My local library runs a program that matches people like me with senior citizens who want library books but can’t get out and about on their own, so I’ve been the book courier for a woman named Barbara since last year. I visit her in the nursing home every few weeks to pick-up and drop-off, and to sit and talk for awhile. Normally it’s a light, friendly, pleasant exchange, but last week when I stopped by, I think I visited a different plane of existence.
Barbara is all alone in the world, although you’d never know it from her cheery disposition. Her husband died years ago, her two children both died as young adults, and she has no other family left. I’m not sure how old she is; she’s mentioned being 92 and 94. She gets around with a walker, and she always wears three or four rings and bracelets. She never bothered trying to learn my name, and instead just calls me “honey.” She loves reading, but for the last few months I’ve watched age catch up with her. Her sentences often trail off into foggy distraction, and she’ll repeat herself a dozen times in one conversation. I just keep smiling and answering her same questions again and again: “Now, how have you been?” and “What are you working on?” One day almost all she could say was the title of the book I’d just brought her, And the Bridge Is Love, by Faye Moskowitz. “The bridge is love… the bridge is love… the bridge is love…”
I went to see her last Thursday. It was a day when things seemed to click and sizzle. My hair looked good, I was loving my new lipstick, and stoplights turned green as I approached. On a hunch, I decided not to take a new book with me, but just to drop by and see how she was doing with the previous title, Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis. When I arrived, Barbara was sitting in her chair and reading. She looked up and beamed with delight, as though to say, “Oh, it’s you, whoever you are!” She seemed revivified, magically restored to something of her former self. In addition to her rings and bracelets, she wore a silver-spangled Fourth of July necklace, a yellow top and capris, and lovely cherry-red lipstick. My lipstick was more of a dark rose, but it was fun that we both looked sassy.
I sat down and asked how she liked the Lewis book. She said it was wonderful, just wonderful (huge smile), but she wasn’t going to want any more books because she was going on a trip. I knew perfectly well she was doing nothing of the kind, but I asked where she was going. “I’m going home,” she said, still beaming, even though we were sitting in her only home. She looked so beautiful that I couldn’t help smiling too, but the back of my neck tingled. I said, Oh, when? “Tomorrow,” she said, then she looked around the room, eyes sparkling. “I’ve loved it here, but it’s time to go.” My smile froze a little.
She said she loved life, she just loved it! She loved life, but she wasn’t going to hold onto it much longer. I asked what her favorite thing about life was. She said her favorite thing was that God is at the center. She looked around the room again and said she didn’t know what she’d do with her stuff, because she knew she couldn’t take it. Then the smile spread wide across her face and she said, “You just have to enjoy every day, every day! Well, some days you can’t enjoy, but still… Life is to be shared, shared! But people don’t spend enough time with themselves.” Then she looked right at me and said, “Do you spend time with yourself?” I nodded and said I did. She studied me for a few seconds, seeming to see me for the first time, and said, “Yes, I think you do.” Then she looked down, obviously alarmed. “What’s that blue thing on the floor?” I followed her gaze. “That’s my purse,” I said, and held it up so she could see it. “Oh!” She laughed and laughed and laughed, and kept on laughing until I laughed right along with her at the blameless blue purse I was still holding up. I’m sure the purse wondered what it had done that was so hilarious.
Soon it became clear she was done talking, so I said I’d return the Lewis book to the library for her. I asked if she was sure she didn’t want another one, and she said, “No, because of the trip. I’m going home. I won’t be able to take anything.” I said ok, but I’d check back with her next week. She ignored that and said she’d walk out with me, so I helped her stand and get situated with her walker. We hugged in the hallway. Her arms felt as light as the wings of a four-and-a-half foot bird. We parted, me heading toward the elevator and she heading deeper into the nursing home. I heard a song of some kind, so I stopped and turned around. She was traipsing down the hall with small, rapid steps, humming a tune, bobbing her head back and forth to her own music.
Was she really about to start across that last great bridge? If so, what a way to go, looking good and feeling jaunty! Or was she having an age-induced delusion, a waking dream in which she had just chatted with her own personal book-delivery woman who wore rose-colored lipstick? Who’s to say I hadn’t just dreamed of her, too? In some sense, we all dream of each other in all our encounters. And what was her meaning of the word “God”? I’ve heard that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. I’ve heard that God is love. If both definitions are right, then love is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Maybe Barbara was dreaming something like that. Maybe we can all dream that dream, any time of the day or night. In any case I meant it that I will check back in on her this week. I am keenly curious about what’s next for her, and I’ll take a book along, just in case.