I am in the emergency room talking with a frail older woman. She has hurt her back and is also having difficulty breathing. Her skin is the color of the sheets. A respiratory therapist puts a little mask over her face. As she loops the strings behind the old woman’s ears, healing steam begins to flow. Sara reminds me of an elephant-like elf from a steam-risen world.
But even with the mask, her voice comes through loud and strong: “I gave birth to my first child in San Francisco.” Her speeding mind is in San Francisco while her body is taking a treatment in Los Angeles. With mind and body working at odds, she has no recollection of being falling-down drunk, hurting her back and calling her daughter for help.
In the emergency room the day wears on. The EKG reminds Sara of having a permanent wave to curl her thinning hair. She shows no curiosity about the echocardiogram, but the young Asian technician is an object of considerable interest. “Who’s your date tonight?” she asks.
Then she drinks a glass of lemon-lime soda. “This is really good,” she tells me. “Not too sweet.” The nurse comes in to move her from emergency to a hospital room. Soon she resumes drinking the soda, now brightened with a slice of a lime that I purchased while Sara was moved upstairs. Drinking glass after glass, her color improves.
Suddenly I can see her as a young woman sitting on her patio, smoking a cigarette and sipping a gin and tonic with a squeeze of lime while her children play at her feet. I can see her in her fifties, in the year after her husband divorced her, sitting at the bar of a classy resort, smoking a cigarette and sipping a gin and tonic graced by a slender wedge of lime. Now that she is in her eighties, I see her holed up in her apartment surrounded by empty bottles of cheap vodka and ashtrays filled with cigarette butts.
The doctor tells her that if she wants to live, she has to stop drinking and smoking. Does she want to hole up with her bottles of vodka, or does she want to make the effort to get over it? Sara goes along with the hospital’s plan to send her to rehab to strengthen her aching back so she won’t be a risk to fall. I am happy about it as I think it will give her a break from smoking and drinking, a contrast of wellness.
And at first she does well. After a month or so, she puts on a little weight, her color returns; she is getting her strength back. Then one day as she sits in her rehab room with the sun shining through the imperfectly washed window, she gets a whiff of cigarette smoke. Sara wheels her chair out into the hall and finds an outdoor patio where several patients sit talking and smoking. She wheels out and bums a cigarette.
From then on, her breaks from exercise are spent out on the patio. When it is time to leave rehab, Sara finds a woman willing to take her back to her apartment to stay with her for room and board. But the relationship doesn’t turn out as Sara had hoped. Before long, her new caregiver moves out.
Sara is back in her apartment alone, with care for a few hours a day. She seems to be doing well, but no one notices the vodka bottles piling up in a back closet. As soon as the caregivers leave, she resumes drinking the vodka delivered by cab to her apartment. The momentum of her old habit has taken hold.
How I wished she’d found a way to be lonely without vodka. Her old remedy for loneliness had blotted out familiarity with a simple state of mind, where a squeeze of lime can be so refreshing. Sometimes our blessings are a curse. Or was it only that her time had come? I’ve heard that if you drink too much, right before you pass out, the mind and body synchronize. At the last minute, could Sara have gone through her fear of being alone? Could she have been lying on the floor graced with a vision of the open sky?
I attended her funeral. She had a large family and many friends who honored her with laughter and tears. Not knowing the answer to the puzzle of Sara’s life, at the reception, I ordered a glass of mineral water into which I, with a determined twist, squeezed a slice of lime.