Our Lady of Lourdes is a pretty, gothic church set before a pretty, gothic cemetery. On the weekend, the parking lot is crammed with non-gothic modes of conveyance, and all the good parishioners are accommodated by the extremely non-gothic quantity of pews. Two wide rows of pews stretch down the nave, and two more rows are tucked all the way against the exterior walls, trapping the hapless congregant who is so obliging as to scoot over for the next comer. Emma, who was slightly claustrophobic, preferred to sit near the altar, so we had made a point of arriving early for Mass in order to snag one of the wide front pews.
Emma was comfortable in the church. She smiled at everyone, and many people wanted to hug her or press her hand. Even after we were situated in our pew, a stream of friends flowed around her. She greeted everyone with the same warmth, as if all the separated faces had blurred into one indeterminate visage which kept appearing again and again, slightly altered each time but welcome nonetheless. She was glad to see everyone. She wanted everyone to sit right down. She agreed that she was feeling well, and that this one (squeezing my knee) was looking well, wasn’t she? I too was welcomed by the many. Several people asked if there was anything they could do to help me out, and one kindly woman introduced herself as Peggy Harriman, Emma’s neighbor, and promised to stop by with a casserole later in the week. I was absurdly grateful. I had not had an opportunity to go shopping in the week, and the monotony of the fare at the house was starting to wear on me.
Emma behaved admirably during mass. Though she was a lifelong Catholic, the words of the Mass had become strangely unfamiliar to her, and so she had reverted to the custom of her youth, in which the pious old ladies whipped out their rosaries and whispered Aves all through the liturgy. Now she opened her purse and drew out a tapestry bag. Rummaging through the contents, she produced a missal, several holy cards, a little notebook almost filled with the names of her deceased friends and relatives, and a battered prayer book, before extracting a small silk pouch embroidered with a golden cross. From this she lifted a rosary of pale, clear green stones. She felt no need to rush through her prayers during Mass. Instead, she quietly contemplated the shimmer of light through the beads, tilting them to reflect the stained glow of the afternoon sun against the facets. In a timeless reverie she sat, this particular rosary mingling in her mind with all the other rosaries she’d prayed in church throughout the years, with no essential differences separating one memory from the next.
I felt myself slipping into her timeless world. The weeks seemed to pass by in a haze, but the days, only anchored by our slender routine, sometimes lagged and became irksome, especially toward evening. I had always considered myself something of a loner, but now I found myself yearning for outside conversation. I lived vicariously through friends online, but stopped writing about myself because I never had anything new to say. I detained Nurse Linda at the door, prolonging our discussions of Emma’s unobjectionable health. I took to lingering outside over yardwork, hoping that Peggy Harriman would step out for the mail so I could chat for a moment. I can’t have fooled her for a moment, but in a spirit of charity she made small talk with me whenever I happened to be in her path. It was like a draught of clear water to have a linear conversation.
I had been with Emma a month when Peggy casually offered, “How would it be if came and sat with Emma for some time on Saturdays so you could go out to the library or a coffee house or do something with people your own age for a change? Everyone needs congenial company sometimes.”
I snatched at the offer with more haste than was seemly, perhaps. “You would do that? Wow, I’d love to get out. I’ve been feeling a little cooped up lately. I love Emma, but it would be a real relief not have to repeat the same stock phrases all day.” Words bubbled up and gushed out, would I or no.
Peggy smiled knowingly. “Let’s start tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll tell you what: how about I take Emma to Mass in the afternoon, and you can have a night out. Then I’ll keep an eye on the house in the morning while you go.”
Emma seemed to sense my mood of anticipation, and she became agitated during the day. “Now when are those folks coming over?” she asked. “They ought to come around. I better check and see.” She prowled the kitchen, opening cabinets and taking out cans and boxes. The Lipton tea box came out with the rest, and she shook it suspiciously. Hearing the rattle of something inside, she opened it and pulled out a tea bag.
“Now will you look at this thing?” she cried. Prying up the paper tag, she let the bag dangle in the air. “Now how do they think we can make this work?”
“It’s a tea bag, Aunt Emma. Would you like some tea?”
She swung it around irritably. “They know that’s no good. I ought to tell them...” She looked up at me accusingly. “Did you tell them?”
“No, Aunt Emma. I haven’t talked to anyone. For a while.” I struggled against a rising tide of resentment as I glanced at the clock. It was 3:30. Mass was in one hour, and I needed to get her ready before Peggy arrived.
“I’m going to call them.” She threw the tea bag on the table and moved to the phone. “They need to tell me how this thing works.”
“Who are you going to call, Emma?” I asked.
Picking up the receiver, she started punching numbers on the big touch pad. “I’m going to tell them about it. When are those folks coming over?”
Casually I depressed the button on the base to hang up. “Who are you calling, Aunt Emma?” I repeated firmly. “Can I help you find something?”
“Now this thing isn’t working,” she fumed. “All these darn... things!” She stalked back into the kitchen holding the receiver, the long spiral cord trailing behind her.
“Here, Emma,” I offered, trying to modulate my voice into easy, soothing tones. “Let’s get a chair,” and I eased her down at the table. “Let me hang up the phone for you, and then I can boil some water for your tea.” Taking the receiver from her, I hung it up in the living room and counted to ten.
When I reentered the kitchen, Emma had retrieved the discarded tea bag and was sliding it around the table. She watched it spiral and twirl, and then, with one finger on the tag and another on the bag, she stretched and softened the string. She manipulated the string into a circle and tapped around the circumference repeatedly with one finger, pressing down for a beat each time. The purposeful movement seemed to quell the agitation that had built so suddenly. Her shoulders loosened, and her trembling hands relaxed and grew surer.