Grace Notes: Hospice house and light

The one story house, low slung across a lot longer than it is deep, was built by Joseph Eichler, an architect of the 1950’s. It’s surrounded by other Eichler’s on a street named after a poem, in what seems to be an iconic California neighborhood. Hydrangeas bloom fat and effortlessly, their giant pom-pom flowers popping in yard after yard. Persimmon trees hover over small yards, blue agapanthus, hummingbirds. The sometimes searing white light of the Silicon Valley, this day, chases every crouching thing out of the shadows, into the bright.

In this house, with its broad overhangs and open beamed ceilings, dying happens. Sometimes it’s in the afternoon, after the tiny orange and red lovebirds, caged and twittering on the concrete patio, are fed teaspoons of seed, or after lunch, when the sun flowers growing in a row against the redwood fence have turned to follow the light across the second half of the sky and down toward the horizon.

Sometimes it is deep in the dark hours, or the early ones toward morning, but not yet light. Moon-full nights catch showers of sprinkler water floating in a low haze over each lawn, and it can happen then, last breath, transition into a new life.

In a hospice, the days of life left are taken one at a time and, as much as that can be true, no one dies alone.

Lourdes is in the kitchen with a small fist-sized pile of garlic on the counter in front of her. I can hear the practiced “thwack” “thwack” “thwack” as she slight-pounds each clove with a smooth beach rock: the skin loosens and she pulls in away in one piece, sets the naked clove six inches to her right, takes the next one, “thwack”, begins again.

I move around the stovetop and get close to her to watch her do what I would do with the flat side of a wide chef’s knife. It looks easier her way, neater, contained, simple; right now the way she peels garlic seems to make more sense than anything I’ve ever done. I want that.

She asks me “Do you want water? Tea?” I tell her “no” while still watching her hands piece through the remaining unpeeled garlic cloves. She chooses one, places it under the rock, pushes down with her thin wrist, palm flat, fingers curled. “Do you want pudding?” Her voice lilts like the birds in the cage – their slight singing and sighing all day long follows me. She motions to the seven glass sherbet bowls, each filled with yellow pudding, each topped with slices of bananas. “I made too many” she adds. “No. No thanks” I answer her.

Later, she is sweeping. The broom is a handful of reeds, bound at the top, a triangle of feather like grass at the bottom. I watch her carefully; she sweeps the wide flare of broom across the wooden floor. The sun is laying diagonal shadows across the living room wall. All the residents are asleep. Lourdes hums. I ask her about the broom. She tells me it’s a walis tambo, a traditional reed broom from her home in the Philippines.

The sweeping seems lyrical, the pace measured and clear. I want that. I want her simplicity of movement. I ask her if it is indeed a wonderful broom, a magical broom. I think she knows I really want things to be safe and clear, sheared down to their final state, definitive.

She doesn’t mention the people asleep in the house, one of them a great love of my life. When she pauses, she gently answers “I don’t think it’s the broom. I think it’s the person sweeping. How you feel about all you have to do.”

White towels, piled in a basket, sit in the sun beside the couch. I ask her if I can help her fold. She shoos me away. “No. No.” she says. “It’s my job.” She laughs like the birds again, picks up the basket, moves with it outside, places it on the cool concrete, sits to face the roses, the green tomatoes hanging heavy, the squirrel running along the top of the fence.

She leaves me to find my own way through each movement, through each thing I must learn to simply do.

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