Each weekday morning, I review my clinic schedule to see who will be visiting. With just a glance, I can predict the tenor of the day. Certain names evoke joy, others indifference, some dread.
I still remember the first day of spring, some years ago, when my schedule augured a banner day: Opal Hendricks was on the list. I had met Mrs. Hendricks seven years prior to that visit. Her previous doctor had retired and I had assumed her care. She was eighty-one then and not a day younger. Her wizened face was framed by long sheaves of metallic grey hair. Her hazel eyes were large and round like saucers. She had thin lips and crooked teeth, and wore a faded brown dress, which was immaculate. She sat upright with her arms neatly folded. Her hands were arthritic, her legs were like twigs, but when she smiled, she was Helen of Troy.
During that visit, I asked about her health, which caused her to giggle. "I'm fine," she replied. She had the voice and manner of a child. Her eyes were curious like a toddler in the attic. She looked at me as though I had given her a box of candy.
She was not concerned about her blood pressure, which was high. I asked if she had taken her medicine. She replied that she had been without medicine for several months. Her previous doctor had not given her a prescription because she had missed several appointments.
Why had she missed them?
"Because Willy needs me."
"Willy?" I inquired.
With that, she effervesced. Her smile grew large like the sun. Her eyes radiated joy. She lifted her hands like a girl impatient to tell a story.
Over the next hour, I learned about Willy. He was "slow." When he was born, the doctors predicted a short life. That was sixty-two years ago. Now he was well — and happy. He loved to sit by his mother on the porch and watch the cars go by. And he could sit all day long, unassisted.
As I listened, I could tell that his mother assisted him with everything: walking, bathing, clothing, eating. But this had to be inferred, for she spoke only of what he could do. She savoured his every achievement and marveled at his independence. Once, he had almost buttoned his pants. On several occasions, he had correctly used a spoon. And he always recognized his aunt Myrna.
As Mrs. Hendricks spoke, I was drawn into her ethereal world. She was bewitching. With her soft, feathery voice, she pranced from word to word like a fairy. Her bubbly manner and impish tone had an anachronistic charm. She had aged; yet, with her son, she occupied an evergreen world where innocence prevailed. If sadness ever visited, it left no footprint.
To hear her was to enter a realm of verdant pastures and placid lakes. Perhaps her elfish tone was an accommodation to her son's simplicity; or perhaps, by some miracle, her heart was impervious to erosion. I luxuriated in the cadence of her voice and was sad when her story finally ended. Before she left, I gave her a prescription and asked her to return in two weeks.
And return she did -- repeatedly for seven years. At each visit, we reveled in Willy's exploits. He was Achilles in an ongoing epic, the provenance of a legend. Her tale was lush and limitless; her enthusiasm, incandescent. She had the world's greatest job — Willy's mother, exalted and triumphant.
Over the years, Mrs. Hendricks missed only two appointments, both because she could not find a sitter for Willy. But that did not matter. To fault this paragon of motherhood her truancy was unfathomable.
And so on that lovely spring morning three years ago, I was delighted to see her name on the list. As always, she arrived punctually.
I entered the room and turned to greet her -- and upon seeing her, was stunned. She was gazing forward, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her tortured face made me recoil.
"What happened?" I asked.
She responded with the plangent cry of a lamb being devoured. Her eyes protruded as if a ghost had appeared. Her lips quivered; her hands shook. Through sobs and snorts, she muttered a few broken words. Then, slowly, as her voice cleared, she began her lachrymose tale.
Willy had caught a cold. After a few days, he had started to feel better, but then developed a fever. Soon he was coughing and congested. The next morning, he was confused. The ambulance was called, but he fell asleep before it arrived and never awoke.
Her story complete, Mrs. Hendricks fell silent. Her head was bowed, her eyes were closed, her arms outstretched. She was the pieta incarnate. I gazed at her as I would gaze upon the Pyramids of Giza -- with awe befitting a work of ineffable grandeur. That she had been devoted to her son was unremarkable, but that she had subsumed every thought, word, and action for more that sixty years to the care of a disabled child, boy, and man — indeed, to her very soul — was breathtaking.
I tried to comfort her. I told her we would discuss her health another time, but I knew there would be no other time. She would never return.
Three years passed without a word. Then one day, her nephew called to say she had died.
I forwent dinner that evening and went to my bedroom. There I listened to a recording of Beethoven's final sonata -- and journeyed into sublimity. As the piano evanesced, I was transported to the very altar of music.
Mrs. Hendricks's influence had been similarly transcendent. She had been my bard for seven years. My fascination with her, born of amusement, had evolved into a reflection on archetypal virtue. Indeed, to gaze at her divine countenance was to rise above her broken heart, bask in her goodness, and witness the face of Love itself.
*Artwork by Scott Plumbe.
**The patient's name was changed to maintain confidentiality.