and present to her. I stood to gaze out onto the pristine, drifted snow in the courtyard beyond the window. I tucked the stuffed bear next to her, massaged more lotion into her hands, sat with a hand over hers. She was so calm.
Close to 5:00am, just as I was planning to call Miriam's House to arrange for someone else to come and sit with Patti, she coughed. I looked up. The muscles at her clavicle pulled tight and released as she drew in a ragged breath. I rushed to sit behind her, propping her up against me, my arms around her. She coughed another breath, her neck's sinew and cord distended. I lay my cheek on her head and whispered. You're beautiful. We love you. We all love you. She gasped and gasped again. Then she was perfectly still.
For her memorial service a few days later, we circled chairs in the living room. We put Patti's drum in the center, next to a table draped with a purple shawl and set with a lit pillar candle and several tea lights. One by one, we stood up to light a tiny flame from the larger one, and we told Patti stories. By common consent, we put her her drum next to the piano in the place of honor where it would remain for years to come.
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