When I get to the Intensive Care Unit in Des Peres, Missouri, I find Pat wired to several machines that beep softly. Her eyes are open. She recognizes me, but has difficulty speaking. The beginnings of sentences come out all right, but the ends are chewed and garbled. Her jaw moves up and down involuntarily. I have to listen hard and ask her to repeat. Her breathing is laboured. I don’t want to make her talk more than she has to.
She doesn’t know what happened to her. All her friend in the retirement community said when I called was something about her kidneys. Something about being incoherent.
“Well,” Pat says, “Here—we—are. Nothing—to—do—but—wait—I—guess.”
I imagine she’d shrug if she could.
“This is a fine how do you do,” she might say if speaking were easier.
The nurse, Dave, explains that Pat has been on a ventilator, but has improved, and is now breathing on her own. Improved compared to when they brought her in. My sense is that she is dying.
He asks if I am her closest living relative, and I have to think a moment. Pat is my mother’s cousin. I run it through my mind: an only child, no children of her own, no nieces or nephews. I suppose I am. Pat had been my grandfather’s favorite niece. For some reason, my mother never liked her.
I met Pat when she attended a reading I gave in St. Louis some years ago. She came up to me afterwards and introduced herself. Nearly every trip since then, we’ve managed to have lunch or meet at Schneidhorst’s for breakfast. I would always invite my mother to come along, but she’d grow evasive and decline.
Pat and I have had similar lives. We are both writers, both worked for a time in advertising, and neither of us married. Even today, St. Louisans view unmarried people with condescending sympathy, and a certain amount of suspicion. And envy, I think. Our independence, perhaps. As if we had cheated, somehow. Shirked some essential duty of adulthood.
When she finished college at the start of World War II, Pat decided to join the Navy. She went in to tell her mother first.
“If it had been me, I’d have joined up long ago,” her mother said, without even looking up from her knitting.
Then she told her father, who threw a fit—“No daughter of mine!” … That sort of thing.
Pat earned the rank of lieutenant and went on to train officers in Washington, DC. She was sometimes assigned to carry secret orders—on the train up and down the East Coast, and by plane to California.
When I saw her last March, she showed me an album and told me stories about the young men and women in the photos—where each was taken, what they had eaten at picnics, who was in love with whom.
She carried top-secret orders for the Potsdam Conference and for Okinawa.
“And Hiroshima?” I asked. “What about Nagasaki? Did you carry those orders?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “We were trained to forget.”
On the second day that I visit her in Intensive Care, she is neither asleep, nor entirely conscious. Her eyes are slightly open, but she’s not seeing me. I’ve brought a photograph of her favorite uncle, my grandfather, after whom I am named. I’d found it among the things my brother and sister and I had been going through the day before.
I stand by Pat’s bed, praying. I hum the old hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” It’s all I can think to do. I don’t want to wake her. She seems to be resting comfortably. Though her breathing is even more laboured than the day before, she is not struggling. She seems unafraid. Over the course of our friendship, I’ve learned that she’s a woman who goes to her Protestant church every Sunday, the most ordinary kind of religious observance. Conventional. There has never been a hint of rancor or resentment over my mother’s snubs or the complicated social strata of St. Louis. She never made a fuss over her independence. She showed a normal pride in her accomplishments as an advertising account executive and one of the founders of the St. Louis Women’s Advertising Club, which raised nearly twice the amount for charity one year as the Men’s Club.
She has lived by her own lights, followed her own mind and heart, always curious about the world. She doesn’t regret anything. At least not anything she’s willing to tell me about.
The doctor comes in to check on her and asks if I am her closest living relative. I reckon I am. There is no living will, nor anyone they know as Power of Attorney. That’s why they keep asking me. In cases like these, they put together an Ethics Committee to decide if treatment ought to be continued.
All I can say is what I see: my friend and second cousin, an independent woman of deep faith, unafraid, following her failing heart to peace and home.