Nonfiction: Helena Writes #59: On fireflies and strong feelings

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 59th post, Helena shares with us a short essay called “Firefly,” originally published at The Catskill Chronicle blog, in which she grapples with a friend's mental decline and her fear of a similar fate. Enjoy!


Fear and love

I sometimes ponder the small community of circumstance I have lately become part of. The others are my friends, Lillian and her daughter, Lisa, and Dorell, Lillian’s caretaker, now a friend, too.

Home late the night I teach on Long Island, I use my key to let myself in. “Home” is Lillian’s house.

Lillian has been moved to the living room, the old wall-to-wall carpet torn up, leaving areas cut and ragged, unceremoniously taped.  The new lifting apparatus won’t fit in her room.  It has been brought to the house to lift Lillian, a hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight.  Her caregivers can no longer manage the task, since Lillian can’t help.

She lies, at 95, deep in dementia, in her hospital bed. Dorell is sitting next to her in Lillian’s old recliner, not reclining, alert, sewing cross-stitch to use these tedious and sometimes difficult hours, assaulted by Lillian’s shouts.

“I’m a prisoner!” she’s shouting as I arrive, removing my key from the front door lock. The dark look is so different now than through the many years I’ve known her, fine-boned, inherited beauty lasting into her nineties, until recently when her face went slack. Now it expresses the disoriented vacancy of the anonymous faces I remember from childhood—fearful visions of old people I saw wandering in the street or sitting at a window as I passed. The beauty I always thought would protect Lillian is gone.

Lillian has a finished basement where I stay when I teach classes twice a week. Lisa thinks it’s good for her mother, and I hope it is. I am grateful to be welcomed there. I travel three hundred miles round trip and have made a little apartment-like home in that basement, draped embroidered cloths over boxes for side tables, quilts over the old convertible sofa, brought layers of cushioning to cover its thin mattress and wire springs when I sleep. I can do that, withdraw into myself to find a kind of nesting place.

But the progression of Lillian’s dementia is there, just outside, and I have to encounter this slow, arduous and mysterious passage. Lillian was a painter, as I am.

The impulse to flee is strong. Yet I put down my overnight bags and move toward Lillian’s gaze, toward the hospital bed. I watch myself move against repulsion and fear. Our eyes, Lillian’s and mine, hold on to one another. Her look is terrible, wild, like someone drowning. I take her hand, look into those eyes. They change. Now she’s there. We are engaged.

“Thank you,” she says in the loud, un-modulated and slurred speech. Lillian is well-bred, civil, elaborately polite. Cultured and cultivated, her life revolved around art and family. Her husband, gone 20 years, was a prominent American illustrator. She, like Josephine Hopper, was the grounding wire for a career in the upper reaches.

“The way is cut off!” she cries, indicating the foot of her bed. I know she is imprisoned. I pray for her release. “I understand,” I tell her. I kiss her hand. “You’re a good soul,” she says. “So are you,” I say. Then I tell her I love her.

She squeezes my hand. “Oo-kay!” she says. “All right!” and shakes our hands with emphasis—appropriate.  She’s saying, okay, we have communicated. We’ve exchanged love, you and I. We have found our way past your terror and my disintegrating wiring. We are here, both of us.

And she is dismissing me, saying, enough strong feeling! I stand there and feel the impact of this wisdom gained through her life and this ordeal. It feels like a wind.


A prayer for the old ones

After that, she’s peaceful and rests. Falls asleep. Not shouting or tossing anymore, rebelling against Dorell’s wooden-faced exhaustion. She needed contact. Needed to be known. She is in there. Still a self.

I bring my bags downstairs, set up my little place for the night. I am exhausted too, from the day of heat and travel, and teaching. The peace of night falls over the house.

I open the basement windows, turn on the fan. Settle in. Make dinner upstairs, carry it down to the basement, eat, then read my book. Later I go upstairs to brush my teeth. Dorell has gone to bed. Lillian is snoring, mouth open, already there, I sometimes think, crossed to the other side, with her Jim, her husband who she cries out for at times. Or her sister, June, or her twin, Florie. She still calls for them, too. Lillian is the last one left.

I open the bed and lie for a while with the residue of the encounter. At eleven, I turn off the light, settle into my pillows. A prayer rises. I’m thinking of two other friends, caught and suffering the slow discombobulation of the mind, the breakdown of the body—Elmira, 99, and Mary, 102 this October. Strong and gifted women I’ve known intimately. Mary climbed mountains with Ansel Adams.

Did we ever want to live so long?

I say, “The old ones, God. I pray for the old ones.” The words slip out with a sigh as I close my eyes. Through the lids I see a flash. Lightning? What was it? It was bright enough to light the room.

It flashes again. My eyes are open now. Flash! A lightning bug lights up the pitch dark like an answer I want to believe. Yet weary, I scoff.

But it has registered in me. My heart has expanded, eased. And I rest, too.


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Related reading: Helena Writes

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