Crooked Halos

When I reach Bertha's hospital room, she's sleeping. A tiny figure in a big bed, hooked up to machines that blink and flash with each beat of her heart or intake of breath. I slip into a chair beside her and watch her lips purse into a small "O," then puff out soft, pillowy exhalations. It's not fair, I think. Not fair to have Stage IV Lung Cancer, with a tumor the size of a cantaloupe sitting on top of her heart, only to fall and fracture her pelvis- And all because she wanted a bit of macaroni salad before bed.

Her hair is growing back since they stopped the chemo. It sways in wiry, gray tufts like new grass atop a dying hill. I have known and loved this frail woman for what seems like an eternity but is only a few minutes of her lifespan. I made my entrance when the six children were raised and gone, the husband finally sober and the trailer as elderly as its inhabitants.

Two weeks ago she brought me a hymn she'd written and taught me to sing it. She sang it, she said, at her sister's funeral last year and at a granddaughter's funeral six years before that. She wanted me to write down the words and the music so it wouldn't be lost. We both knew why she wanted me to learn the song but neither of us mentioned it. We sat in my office and sang- her voice a creaky whisper and mine soft and faltering as I tried to match her melody note for note.

Today we were supposed to be learning a second hymn but instead the call came about her fall, so I found myself wandering through the long corridors of an unfamiliar hospital.

Bertha fell asleep with her glasses on, so when she wakes up, startled by the arrival of a dinner tray, her dark brown eyes are magnified pools of confusion and anxiety.

"Is something wrong?" She whispers.

Her aide and I assure her everything is fine. The aide tells her she fell asleep staring out the window at an approaching thunderstorm and slept right through the thunder and lightning. The aide is perky, young and cheerful. She wants Bertha to eat some of her all-liquid supper and bustles around peeling open lids on the soup and juices. Bertha pushes the containers aside and says "Wait a minute. I've got to see..." But she isn't looking at the food. Her gaze travels around the room. She looks up at me, then at the aide. "Is everything all right?" she asks.

I tell the aide we can manage without her, turn back to reassure my frightened friend and find her staring up at me, her brows furrowed.

"You're sure everything's all right?" She asks again.

I smile my most reassuring smile. "Yes, it's fine. You are fine. I mean, you broke your pelvis but you're okay."

Bertha nods, unconvinced. She's still scanning the room. When her eyes return to my face, she studies me for a long moment. "So, I'm okay," she says in a tentative whisper, "but am I dead? Is this...Heaven?"

She is no doubt disappointed to find Heaven has a 18" TV mounted on the wall above her head, playing a rerun of "Bones."

When I tell her no, she's not dead, her confusion doesn't entirely vanish.

"I'm sorry," she says, giving me an apologetic smile. "But I can't quite place who you are." She keeps looking behind me, like she's expecting someone or something to be standing there.

I give her my most reassuring smile and reintroduce myself, like I think it's completely normal to forget someone you've seen every week or two for four years.

"Oh!" she cries, suddenly clear. "Oh, I see you now!" She grabs my arm and pulls me down into a tight hug. "You must think I'm crazy!"

I tell her of course I don't, she's on a lot of pain medicine and was startled out of a deep sleep. She nods yes, this must be the case, but when she thinks I'm not looking, I see her craning to look at my back again. I turn and show her my backpack purse, still attached to my shoulders and she laughs so hard it ends in a spasm of coughing and choking. It's a full minute before she can speak again, her voice coming in short, breathy gasps.

"Oh, honey, here I thought you were telling me everything was all right because I was dead and you were an angel!"