By Patricia O’Brien
In college I got a part-time job as a companion to an elderly widow named Fran, driving her around town and assisting with errands: post office, hairdresser, the market, her psychiatrist. The routine was set, and all was well for many months.
But one day, something unusual happened. Fran opened her door with a grand flourish, eyes shining. The television, radio, and blender were blasting. “Shall we go,” I asked, hurrying to turn off the noisy electronics.
“Fran,” I observed, “the blender’s empty.”
“Let’s not bother with tiresome details. I’m out of my head today,” she said, with purposeful excitement. At the pharmacy, this time, I took notice of the medication I picked up for her: lithium.
“What’s lithium for?” I asked, sliding into the car.
“A bipolar disorder. Not to worry. I’ve navigated these choppy seas half my life.”
We did errands. All the while, she acted like she was on the campaign trail for mayor, laughing, waving to friends, and smoking up a storm. At the market she hugged the meat manager, who was arranging Italian sausages. He looked confused, but smiled and told her there was a special on calf’s liver.
“I’ll take it all,” she declared, making a grand gesture with her newly acquired Cecil B. DeMille tendencies.
Back in the car, she began to hum. “This is Moon River,” she said, “and you’re my huckleberry friend.”
She beamed so intensely, with her free-as-a-bird smile, I had to laugh.
“And does Moon River flow by the Stables Inn?” I asked.
“Of course it does. It’s our rainbow’s end,” she hummed softly.
I knew she was half out of her mind, but I was glad to see her so buoyant. It was pleasurable to smile back at the world as we headed to lunch.
A few weeks later, I received a call from Fran’s neighbor, saying that she was being hospitalized. I flew to her apartment. An ambulance was parked with its back doors open near the entrance. At the top of the landing, two men were prying Fran’s fingers from the wrought-iron railing while she screamed.
“Fran, these men are here to help,” I told her, but I was a stranger. They secured her to the stretcher, stowed her in the ambulance, and drove away.
I made a visit to the psychiatric hospital. A nurse whose name tag read Bobbi said, “Room 311,” in a soft voice. Fran sat in a dark room in a shaft of sunlight, dust motes floating around her like an eerie halo. A departure had taken place in her eyes. I offered her daisies, but she stared past me as if engrossed in a silent movie. No acknowledgement. No recognition. Nothing.
I left the room and sat down by a window. Eventually I heard footsteps. It was Bobbi, the nurse. “I see how distressed you are. The mind’s a complex universe. She’s making progress. Be patient—you’ll see.” I looked at her kind brown eyes and wanted to believe her.
And Bobbi was right. Weeks later, Fran sat in the day room looking less haunted. She was emerging from the ocean’s depth, a Lady Lazarus back from the underworld. It was horrifying and amazing to see her negotiate these fault lines between delight and collapse. Bobbi gave me a reassuring glance, reminding Fran that at 1:00 o’clock she was decorating a tissue box, and handed her a paper cup with meds.
In spring, I ushered her out under a sunny sky, away from her institutionalized world. A warm breeze caressed our cheeks. She lit a cigarette and I detected the beginnings of a smile.
She reached into her purse and asked if the address on it was nearby. “I’d like to drive by and see what her place looks like.”
“Bobbi, the nurse, my friend. She never becomes cross, even when someone provokes her. She’s remarkable.”
I was younger then, and I don’t remember if Bobbi had given her the address herself, but Fran was harmless and it seemed alright to take her past for a quick look.
“Sure,” I told her. “She doesn’t live far.” We threaded our way through the side streets of Philadelphia and found Bobbi’s small stucco house and modest terraced lawn. It was Bobbi this and Bobbi that. Apparently, Bobbi had usurped her psychiatrist’s pedestal.
When I dropped her back at the hospital with its wrought-iron bars and echoing corridors, I felt sad. But I knew Bobbi and her colleagues were her lifeline; they kept her connected, and her fantasy life about them kept her motivated and alive. Who could blame her for reshaping reality for survival?
Eventually, arrangements were made for Fran to move to a retirement home, so she would have her meals prepared and medications dispensed. Time passed; our lives changed. I began teaching. Fran hired another companion.
Within a year, I received a letter informing me that Fran had passed away from emphysema. My friend was gone.
Fran had opened a door for me, from facing what’s broken to embracing contradictions. She showed me that the delicate dance for stability for many is a precarious one, a daily struggle.
And the clinicians who assist with healing are just as important as family. I carry her story with me like a vivid scarf.