But being with this amazing woman and her family re-awoke my childhood aspiration to explore the boundaries of life and death, and gave me the confidence to be with people who are dying.
I am so grateful to her, and to so many others, for allowing me to walk a ways with them on that journey.
It was almost two a.m. when I arrived at the small Texas hospital to sit in the dark beside Delia. I lifted a heavy wooden chair from the corner of the room and placed it close to her bed. Her right hand lay beside her still body, palm up on the cool white sheets. I lay my own hand gently on hers.
" Hello, Delia, its Rose", I whispered and then leaned back in the chair to rest, matching the rhythm of Delia’s inhalations and exhalations with my own.
The birch trees outside Delia’s hospital room window trembled in the night breeze as I felt her fingers tighten around mine. When the birch branches brushed against each other the room was filled with rustling, like the wings of ravens in flight, and sharp shadows scuttled across Delia's blanketed body.
The night nurse who allowed me to enter the hospital after hours had done so at the special request of Delia’s granddaughter, Heather. Now, firmly placed in her role as night nurse she stood beside me, guardian of the one patient in the hospital. I bent my head so that our eyes wouldn’t meet. The nurse has been kind enough to allow me into the hospital. I was hoping she would be kind enough to leave us alone.
The hospital room seemed to be detached from the life outside the building, held in that particular silence that descends upon a small town during the hours between midnight and dawn and although there are three of us in this building, only two of us were able to speak. Neither of us did.
In the silence our attention focused on Delia, whose labored breathing etched the quiet with a long faint whistle that reminded me of the dented tea kettle she used at home. Delia’s kettle was cobalt blue, sprinkled with a pattern of white dots. I remember hearing it whistle as we heated water for tea in her big white kitchen in Valentine, Texas on the day we first met.
Once I had a kettle just like it and three matching cups that I bought in the basement of El Mercado’s Hardware store on Taos Plaza. But I burned up the bottom of my kettle long ago and it seemed now that Delia would not be using her kettle again either.
I was filled with the fatigue of travel and the knowledge of Delia’s imminent death. All my attention turned towards her and what was happening in this room. Delia’s kidneys were failing and on the other side of her hospital bed the equipment attached to her struggling kidneys panted like a small animal. Now and then a tree limb bumped against the window in a rhythm that became predictable as the hours passed.
I noticed the smell of lemon-scented disinfectant and realized that the nurse was leaving, the door to Delia’s room opening and then closing with barely a sound. I listened as the nurse walked in her rubber soled shoes, step, squeak, step, squeak, step, squeak, across the length of the green tiled corridor, returning to her desk near the front doors of the hospital.
I turned Delia’s hand over and rubbed my index finger across her protruding tendons and rolling veins. Her skin was soft as crushed silk. Her long bent fingers thin as bird bone. Sometimes I make up songs to keep me going on hard hikes, or long drives. I needed a song now and so I began to sing to Delia, the same song I had used to keep myself awake during the last hours of my ride from the El Paso airport to the hospital.
The flame is flickering, the candles burning low, the flame is flickering, it’s easy now to go. Because we love you dear, go easy now we pray. Because God loves you dear, the angels light your way. Softly now, bright colors fill the air, gently now and love is everywhere. All things rejoice as you step in the light. All things rejoice in your spirit pure and bright….
It was almost 4 am when I left the hospital and checked into the motel room I had arranged, where I burned incense and dreamed about Delia's fading health and her family. In my dream someone asked me to enter the shower but the drain was plugged and the shower basin had filled with a liquid the color of dark root beer. "I can't go in there until the liquid clears up." I said in the dream. Delia’s grandson Buck, a West Texas cowboy who I'd only met once, entered the dream and gave me a passionate embrace. I was embarrassed when I woke up, but now I know how often impulses towards the regenerative power of sex come to those who witness death.
Early the next morning I returned to the hospital and met Heather, my friend and Delia's granddaughter, beside Delia’s hospital bed.
"Look Rose," said Heather, pointing to the bag that is draining Delia’s kidneys, "that liquid was dark brown yesterday, now I can almost see through it. I'm going to call the nurse. Maybe Delia is getting better. She's surprised us so many times."
I didn’t say anything. The room had been dark the night before and I had not been able to see the bag attached to Delia’s kidneys, but listening to Heather I reminded my dream, the dark brown liquid and how I wanted it to clear.
I would have loved to know Delia for many more years. Would have been delighted if she had surprised everyone by recovering. But I saw in the stillness of her body and the slackness of her cheeks, a 92 yr. old woman surrendering to death and not a woman calling on the energies of recovery and more years to live.
I had first seen Delia's face among the pages of a book titled Border Healing Woman. I knew I wanted to know the woman I saw pictured walking in a yard filled with chickens and goats. I still can't say exactly why. But I put the book back on the shelf at our local bookstore and cautioned myself not to get too far out.
I waited a year before I allowed myself to purchase that book. I was afraid of the changes it might encourage in my life. Then I tried to convince myself that she would be impossible to find. But that wasn’t true. The book clearly named the town where she lived -- Valentine, Texas. So I called the Police Department in Valentine. Sure enough, the Valentine chief of police gave me Delia’s phone number when I asked for it. "Why sure," he said, "I know Miss Delia. Just about everybody in town knows her. She's kind a famous around here."
Within months, in the fall of 1986, just six months after my 38th birthday, I went down to meet her. I flew to El Paso and drove the 200 miles to Valentine, Texas wondering how the journey would turn out, wondering why I was traveling all these miles to reach a woman I didn't know in a place I'd hadn’t even known existed.
Valentine sits between Van Horn and Marfa, near the West Texas border. It’s just a spot on the highway that the railroad moves through, without bothering to stop. The streets were quiet and empty on that fall afternoon and the once fancy hotels that face the railroad tracks were empty too. The windows and doors remain boarded up and the hotels sit unused, facing the sun like a row of once fine old ladies now dressed in tattered and peeling pastel coats, their smiles full of missing teeth.
But the cemetery on the hill is full. Filled with women who died in childbirth leaving their families behind, with men worn out from the range and babies gone before they'd taken many breathes.
You know you're entering Valentine when you see the horses. At each end of town there's a blue wooden sign, and on it two white horses stand on their rear legs holding a bright red heart between them. That's Valentine.
Delia’s was the last house on a short street. A white wooden house with a big front porch and a walkway made of flat stones and buckled concrete. Clusters of purple asters waved in the soft summer breeze near the front gate and an eighteen inch wide ammonite, an ancient relic of the sea, leaned against a porch post. One of Delia’s three son’s found it in the Mexican desert, somewhere out past Ojinga. It’s spiraling fossilized body is encrusted with small stones. I parked my car, those many years ago, and stopped to take a deep breath at the front door, inhaling the friendly scents of dust and sun warmed wood.
Delia answered the door dressed in a light blue housecoat. Her head was covered with a red flowered scarf that tied under her chin. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers. I loved her immediately.
"Well, hello honey ", she said with a wide smile as she held open the battered screen door. "Hello", I answered, "I'm Rose, I wrote to you."
"Oh", said Delia in a voice that rose and fell, hoarse and hollow, like a small creek tumbling over logs and stone. "I get so many letters I cain’t keep track of them all. Come on in honey, come in and sit down."
We sat near the door on a soft white couch. Letters, books and magazine clippings formed a tilting tower on a nearby chair. "Well, I'm sure your letter is here somewhere," Delia said, shaking her head and throwing her hands open to gesture to a box of envelopes that sat on the table in front of us. We looked at each other. We both knew that finding that letter wasn't important. Arriving at Valentine was.
"I don't know why I'm here," I said "I guess I just wanted to meet you." Delia laughed and shook her head. Her soft skin, silky as a peach, slid over high cheekbones and rippled along her strong Texas jaw. "Well, well." she remarked, hand to cheek, amused and obviously not nearly as puzzled as I was by my visit," I git all kinds of folks here. I've never turned anyone away " she laughed," and I ain’t afraid of tenyone neither."
I glanced at Delia's hands as she moved them to her lap. Her knuckles bulged on long thin fingers that narrowed again before spreading out to flat, broad tips and thick clipped nails. She wore a ring on her left hand with two large stone ovals, one turquoise, the other coral, set in silver.
"I milked goats for 15 years", Delia remarked, following my look. "My hands are strong from that, but these fingertips," she added, holding her hands in the air in front of her "they're this way from working on people."
Delia twisted her index finger in a tight circle on the coffee table. "From getting deep into the places where the hurt is, to get it all broke loose." "Owwee", she continued, her finger still twisting, her mouth pursed to drag out the " o", raising the word into a small squeal that mimicked the sound of sudden pain. "Owwee". "Yep, that's from going real deep, that’s what shaped ‘em up this way. It's not the nails that does it, I keep them short. It's the tip of the finger, that's what does the work." Delia glanced again at the ends of her fingers and was quiet for a moment, as if remembering where those fingertips had been and the pain they had found.
Delia and I spent hours together that day. She showed me the piles of feather beds and blankets she had stored in her bedroom from the years she spent living in an unheated railroad tie house near the border of Texas and Mexico, showed me photos and letters and the big bed in the front room where she “worked” on people.
“Why don’t you stay for awhile ?”, asked Delia.” A month or so, so I can teach you some things”. “Why”, I asked. “Well”, she said, “we don’t get many good ones like you around here.”
“Thank you, Delia”, I answered, my heart warmed from the kindness and welcome in her voice. “I think I can stay for a few days”. “Well, good then”, she replied with a move of her chin.
Dora, a dark haired neighbor from across the street came over to check me out. She had come to Valentine with her partner, who had been paralyzed from an automobile accident outside Grants, to see Jewel and ask for healing. Delia had given the two women a house across the street to live in. They were staying for an undetermined amount of time, so Delia could work on the women who’d been injured. Dora was cautious and suspicious at first, wondering if I was an insurance inspector coming to check on their disability claim. It took a bit of talking to convince her that I wasn’t. As we talked Delia sat shaking her head, with the small smile on her face that I would come to know as an almost constant presence.
When her neighbor left, Delia and I moved to the kitchen to make tea and heat the soup I had bought at the Valentine corner grocery. Finally I left to spend the night in Marfa, where displays of dancing lights are said to appear mysteriously over the hills. But I couldn't see the lights from my room. Two convicted murderers had escaped from jail earlier that day and I spent the night with the windows locked and the curtains drawn.
In the morning I brought sour cream, peaches and bananas to share with Delia. We sipped hot tea and talked some more. Delia had grown up as the daughter of an Oklahoma well-digger. She was 16 years old when she married a West Texas rancher. Early in their marriage she rode the range with him, checking on the ranch hands.
"Yep, I'd go out with him and around lunch time he'd set me under the shade of a big oak tree that sat up on a little ole hill. I'd eat my lunch there and then take my Ponds cold cream out of my saddlebags and clean my face. Yep, been using Pond's all my life." "Still using it," she added with a laugh.
I imagined Delia's face as the center of a cold cream advertisement: Miss Deli now 86 years old, has been using Pond's cold cream for seventy years. That's all they'd have to say. Her face would say the rest. Her skin reminded me of the rich layer of cream that floats to the top of fresh, un-homogenized milk. Farm fresh and smooth, with hardly a wrinkle on it. But now, in the hospital, Delia's skin felt like parchment. Hot and dry despite her granddaughter's regular applications of a variety of Pond's creams, jars of which arrived on a regular basis as gifts from Delia's many grateful friends.
Delia’s long white hair, that I had once felt so honored to brush and braid, had been chopped short because it tangled and matted from lying in bed and her bright blue eyes were closed, flickering behind translucent, rose veined lids.
I spent most of the next four days in the hospital with Delia, singing to her and holding her hand, laying drops of water on her lips, oiling her legs and feet.
Family members came and went. Nurses and hospital staff dropped in to see Jewel and several of her Mexican - American visitors recounted tales to me of the many small healings Delia had done -- for diabetes and bullet wounds, broken, twisted limbs, child fevers and lingering heartbreaks. They spoke of how they'd repaid her as they could, leaving covered bowls of bean stew and potatoes on her porch; tucking in small amounts of money beside the stacks of fresh hot tortillas.
"Oh yes," one young Mexican woman told me as she watched Delia's labored breathing, “She’s never refused to help to us. She has a healing gift you know, a gift from god."
Delia's eyes never opened but her eyelids would flicker rapidly when visiting family members loudly discussed calves and fields, goats and rodeos, and her fingers flailed briefly at her sheets as if she was trying to swim up to her family from where she lay at the bottom of a deep lake. Sometimes she moaned and tossed.
Heather bathed Delia‘s forehead, murmuring hellos now and again into her ear, " When we first came to the hospital she said she was scared. She said she was having bad dreams.”
Heather and I both recalled an earlier dream of Delia’s. She had told us she dreamed that everyone she used to know was running ahead of her, up and over a green hill. “I called to them”, she said, “called to them and said, wait up. Wait up, I’m coming too.”
On the day Delia died the only other patient in the hospital arrived; a pregnant woman who delivered her child just beyond the green emergency room doorway. The baby was swaddled and surrounded with well- wishers when Jewel died a few hours after the birth.
Six women encircled Delia as her breath left her. Among us were her two great granddaughters, and a freckled, red-headed eight year old named Sally. Sally had spent the last year perfecting her reading skills by reading the bible to Delia every morning. She read a piece of the bible to Delia one more time shortly before her death, and then she held her great-grandmother's hand and whispered goodbye to her. We stood in a circle around Delia's bed, our fingers resting softly on her body, watching as each breath left her mouth and waiting, our own breath suspended with hers until her lungs swelled and drew in air again. The pauses between her exhalations and inhalations grew longer and longer.
Finally Delia left us with one long soft sigh, her breath passing into the air like a pebble dropped into still water, its ripples gradually fading until the water's surface bears no trace of the stone. I waited with Delia for the funeral attendants and watched as her face briefly became a death mask, the wrinkles disappearing, her skin turning the color of old ivory beads, her mouth open in an "o", dark as a cave. It was a face that was hauntingly impersonal, reminding me of carved ivory skulls I had seen on a Tibetan prayer necklace, and it seemed that Jewel had become one more bead in a string of beads that extended back to all our beginnings. Then the face changed again and once more I saw Delia, the woman I knew and loved.
Later that day Heather and I worked at the cemetery. We swept the plot and made a border of stones at its edges. An elderly caretaker leaned against his rake to watch us as we passed a glowing hot stick of sage over the waiting earth. I left Van Horn early the next day, before the funeral, in time to return to work. I cried as I drove to the El Paso airport and images of Delia rose to the surface of my memory like buoys marking the depth of our friendship.
I saw her as she was in the early days of her illness, wearing her light blue housecoat and laughing shyly as I brushed her long hair before braiding it and setting it in a coiled white crown on her head. "Gosh, my hair is so thin now," she had murmured, her hands patting at the soft braid, "it’s like a rat's tail".
I felt her hands again, pressing a folded bill into my shirt pocket, her face close to mine, her raspy voice whispering, "This is how it is with family Rose, we always chip in for gas for the one that travels the furthest."
And I saw her sitting in her wheelchair, wrapped in her red plaid robe, insisting that I put my bare foot on the pillow that rested on her lap so she could give me a foot rub. Her strong fingers dug deeply into my foot as she told me about her fifteen years raising goats in the West Texas desert, the wisdom to be earned in silence and her abiding love of the piney woods of her childhood.
In my memory her clear blue eyes looked again into mine. "I never did start my real work till I was fifty, Rose. Till then I was just gatherin up all I needed. You know, you're never too old but to learn something new."
Then an image from our first meeting popped to the surface, and I saw myself lying among the white pillows and coverlets she kept on the bed in her big front room, feeling warmth like a hot flower blooming between my breasts, its unfurling petals melting the edges of the dark and cold place I carried in my chest since I was a child, as if it were a snowflake dissolving on my tongue. When I opened my eyes that day I saw that Delia was standing far from me, at the end of the bed, her large hands held in the air, palms facing my feet, her eyes looking somewhere beyond my head.
"I thought your hands were on my feet, Delia". "Oh no," Delia responded, " I weren't touching them. This is the other way the healing works. I hold my hands out like this and see what happens. I just watch where it goes. Now tell me, Rose," she said," where'd ya feel that?"
Heather called me when I got home, and told me that she had picked wild flowers off the highway, Texas bluebonnets and daises, to decorate Delia's grave. They used the money I gave them to buy colored glass vases to hold the wild flowers, and then set the vases inside the stone border we'd made around the grave.
"Never did care much for regular flowers", Delia had often told me "I mean the store bought kind. They're just not to my taste. I reckon I prefer wild things."
A local Mexican man sang Delia's favorite Tex-Mex tunes and they buried her with the pinon branch I'd brought to her in her left hand and a pink and blue silver threaded scarf of mine in her right. I had brought the pinon branch because Delia often told me she wanted to sniff the sweetness of the piney woods one more time, and the scarf was the one I had wore on my first visit to Valentine.
“Oh, that’s a real purty thing on your head ", she had said to me as we stood on her porch steps on that long ago day, "I like it." "Well, here, Delia," I had answered, "I'll give it to you." "Oh, no", she teased, her eyes glittering, "Then I'd have to take that purty turquoisey blue blouse you've got on to go with it." We had laughed and a neighbor had snapped our picture. Delia and I, arm and arm, smiling in the crisp Texas sun.