Visiting Agatha

I was an untrained amateur leading a self- help group for the mentally ill. Statistics were grim: in my first five months as leader, six people were hospitalized and two died. After that I stopped counting. The hospital was just a few blocks from my office, and I spent lunch hours visiting group members, armed only with friendly caring against an illness too often deadly. Group members loved Agatha, a beautiful old woman, hair carefully coiffed, whose body English declared silently, "Love me, but don’t come near me." Her eyes intently followed our conversation from speaker to speaker, but she never spoke during meetings. And now, Agatha was in the hospital.

Mary and I agreed we would visit Agatha together. Maybe it was because Agatha had two visitors at once, and she was overwhelmed. We found Agatha lying on her bed. When we spoke, she frowned and froze in instant catatonia. We were both upset. Mary patted Agatha’s cheek and crooned to her. Agatha’s body grew even more rigid. Mary backed away. I sat silent, sensing a vast abyss of raw pain under the anger. We stayed only a few minutes. The nurse let us out of the locked ward. The hospital staff was unfailingly respectful and humane in all my dealings with them. Mary and I said nothing until we were outside the hospital, when we clung to one another. Our grief was too deep for tears. "She’s shutting out all reality," we said to each other.

I held Agatha in my heart for several days. I decided to go back alone. I thought, "Maybe if she doesn’t have to respond, she will respond." I remembered as a child reading aloud to my grandmother as she slipped in and out of a coma. I was rewarded now and again with a faint flicker of recognition. Maybe Agatha could respond if she were read to. A children’s story, I thought. I chose an old favorite, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s "Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus," from The Little House on the Prairie. It had just the right combination of suspense, humor, love, and uplift. I was sure Agatha was a churchgoer; she wouldn’t be offended by a story about Christmas. I put the book in my backpack and walked to the hospital.

The nurse let me in, gave me a direct look, and made a decision. "I’ll show you where Agatha is," she said. She led the way to Agatha’s room, saying, "Agatha, you have a visitor." And she left us alone. Agatha was in bed in restraints—the only time I saw someone in restraints there. Agatha grunted recognition and looked away. "Hi," I said as I sat down. "I brought you a bedtime story today." I began to read, not looking up. This was between Agatha and Laura Ingalls Wilder and God. I didn’t look up until I finished, when I saw a look of utter delight on Agatha’s face. Then she saw me smiling at her delight, and she faded away at once into her own world. But the lines of pain were softer. "I gotta get back to the office now," I said. "I’ll see you." The nurse and I locked eyes and I gave her a thumbs-up over the heads of the patients in the day room. She let me out of the ward.

Within hours, Agatha was transported to the Zone Center, which was official speak for the regional warehouse for patients who were a danger to themselves or others. I knew a few success stories from the Zone Center, but very few. Months later, Agatha’s obituary was in the paper, an account so cryptic I strongly suspected Agatha had found her own way out of that abyss of pain. But I will always remember that instant when I saw the real Agatha, the Agatha she was meant to be, shining, shining in her eyes.

Mariellen O. Gilpin

Mariellen O. Gilpin is a member of Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting. This article recounts an experience she had 20 years ago. She didn't cry then—the pain was too deep for tears—but she did cry one night when instead of sleeping she finally committed it to words.