P. has bright blue eyes and remarkably smooth skin that stretches across the protruding bones in her hands. Someone in the facility curls her hair every morning. She wears blouses with pretty necklines. Her body is small and indistinct, covered in blankets, propped on pillows. She reminds me of a silvery dandelion in its seed stage: wispy, beautiful, impossibly fragile.

She does not complain. Oh, I guess I’m ready to go to Heaven, she says sometimes. She closes her eyes and rubs her forehead. My entire self aches for the right thing to say in those moments, but even if I knew what that was, that is not what I am here for.

P. talks about her life. She is somewhat adrift between time, truth and fiction. The result is like a mosaic of what was and what she may have once seen or read about, and it is all as real as anything can be. She talks about being on a covered wagon and how there was a little dog who ran behind with a Bible in his mouth. She tries to remember where her brother is, and decides he is visiting the South Pole. She is certain there is a spot in the exact center of the country, right between east and west, where a waterfall runs both up and down. That was sure something to see, she says.

There are some memories that seem to hold a special place in her mind, they have anchored more firmly than others. Every visit, she tells me a funny story about her oldest brother trying to flirt with a girl on a bus. Now have I told you this before? she asks, and I shake my head, delighted. She tells it with perfect pacing and style, and a roguish laugh at the end. I could hear it all day.

P. describes a day at her sister’s house when the snow fell in great drifts and covered a tree in the front yard, and how a flock of red birds came and rested on the tree. On every bit of that tree, in amongst all that white, she says, there was a red bird. We are always silent after that story.

Her room feels tucked away from everything, like being inside the smallest matryoshka doll. Large cheerful windows look out over trees and the busy river trail, but I cannot imagine her outside of this environment, where she lies in a hospital bed or a recliner, her feet elevated, tubes resting in her nostrils. She seems caught between so many worlds.

P. is 96. Her husband died years ago. Her parents and siblings have passed on. Her adult children live far away. It is just her, the gentle attendants, the room, the clock with its steady slow tick, the rhythmic gasp of the oxygen machine.

At home, I try looking up the impersonal medical information in her chart to get a sense of how much time she has left, but the answers I really want can’t be found. Google, why do people have to die this way? Google, can you promise she won’t suffer in the end? Google, can I believe in her Heaven if I do not believe in my own?

I struggle with not having some active way of helping. I take a moment to straighten her stuffed bear and pick up some fallen flower petals, but she has enough people who bustle around and don’t have time to sit. I can feel how I want to fill the air with chatter, but she has trouble hearing, it seems like asking her to trudge uphill. I pull over a wooden chair from her tiny kitchen. I send stillness through my body. I listen.

There were eight of us when I was growing up, and we didn’t have much, but we loved music, she says. She tells me how her brother taught himself to play the violin, how her husband played piano while she sang hymns and drew chalk landscapes. There was a dog named Patches and he would sometimes stand on a fencepost, all four feet nestled together. Her mother could sew any pattern by hand, just by looking at a picture of a dress.

Well, life is sure interesting, she says. Her smile has the clear carrying note of a bell, it stays with me long after I leave. I just want to soak it up while I can.

I can see those birds, their scarlet feathers a glorious contrast against the freshly fallen snow.

The other day Dylan came home with a note from his teacher explaining that he was showing a tendency to rush important class instructions during their focus on state testing. Apparently, among other things, he’d managed to complete part of a test in less than an hour, when it was expected that each kid will work on it off and on for two weeks. I will be interested to see his results, the teacher had written, ominously.

Yeah well maybe he’s just a genius, I thought with irritation, before sliding my glance over at the MENSA-approved child in question who was 1) wearing a shirt both inside out and backwards, and 2) embroiled in a robust armpit-fart competition with his brother.

After a lot of questioning and some confusing answers it turns out that Dylan had mistakenly completed the test without writing anything in the essay part, even though the system requires that something be entered in the box, so maybe he just clicked some random keys or typed “BUTTS,” who knows. I delivered a halfhearted lecture about paying attention in class and slowing down to make sure his work is done correctly, but I can’t find the gravitas the note seemed to imply I should. I hate that third graders are subjected to state testing, and the truth is, I don’t much care if he flunks the entire thing.

He’s 9. He’s sweet-natured, never acts out in school, loves reading and writing and animals and can tell you the name of every actor who’s ever been in The Walking Dead. He’s dreamy and easily distracted and far more used to clicking YouTube videos than participating in weeks-long class assignments.

When I dropped him off this morning, two boys immediately ran over to greet him. My once-too-shy-to-make-friends kid went walking into school as he always does these days, flanked by his buddies, everyone laughing and talking a mile a minute.

You ask me, his results look just fine.

Next Page →