Annie is my first patient that has the power to break me...the very first client in my three months of work who will cause me to burst into anguished tears when she finally dies. I adore Annie. I adore her sweet husband, Jimmy. The love they have for one another is so palpable. It is a living, breathing presence everytime I sit with them. Thanks to the wonders of the anti-depressant Lexapro I'm relatively calm in the face of death...but Annie's death is the impetus for the emotion which could finally leap over those protective pharmaceutical gates and render me helpless.
Annie and Jimmy live in a little tiny shotgun house on the outskirts of town. It is a part of town separated by eight railroad tracks and a switching station. Sometimes when I drive to see them I am a half-hour late due to the obnoxiously long train delays. They live in a ordered but filthy home, thanks in part to the coal-heated furnace which sheds its residue year-round and in part to Jimmy's good-hearted, but slightly inadequate cleaning skills.
Annie and Jimmy are in their 70s or 80s and have lived in this home for over forty years. Jimmy built the home, and recognizes that it's plywood sidewalks which covered the spring mud and it's uninsulated windows which leaked the winter wind are not as adequate as he thinks Annie deserves. Jimmy has a lush garden next to the house in which he grows yellow tomatoes (red tomatoes mess with Annie's coumadin levels) and wax beans (Annie's favorite). He confesses that he doesn't care much for vegetables, but he has noticed that she seems to enjoy watching him garden. Every night he wheels Annie around in the wheelchair on the perimeter of the soil and he points out what has sprouted, and what has blossomed, and what is ready to be pruned. And then, Jimmy settles her in next to him on the porch swing which he made out of old car seats, and they watch the traffic go by, while their caged 'coon hunting dogs finally halt their ceaseless barking, knowing their master and mistress are nearby.
But Annie is failing. She hardly talks now. That sweet trilling voice which once sang "off tenor" with a gospel band called "The Glory Bounders" is raspy. She no longer serenades me with an Appalachian version of "Amazing Grace" where her notes slide all over the scale and leave me slack-jawed in my own state of amazement. But her long fingers still reach out as she strokes the faces of those close to her. Yesterday she brushed my cheek and said, "Well, I'll be...ain't you just as purty as can be."
Jimmy won't cry in front of her. In front of her, he massages her spindly legs and says in that slushing way that those without teeth do, "Hi Honeeeyyy...How's my baby doll?" His eyes light up, and he's so convincing you almost can look past his tears.
Yesterday he told me that he'd bought her the most expensive casket he could find. It looked like marble and had roses on it. It cost him $10,000. He said, "If it were me, you could just throw me in a hole...so long as I'm next to her...but for her, nothing but the best. She comes first."
I told Jimmy to call me if Annie starts to decline rapidly over the weekend, so I could come out and be with them. So that Jimmy wouldn't have to be alone. Jimmy said, "Ma'am, should I call you even if it's the middle of the night?" I assured him that yes, night or day, he should call--that I wanted to be with them.
When he calls I will go. And together we'll weep tears for the woman who sang in both of our hearts in different ways. And even Lexapro can't deny that kind of love.