Maybe This Is Mercy

by Ginnie Horst Burkholder

She tells me her blood pressure is over two hundred even though she is on medication. She walks to the nursing home to visit her husband, Nelson’s roommate, even though the temperature outdoors has been in the nineties. She’s not sure how far it is, but from what she says, I calculate it must be at least two miles. She says her doctor warned her that if she doesn’t get her blood pressure down, she will die before him. He is ninety. We stand there between our sleeping husbands, our eyes locked in knowing, pain-filled silence. Mine fill with tears.

“You are so young,” she says. The tears spill over.

I’m young and the one who wants to sit down. I pull out Nelson’s chair, which interrupts the silence with a screech. We both wince. I tell her to sit down, but she doesn’t want to make any noise by pulling in another chair. She doesn’t mind standing, she says. She leans in close each time I talk so that she can hear. I remember the folding chair we keep stowed behind the curtain and pull it out. She sits on that.

She talks then about his back injury, their marriage, how they have blended their lives. Then we discover that we have something else in common. She is also chemically sensitive. She is fragrance-free except for her shampoo. I tell her it’s hard to find, but I get my shampoo at Raisin Rack. “It’s expensive,” I say.

Without hesitation she gets up, brings out her purse, and hands me a ten- dollar bill. The store is in the opposite direction of her neighborhood. I’m glad to do this favor for her.

But I do it for me as well. It’s been an especially difficult summer. Being outdoors usually gives me respite from my chemical sensitivities. Summer has always been my healthy season. I work in my flower beds, bring friends to my porch swing, sit by the woods to watch the birds, go for frequent accompanied walks, and attend outdoor reunions with less worry about allergic reactions to fragrances. For a time the loneliness of the long closed-in winter is forgotten. This summer we have had more than usual rain, heat, and humidity. Everyone says allergies are worse. My breath is labored after being outside. Now I’m indoors with windows closed and shades drawn to keep out the stifling hot sun. With Nelson at the nursing home, my sense of loneliness at home has grown. I pray for mercy. “Where are you God?”

My faith wanes. Unanswered questions about God and suffering seem suspended, hanging on a thin strand of hope. I’m waiting. Waiting to know who this God is who seems so comfortable with suffering. Wanting some reassurance that life is not just a series of unhappy accidents. I’m getting up daily, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping for some small thing that day to strengthen hope.

Maybe this nearly fragrance-free Romanian wife is mercy. We moved Nelson to this room because his old room was getting a new floor. Odors released by that process would have made it unsafe for me. Mid-move we discovered fragrance dispensers in the new room. I’m highly allergic to their fragrance. We threw them out. Housekeeping washed down the walls twice with vinegar water and changed the curtains. I brought in an air cleaner and hoped the heating/cooling unit in the room wasn’t throwing fragrance into the air.

“We need help,” she says. “I don’t think any person can help us.” Her eyes are dry but overflow with sadness. “I’m ready for heaven,” she adds.

Maybe she – who mirrors my own life – fighting for her health, for her husband’s welfare, and trying her best to stave off loneliness, maybe she is the mercy I asked for. Maybe she, who understands my struggle with aging, illness, and loss, is here to share a little solace while we wait for greater faith and hope. Maybe together we will find our hope strengthened. Maybe this is mercy.

© 2010 Ginnie Horst Burkholder

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