Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mind not high things

What first struck me when I entered the room and found Edith dead this morning was how out of place it seemed. We are fragile creatures made of mud with expected life spans of fewer than 30,000 days, but because we reason, hope, laugh, and grieve, the cessation of breath seems like an offense that somehow ought to be set right.

Edith was still warm when I kissed her goodbye, not waxy and lukewarm as my father had rapidly become within a half-hour after his passing, in that horrible simulacrum of life that is so revolting precisely because it is so mockingly near the vital condition of living warmth. Her eyes were wide open, focused on something far away, dully indifferent to the trivia of her immediate surroundings, the wires, tubes, pans, and towels that had been part of her last hours. Her mouth was agape as though exclaiming, in awe and amazement, "Is this, then, what it is really like?" It had been her last discovery.

I had walked past her doctor and nurse on the way to her room, neither party recognizing the other, and when I called the nursing station, they rapidly reappeared, and we all spoke to each other in tones of near-apology, though no one had been delinquent and there had been no surprises. Her attending physician had already told her she was at 20% heart function and had fewer than 6 months; I knew she had less than 90 days. When I had left her at 8:30 last night, I had urged her to hang on until Monday.

The doctor and the nurses had been present when she died. At one moment, she was talkative and in good spirits, and then her heart protested for the last time, in a ventricular fibrillation. They applied the pads to her chest to shock her, but her heart was having none of it, and she stopped breathing. I arrived about 15 minutes later.

Edith Main was born in Memphis on November 14, 1930, 9 1/2 months after my father. While my father's family lived in South Memphis, Edith was raised in the Greenlaw neighborhood that, 55 years before, had been Memphis's first subdivision and where late Victorian redbrick townhouses were still inhabited. She was sent to Catholic schools as a girl and got her knuckles duly rapped by nuns. That was the least of what happened to her in life.

Standing outside the Green Beetle, a well-known Memphis bar, at age 15, waiting for the city bus that would take her home from school, Edith was jostled by two drunks propelled out of the front door and literally pushed under the moving bus; the city had to pay her father a large sum for her hospital expenses. Beguiled by a boy three years her senior in high school and seeking to escape a bad home life, she married him at 15 and endured the humiliation of an intimate examination ordered by a judge upon her father's petition to have the marriage annulled; when it was found that marital relations had taken place, her father and her uncle both beat her new husband.

Edith married four times and was unhappy in almost all her choices but loved her two children. Butch was a devil-may-care young man who eventually enlisted in the Marines; Donna Marie was, as her photographs showed, a lovely young woman.

Much as she loved her children, Edith was a spitfire and wouldn't let herself be imposed upon. When Butch and his new wife arrived at Edith's house one night in their new Lincoln to leave a bawling infant with Edith with no supply of diapers or milk, Edith warned them not to leave her like that, and when Butch ignored her and started to drive away, she heaved a brick through the windshield of his car. Her instincts informed her choice of entertainment; throughout her life, one of her greatest pleasures was to watch wrestling matches. Years ago, it was her constant weekly recreation at Memphis's old Ellis Auditorium downtown; when I visited her last night for what turned out to be the last time, she was enjoying a match on TV.

Butch was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. I have no idea whether he was guilty or not, but the victim's family swore to Edith that the first day of Butch's parole would be his last day of life. Butch's bad-boy charm followed him into prison, and he once made Edith laugh by writing to her that the smitten female prison dentist had gladly rendered more than dental care to him behind the locked door of her clinic.

While Butch was in prison, Edith's daughter, Donna Marie, was murdered, while still in her 20s. The murderer was never caught.

Butch became a model inmate and even earned a law degree in prison. I met Edith in 1999 because I was corresponding with, and visiting, another prisoner, Jerry, who had known Butch since both were young men; both were transferred to the same minimum security prison about 145 miles from Memphis, and Edith was unable to drive there on her own to visit her son.

She began to ride with me, and for payment, would always have us stop at a small barbecue place in Savannah, Tennessee, where she would treat us both to a rib dinner. On the drive back to Memphis, she would tell me about her life and then ask me to sing the old evangelical gospel songs to her.

After 25 years, Butch was about to be paroled. A month before he would have come home, he complained about not feeling well, was ordered out onto a work detail on a hot day by an unsympathetic guard, and was brought back dead on the truck. He was 49.

Because he had been a Marine, Butch was given a military funeral by two crisply uniformed servicemen, who performed the ritual with faultless precision and respectfully presented Edith with the customary American flag. The veteran's cemetery was miles from Edith's part of town, but from time to time, Mary, a friend, would drive her there to visit Butch's grave.

For the next 8 years or so, our friendship mostly consisted of a single yearly contact. At Christmas, she would send me a card, and I would send her one and would order a gift to be delivered to her by mail. Then, about a week before Christmas, I would go to her house and pick her up and we would drive to Barnhill's Country Buffet on Stage Road in Bartlett for lunch or dinner. She would present me with a gift, which was often a large sampler of chocolates, something else she loved, but one year, she gave me a pair of hand-tooled leather cowboy boots that Butch had owned, which meant more to her than any of the rest.

As time went on, I tended to make our yearly appointment at mid-day on a Saturday rather than at night, since I had no idea what might happen to my car while parked in front of her house. Edith lived in the Nutbush section of North Memphis, a place where your neighbor may deal drugs or show a sudden inclination to violence. She and her boarder, Steve, had to have their Shar Pei put down recently when one of the neighborhood kids apparently gave drugs to Stretch as a joke, which drove the poor animal wild and caused him to attack Edith herself.

Still, she was not alone. No one on the street bothered her, and there were always friends who looked after her, though those friendships all tended to go bad, for some reason.

Jerry, the prisoner I had originally been visiting, boarded with Edith after he was paroled. Edith came home and found him smoking pot in her house and then learned that he had become violent with a wheelchair-bound woman down the street and had to throw him out.

Peggy, another friend for whose small business Edith had once worked, took Edith under her wing and seemed to provide her not only with moral support but financial help as well. This continued until Peggy defrauded Edith of $38,000 to cover Peggy's gambling debts at Tunica.

Steve, a scrappy little guy with a head of angry red hair and a face that looks as though it, too, has known the wrong side of a bus, moved into Edith's house and rented a room and is sitting there now. They bantered and sometimes fought, but Steve genuinely cared for her as no one else. Edith intended to revoke a previous will and leave her house to Steve, since he has nowhere else to go but the kind of motel where you rent rooms by the week. She died before a new will could be completed.

Mary had been a friend of Edith's for 20 years, ever since Edith had been the babysitter for Mary's infant daughter, Tiffany, who is now 21. Mary decided she didn't like Steve and pestered Edith to put him out of the house. Edith then discovered that Mary herself was siphoning money in small amounts from Edith's bank account. She ended her friendship with Mary but continued to care about Tiffany, now herself an unwed mother.

Edith was very clear on what had happened to her but never lamented or cried over it, that I could tell. She was furious at Mary's impertinence in trying to force Steve out, but as to the deaths, the faithless friends, the straying husbands, and all the rest, she acted as though those things were simply events like hailstorms or high winds, something she had endured but need not dwell on afterward except as the subject of an interesting story.

We had a standing arrangement that if she were hospitalized, one of her friends would call to notify me. She was always sent to St. Francis, which is literally within sight of where I live. Steve, meanwhile, was unable to visit her, since he is on oxygen and unable to carry one of his portable tanks from the hospital parking lot to a patient room, though he tried once. After that attempt, he confined his contact with her to the phone, while I visited.

When she was hospitalized in February, she temporarily lost her memory because of low blood pressure. I had to explain to her all over again who I was, who Steve was, and the fact that she had had two children who had died. It was a very strange experience, but I knew that when she came home, she would see Donna's and Butch's pictures hanging on her livingroom wall and wonder who they were.

In the spring, she began to be concerned about setting her affairs in order. Marc and Wendy Overlock called her from Nashville--both attorneys, they had befriended Butch years earlier while doing prison outreach work and continued to send Edith small checks at Christmas through the years--and supported her wish to draw up a living will, a general power of attorney, and a last will, even though they couldn't assist with any of it.

We began the process, and she gave her power of attorney for health care to Steve and me. Time overtook her before she could do the rest.

She wanted Steve to be her heir, claiming that her suriviving brother had offended her by refusing to help with Butch's funeral expenses. She knew that I not only didn't want but wouldn't accept anything substantial from her, but we managed to settle on two small glass elephant figurines that I spotted on her bureau; they are now on my bookshelf, next to the large folio-sized Bible she gave me for Christmas a few years ago.

A week ago, she had a heart attack and was hospitalized once more. She had removed Mary as beneficiary from two small life insurance policies and named Steve as the beneficiary, with the understanding that she would bequeath her house to him and he would use the insurance to bury her.

Tonight, Edith is in the hospital morgue, unclaimed. Her family, including a niece, are indignant at the prospective expense of burying her and threatening to evict Steve who, of course, has no right to remain in the house beyond whatever the law allows. Today, I have listened to lengthy laments from her niece on the unfairness of it all and sat in Edith's house, as Steve chainsmoked, quaffed Budweiser, and breathed his oxygen, while we watched several episodes of Law and Order and Steve gathered his thoughts. Edith's niece and her boyfriend called and talked of eviction. Mary called, screaming and cursing, when she realized she had been removed from the insurance. Steve retched into his bedside wastebasket between smokes.

In the corridor outside St. Francis's room 915, where Edith died this morning, is an engraving of Venice's famous Bridge of Sighs, connecting the Venetian prison with the interrogation rooms of the Doge's Palace, the passage through which condemned prisoners passed on their way to being put to death. Edith has crossed, and others are left struggling.

I had planned to do four things today. The first was to meet my friend Brett this morning at The Bagel Company on Poplar for a tasty breakfast and good conversation, which in fact we did. We arrived at 9 and lingered until 11; my apartment is 3 minutes down the street, and Edith was dying as I walked into my living room.

I sat down and prepared to carry out my second goal and type a last will for Edith to sign, knowing that her final moment was close, though not how close. Before I could type anything, Steve called and told me to get to the hospital at once.

My third plan had been to visit an antiquarian booksale held, appropriately enough, in Memphis's Parkview Hotel, a landmark from the 1930s that is now a retirement home. Never got there!

My fourth plan had been to go to the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art downtown and see a French-made documentary about Marranos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition but continuing to practice their faith in secret. I'm afraid they had to show it without me. "Life," as the saying goes, "is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

I was asked in 9th grade to write an essay about Willa Cather's wonderful novel My Άntonia, on the question of whether the book's eponymous heroine had been a success in life. I thought she was not. Pregnant out of wedlock in her teens, she was discovered years later by her childhood friend, plowing a field. What had her life amounted to, as such things are usually measured?

Edith Main lived an obscure and unremarkable life of slender means, made some unfortunate choices, never saw grandchildren, found her greatest amusement in wrestling matches, and gravitated, as her indignant niece made sure I understood this afternoon, to "drunks, convicts, and losers." But she was a good friend and a person who met the almost absurd amount of bad fortune she encountered in life with a degree of equanimity I have seldom seen in others less severely afflicted. Last night, on the last time we would ever see each other, she opened the conversation by earnestly assuring me, "I just shit for an hour," but she always thanked me for coming to see her, as if I might have chosen not to. I think that two of the most important things that happened to me today were to kiss her still-warm forehead goodbye and to see the look of amazement on her face.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.