I received the expected call, “Pat wants to see you.” I didn’t ask when. I didn’t have to; I didn’t ask why. “I will be there in 20-30 minutes. I am going to ride my bicycle; it will take a little longer.” The person on the other end of the was Pat’s provider. You know, provider, one who tends to the sick and infirmed. After a long struggle Pat was dying. T. J. acknowledged my response, in her now familiar raspy voice – “I will tell her.”
I had spent the last two weeks avoiding this moment. Pat’s eyes seem more distance, her responses slower. Getting her wish I thought. Not wanting her wish; wanting the pain to stop; still loving life. I expressed the same contradictory wish, wanting this moment to come, not wanting at the same time. I wanted the dying process not to be so cruel and painful. Those eyes, that voice, and the restricted movement said, enough, enough, enough.
“I won’t be here much longer,” she told me the last time I saw her. I hushed her at the time. Hushing her did not make her words vanquish. She didn’t say anything else during that visit. She knew. In some sense, we both were ready, not ready at the same time.
The weather seemed typecast –petulant, irritated, angry. She pushed the slow-moving bicycle from one side of the road to the other, causing me to utter everyone’s name in vain. Annoyed, persistent, incessant, truculent – while I pushed and struggled against her attempts to deviate my path on this my recently most well-worn path. She began to cry, intermingling the Gulf’s mist with her tears. I did too – cry – releasing stored tears, held for months. My nose ran faster than I was moving. I dared not release the handlebars to wipe. She would have pushed me over. She lowered the temperature to 45° causing the winds to now scream, hers an extended death growl, increasing the trip from twenty-minutes to forty-five; pushing, shoving, begging the near violent lament to abate.
I was a new lawyer, a year in the practice – twenty-five at most – when I asked Pat to come work with me. At the time, Patricia Ann Tate was an employee of the district clerk’s office, fourteen years my senior. She agreed to leave her secured job for an uncertain one and come to work with a man-child whose everyday existence was an adventure. On her first day of work, I was called to trial. Towards the end of the day’s court proceedings, I was held in contempt and faced immediate overnight confinement.
“Judge can I call my office?”
I think I was calm. I don’t think my voice broke. I know I didn’t cry. Besides these uncertainties- the “I thinks” – I wanted to make clear my inability to assure you of my then condition are more the byproduct of time’s passage and aging, than my not being forthright. The only certain assurance I can provide is I called to try to convince this new employee not to be afraid. I envisioned her quitting on the day one. I also wanted to call before she heard from someone else. Envisioning her writing a brief note (maximum of two words), picking up her purse and walking out the door.
Galveston is a small town, full of ghosts and secrets which travel faster than the speed of sound, capable of telling before one can even think about telling. I knew this and attempted to beat them – those ghost and secrets… so I nervously called.
“Judge Dalehite has held me in contempt and is getting ready to put me in jail for the night.”
Pat was silent. I adjusted my stance, moving from one foot to the other. I adjusted my vocal cords, concentrating at a spot on the floor. I didn’t cry. Remember, that’s my story, I didn’t cry.
“Can you do me a favor and call the National College of Criminal Defense in Houston and ask them to put someone on standby in case I am put in jail?”
I thought this would be the moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, in a calm tone, she responded, “Okay, where can I find the number?” She came back to work the next day, and the next. We spent close to twenty years trying to figure it out. We argued, disagreed on important and unimportant matters. She was critical of my wastefulness (office supplies), she teased me when my suits became threadbare, she helped me to work on my youthful racism. When I elected to represent the Klu Klux Klan, she screamed (a scream of deviance, “no, no”) and walked out of the room. She never would work on the file. She politely exited the room when Michael Lowe, the Grand Dragon appeared. She calmed later because I gave her the same lecture, in which she gave me when I was a younger man. She spent twenty years calling me Mr. Griffin and my calling her Ms. Tate. The first time she called me by my first name, I did a double take – in shock. I was also honored.
When I entered the house, T. J. updated me. Her head was tilted to the side, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, did not look at me. “I came to work this morning and she had fallen; she was on the floor. I told her we can’t keep leaving her alone at night and we must do something. She said, ‘call Anthony.’” My head moved downward as we talked. Seemingly, I still had some more in reserve, tears fell – to my legs, to the floor.
“Okay. I will…”
I moved towards Pat’s room, slower than the speed Mother Nature permitted me earlier. No, there was no force working against me other than the powers of memory and time. She languished in place – resolute, still, staring into the distance. Her laughter was no more. Her strength had been stolen. Death was present hovering in the same manner he/she/it did when both my father and mother died. Not a smell but a presence, visible/invisible, palpable, not imaginary. We talked. I held her head against my stomach. I stroked her head and kept telling her, “I don’t want to decide.” She never responded.
Time, she stopped keeping time. Death, he, moved away – for a moment slightly – permitted us to interact. Mother Nature, she continued her lament, a mere three feet away, shaking tapping the windows, reminding me of her presence. I held on and openly cried and only released my grip after telling her clearly, “I love you.” For the first time, forty-three years later. “I love you.” I released her head, placed my cheek against hers and repeated, these three words –again, again, and again. Her eyes remained sullen; a barely imperceptible nod followed.
He/she/it – death, moved back in place and prepared for the transition, taking her five painful days later.