I read something recently about how there are people who chase eclipses. They travel around the world in search of solar eclipses, which apparently happen 2-4 times per year. There’s even a name for this: umbraphile, or shadow lover. (Shadow lover sounds MUCH more exotic and interesting than umbraphile, I must say.)

This seems like such a weirdly specific thing to be into, but I kind of get it. Oregon had a total solar eclipse in 2017 and it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. There was this strangely intense moment when the sun was fully covered: a liminal state of being, day but not-day. It got surprisingly cold and the crickets started singing, it felt like the whole world was being rebooted. In a way, it reminded me of the time I was in a small plane flying around the Seattle area and startled by the perspective of Mt. Rainier’s enormous looming presence. Like, you humans think you’re in charge of everything, and yet.

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Erin is not her real name. I’ve changed a few things for her privacy. That said, let me bring you to Erin’s house; come with me to sit with her, this woman caught somewhere in between life and death.

We’re going to start by knocking on a door, which as always triggers an absolute cacophony of high-pitched barking from upstairs. Despite my many arrivals, the unseen dogs remain vigilant.

Erin’s son lets us in and we enter through a sort of foyer which is open to the upstairs. Everything is briefly pure audio chaos as the dogs lose their ever-loving minds and then we go through another door into Erin’s living quarters.

She has a lower-level apartment setup in this larger home, it’s the only part of the house I’ve been inside. There is a bedroom with a hospital bed, a bathroom set up for a wheelchair, a kitchenette, and a small living room.

The living room is where we will stay. Erin is in her wheelchair and situated by a couch. Her son chats for a while then heads upstairs; this is the whole reason we’re here, so he can leave for a bit.

Otherwise, he is down here taking care of his mother. All day and all night (he has a monitor by her bedside that pings him if she wakes up), and he’s done it for many years.

We don’t know Erin’s full medical story or anything like that. What we do know is that she has Alzheimer’s and she’s had a debilitating stroke. One of her legs is amputated, there must have been an infection at some point.

Erin sits in her wheelchair and she does not speak. She does not follow us with her eyes, she gazes up and to the right. There are old paintings hung on the wall she is oriented towards, her son tells me she likes looking at them.

We’re here for three hours. Upon trial and error, I have settled on a sort of routine: I watch vintage shows on the TV (Benson, Magnum P.I., Flipper, Leave it to Beaver), occasionally chatting to Erin about random things: “Gosh, I forgot all about the snarky German lady on Benson!” During commercials, I sometimes read poetry to her from my phone, or I just turn down the volume and let the room be … well, it’s never really quiet, there is a radio forever playing classical music and everything upstairs is largely audible in her area, but I let it be as quiet as possible.

I’m not going to lie, these are three long hours. Very occasionally Erin’s eyes close and her face softens into sleep, but mostly she is awake, she is here but not here. Sometimes she grinds her teeth, there is a terrible and helpless squeak of enamel as her jaw works. Sometimes her throat rattles moistly because she cannot clear it, sometimes she coughs a startling choking sort of cough and I say something dumb like, “Oh, I hope that feels better.”

Her hand clenches, she often has a rolled-up washcloth in her palm to protect herself. We will have to replace it many times when it drops. Her hand is like a fragile bird, can you feel the papery softness of her skin when we peel back her fingers? She has such a surprisingly strong grip. Her bones feel so breakable. We have to open her hand like a delicate, resistant flower.

We will gently wipe her face when there is saliva from grinding. We will carefully smooth her hair away from her eyes.

I have to tell you a secret that I am not proud of: I have really struggled with these visits. I have spent time in this room counting the minutes until I could leave. I have been deeply spooked by Erin, by this poor woman who is so damaged it has sometimes been hard for me to see that she is still a person.

This is not how anyone would want to die, and maybe that is what has been so upsetting to me. Or maybe it’s that I have no way of knowing what is happening inside of Erin: the possibility that a non-broken part of her might be trapped in a broken body is almost too much to think about and of course I think about it all the time.

I don’t know if my presence makes any difference whatsoever to Erin. I do know that it makes a difference to her son, though, and that’s what eventually helped me shift my own perspective.

My god, how he loves her. He is so tender with her, his voice and his hands. He has been caring for her in varying capacities for twenty years.

He sometimes sits and chats, and he tells me about her, what she was like before. Erin was one of two women in her medical school. She did two residencies (!), emergency medicine and psychiatry. She was described by a fellow medical student as the most forgiving person he’d ever known; she had been treated very poorly by the male students yet had always taken the high road.

She is so precious to him. She is greatly diminished but she is still his mother, she is still a person. She has medical problems and she requires care. She isn’t scary, she is dying.

Erin has lived 90+ long years and I hope that if there is awareness left in her, that she is forever visiting her favorite memories. I hope she is holding her babies, laughing with friends, treating her patients, walking in a strong and healthy body.

I also hope that you don’t mind coming here, this one time. I wanted you to know about her because she feels so disappeared, but she had a whole life. She’s still here, and we can’t know the why of it, why she has to stay in this suffering body, but she is here and no one is going to leave her to die alone.

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