I visit Rhea about once a week with a church member who has been Rhea’s long time friend. Rhea is 84 years old and lost her husband about eight years ago.
We were sitting in Rhea’s rooms at a local assisted living complex. My friend, Ray, was inviting Rhea to his upcoming birthday party. Ray is turning 86 years old.
I am not sure how or when the conversation turned, but I discovered that Rhea was recounting her husband’s death. I was stunned to silence as I watched her relive his death moment by moment in her mind. Rhea would speak a few sentences and stop. I could tell that in her mind’s eye she was “seeing” the next scene. Her husband had experienced a heart attack and stroke. She painted the shocking and chaotic scene at home and the arrival of the ambulance, the hectic trip to the hospital, the crucial flurry in the trauma area of the E.R., the moving of her husband to a room. She is in the room with her husband. “He did not speak to me,” she quietly said. She sat next to him for two days. She spoke to him over and over, assured by the doctors that he could hear her. “He did not speak to me.” The words had the same impact on me as if she’d said, “My child died.”
Rhea became silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. She was seeing something she did not want to see. There in her rooms her eyes teared up and she whispered, “Then he was gone and he never talked to me.”
The way Rhea repeated this refrain made me rethink conversation. I so easily lose the pricelessness, dare I say holiness of speech between a husband and wife, between friend and friend. I will never hear her husband’s voice, but she heard it and then lost it by his death. I have no idea what they talked about, how they talked, if they ever fiercely argued, how they made up; I’ll never know. But I could not escape the profound heartbeat and loneliness in her words, “He did not speak to me.”
When Rhea stopped remembering I felt like I had walked a sacred path with her. That she had invited me (and Ray) to some “private rooms” of her soul. Ray was so sweet as he held Rhea’s hand as she relived the starkly pivotal event in her life.
Visiting older people has been like walking into a palace filled with treasures. I’ve chatted with a 93 year old man who met General George Patton in North Africa and Patton was wearing his pearl-handled pistols. Six degrees of separation and all that.
I saw Rhea today…at Ray’s birthday party. She was happy and engaged in the festivities. Yet, for a brief few minutes, Rhea had opened a door for me into the hall of all that is valuable.
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