IT WAS MY IDEA to volunteer as a clown, but it was my therapist who suggested that I work as a mute because I am so talkative. That way I’d have to use my face and props to communicate instead of words. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be, for I quickly got good with my rubber chicken—I’d squeeze him and make him lay an egg or I’d hang him from a blue cord for “chicken cordon bleu”—but I am digressing as I always do because I talk too much.
Yet it was harder than I’d thought to actually become a clown. I had to go to clown college and specialize in therapeutic patient-led clowning. You have to design a unique look and a face—something that has never been used before—and then you have to register it. I mean, you can’t just go out there dressed up like Bozo or Emmett Kelly. You have to be an original.
Since I wanted to work in a children’s hospital, I needed a nonthreatening look. I decided that my face would be white with blue and red circle eyes, and I’d do a removable red ball nose that I’d pull up and down as a communication prop. I’d wear a wild yellow wig with beribboned pigtails and a Swiss Alps dress with a pinafore apron, striped tights, and oversized Mary Jane shoes. I’d carry a huge purse that lights up when I open it and use it for props like bubbles and balloons. I named her Gretchen von Clucker, and she can do a chicken dance as well as the Korean Gangnam style.
After I graduated from clown college, I phoned every children’s hospital in Cincinnati, and then every children’s ward in every ordinary hospital in Cincinnati, but they all turned me down because a surprisingly large number of children are afraid of clowns, especially since they are sick and away from home. I finally volunteered at an adult hospice named Maison de la Lumière, the only place that would take me.
At the point when I found myself being rejected for jobs that were not even paid, my mother told me to drop the whole idea.
“But my therapist recommends it,” I reminded her.
“It’s all so you,” she complained. “It’s all so Eleanor. You’re always at an extreme. When you diet, you have to exercise every toenail. Always at an extreme. I mean, clowning in a hospice, for Christ’s sake.”
“But my therapist—”
“She’s not doing you any good. She should be encouraging you to get a job and get your own place and your own money—you shouldn’t be just sitting there and talking against me with her all the time.”
The hospice where I volunteered was a small nondescript building that had been a warehouse for drugstore supplies. A distracted middle-aged nurse named Molly Crispin ran the operation, and when I showed up for my first day, she had forgotten I was coming and wasn’t sure why I was there. I explained that I was there to help people, that I could be therapeutic or entertaining or just a friend holding their hands, and that a clown could spread all kinds of joy in a setting like this one.
“I’m not sure who would want to be friends with you,” she said, looking me up and down and seeing an oversized woman dressed like a gigantic Swiss shepherdess. Then her phone rang, and she shooed me out of her office, saying, “Go visit someone—it’s okay—you passed your criminal and we’ve got your fingerprints.”
The cubicles where assistants once sat behind computers as they counted Pampers and cough drops had been converted into private rooms for dying patients. The rooms had a fake cheerfulness in that they were painted kindergarten colors and decorated with inspirational pictures of rainbow waterfalls in Yosemite or sunsets over the Grand Canyon. The décor reminded me of the death scene in Soylent Green where Edward G. Robinson is listening to Beethoven and watching movies of meadows during an assisted suicide.
I wandered down the hall, tiptoeing as best I could on two-foot-long shoes. I peered into rooms and saw that most patients were sleeping like drugged-out zombies, hooked up to morphine drips and hydrators. Most were breathing loudly, with occasional snorts, catches, and mouth-dropping snores. I kept searching for a lighted television set, open eyes, any sign of life.
I finally entered the room of one Ms. Lydia Whitney, who was very much alive and awake. In fact, when I opened her door, she shrieked, “Oh my God, I have died and gone to hell and the devil has sent a demon to greet me!”
She screamed a ladylike scream, sat up straight in her bed, and yelled at me to leave at once. She had an upper-class New England accent and a haughty air, like an ancient Katherine Hepburn. She sounded as if she thought no one was worthy of her except people like Hiltons and Lady Astors, and everyone else, especially clowns, was just the help. I made a sad face, clucked my horn, and flopped my way out.
As I walked down the hall, I must have managed to look dejected despite the smile painted with two-inch wide red lipstick, for a small elderly woman touched my arm and said, “Don’t take it personal. She’s unkind to everyone.”
“Is that right?” I asked.
“She’s not close to Jesus,” she whispered, “and it’s hard for those who aren’t close to Jesus when they die. I’m praying for Miss Whitney. I even did a novena to Saint Michael for her. Death is Saint Michael’s cause, you know.” She said her name was Mary Margaret Mapes, that she felt God had called her to do hospice work, and that she was glad to know me as she was new at Maison de la Lumière herself.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” she told me, “patients are always coming and going, and we’re bound to get some who like clowns. I’ll pray that we do, my dear.”
That constituted my entire first day as a volunteer. Molly Crispin waved at me on my way out and said, “Better luck next time.”
The next day when I told my therapist about my crappy day at Maison, she replied that as usual I was descending into stinking thinking and catastrophic cognition, and I needed to keep trying and not give up because the traits of persistence and courage would carry over into my job hunt, which had lasted four years thus far.
I went back to Maison the next day, and again Molly Crispin was distracted, this time in conference with two men standing around a stretcher that had a life-sized rubber bag on it like an overly sturdy dry cleaner’s bag that zipped lengthwise. I wondered if Lydia Whitney had expired, because in a strange way I felt attached to her. My therapist said that was due to my identifying her with my mother’s criticism and rejection of me, and that if I worked out these issues through Ms. Whitney, they were less likely to come up on job interviews and in other situations with authority figures when more was at stake.
The hospice doctor was on duty that morning. He did not visit any patients but just looked at charts instead. When I asked one of the LPNs about that, she said, “It’s very loose around here. We don’t take vitals and we don’t wake up patients for meds—it’s all about pain relief and palliative care, so the nurses do all the work and the doctors swoop down every now and then and take all the credit and all the money.”
I was not listening. I was watching a pallet with a body in a zipped-up rubber bag rolling by. I asked if that was Lydia Whitney, and the LPN said, “Oh, Lord no, that’s Mr. Yergachaffe, and he’s the work of Handy Andy.” I asked what that meant, and she explained that insurance companies can only pay for six months in hospice, so sometimes they send a closer like Handy Andy. “A closer is someone who flies down from Chicago to hurry things along, if you get my drift.”
That was disturbing to me, but she assured me that it was the way it worked everywhere and not just here, and that not only would I get used to it, I’d come to see that Handy Andy was Maison’s own special angel of light.
In the next few months I learned not only about Handy Andy but many other things about hospice, such as, people tend to die around four in the morning, though they can rally in order to live long enough to see a relative or friend. More people die right before or after major holidays, as if they either want one last Christmas with their families or else would rather ruin the event one more time for everyone. Women commonly die a day or so before their birthdays so as to appear a year younger in their obituaries. People tend to die on Friday or Sunday nights, probably because of years of living within the rhythms of the workweek.
One afternoon I could not resist going into Lydia Whitney’s room again, so I tapped lightly on her door and clucked my chicken horn a few times.
“What the hell do you want?” she roared at me.
I waved a little nonthreatening wave with my pink polka-dotted gloved hands.
“You don’t speak?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Thank God. I thought I’d be captive to the pseudo-cheerful prattle of another obnoxious do-gooder. I am waiting for a call from my attorney. You may leave now.”
I turned to leave.
“It’s an extremely important call.”
Somehow I interpreted that to mean she wanted me to come back, and my therapist thought so too, again finding more analogies between Ms. Whitney’s queenly coldness and my mother’s demeanor and constant criticisms.
The next day I went to Ms. Whitney’s room again and waved another small nonthreatening wave from the doorway. This time she did not object when I came in.
“You are ludicrous,” she said.
“Who are you supposed to be? Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ afflicted with a gigantism disorder?”
I pulled out a sign from my purse that read My name is Gretchen von Clucker.
“What nonsense,” Ms. Whitney grumbled. “Put that away at once.”
I started to make a balloon dachshund for her, but she declined.
“Please spare me any infantile torture. I am not a child. I am being held here against my will, and I intend to escape as soon as possible.”
I tilted my head in a quizzical way and sat down next to her so she could explain her situation.
“My brother Garrison is trying to kill me,” Ms. Whitney said. “He’s always been jealous of me because my father was a Whitney and his father was a no-good sot. Mother married five times, you see. Garrison’s father was her only mistake. She had no idea that the cad had denuded his trust fund before their wedding and that he would try to spend everything she had once they were married, including the Whitney inheritance.”
My eyes grew wide and compassionate.
“So you ask…how can it be that I am here when I am not sick, much less dying? And that murderous fiends at this loathsome place are drugging me to death? You are naïve—you do not understand the ways of the rich.”
Her phone rang, and she reached for it, then shooed me out.
That night as I was leaving, I approached Molly Crispin and told her what Lydia Whitney had said about not being sick and being held at Maison against her will.
“Oh my God, she’s crazy!” she replied. “Ms. Whitney has stage-four cancer. Her last MRI showed dots on her brain, liver, and pancreas. All of us wonder how she can still be alive. Don’t listen to a word she says.”
Yet these things nagged at me, and the next day when I saw my therapist, I told her Ms. Whitney’s story.
“She’s delusional,” she said. “It’s very common for psychotics to identify with celebrities or prominent families. I’ve been practicing over twenty years now, and I’ve met two Johnny Depps, three Angelina Jolies, two siblings of Obama, and one Rockefeller, but never a Whitney.”
“She says she’s not sick,” I said.
“Eleanor, she’s delusional,” my therapist repeated. “I’m working right now with a teenager who won’t take her insulin even though she goes into a coma without it—because she refuses to accept that she has juvenile diabetes. Believe me, anyone in my line of work knows a thing or two about denial. But it’s not our job to analyze Ms. Whitney, and we shouldn’t even try. We’re here to analyze you. How do you feel about Ms. Whitney’s delusions?”
The next day I went back to the hospice with a newly sober sense of reality, and there I found Ms. Whitney causing a terrible commotion in her room. Molly Crispin, two LPNs, and one male orderly were struggling to hold her down as she thrashed and writhed. A tall, elderly, well-dressed man was standing in a corner, tapping his foot in irritation.
“Get out of here, Garrison,” Ms. Whitney roared at him. “Get out.”
He refused to budge.
The four medical professionals were able to strap her to her bed, turn her on her side, and stick a syringe into her naked buttock. It felt invasive of her privacy to watch, so I walked into the coffee break room down the hall where the janitor with the heavy Serbian accent was mopping the floor.
“Don’t be upset—it’s just Miss Whitney,” Maritsa said. “She gives everyone a hard time.”
“It’s sad to watch,” I said.
“She’s not only dying—she’s crazy as a loon and mean as a snake.” The janitor lifted a kitchen chair to wash underneath it. “Her brother’s trying to help her, and she’s mean to him too. He come all the way from Connecticut and for what? So she can be mean to him. She was born mean.”
“When is Mary Margaret Mapes coming back?”
“She quit,” Maritsa said, swishing the mop’s long gray witchlike lockets under the table. “She say, ‘I can’t work here because of Mr. Handy Andy. It’s against God to kill people. I can’t work in a place where Handy Andy kills people.’”
That sounded like something Mary Margaret would say.
“She make almost as much trouble like Miss Whitney,” the janitor went on. “Miss Mapes was so mad. And she make so much noise. We’re better off without the both of them. Nothing but trouble. Excuse me, I have to do the hallway.”
I left the coffee break room and saw Ms. Whitney’s brother conferring with Molly Crispin at the front desk.
“If my sister were in her right mind,” Garrison was saying, “she would want it done immediately. She would not wish to continue without her dignity.”
“So you’ll sign off for her?” Molly Crispin said.
Garrison looked up and saw that I was eavesdropping, so I nodded and hurried by.
I walked around in search of someone to cheer up, someone who needed me. The light in the hallway was that ominous slant of late autumn afternoon, and my shadow was long and distorted and bizarre, another piece of me that did not belong to me. I felt heavy and uneasy. The hospice smelled of antiseptic, Pine-Sol, and fear. I felt like screaming, but then Gretchen von Clucker is mute.
The weekend went by long and lonely in that gray in-between season before the annual cleansing of snow. A Monday morning session with my therapist calmed me, for she dispensed with my guilt about Ms. Whitney and my suspicions about Garrison by reminding me that I did not have enough information to form an opinion. She encouraged me to take small steps toward my goal of helping others. Just showing up matters in life, she said. They also serve who only stand and wait.
I saw Ms. Whitney the following day. She was so drugged that she was slurring her words and barely making sense, and yet she made it clear she wanted me to stay. I sat down next to her bed as she talked about her past.
“My father loved me even though there were questions about my ancestry,” she told me. “You see, I inherited my good looks from my mother’s lover, Alexander Quarry, the film star. And yet Father loved me anyway and treated me as if I were his. I was the only child until Garrison came along.”
Her old eyes were yellow and rheumy, and her usual hardness and haughty cynicism had split open like a dark veil breaking apart. She was the way I wished my mother could be with me just once.
“Father took me on safari with him to Kenya,” she said. “It was just the two of us, and we went to Nairobi, and then we saw the Amboseli wildlife park with its views of Kilimanjaro, and we saw the hippopotamus of Naivasha. We stayed at the Treetops, you know, where the royal family stays sometimes.”
She pulled herself up straighter and said, “Get up, clown. Get up and go into the third drawer there. No! Not that one—the third drawer, the one I am pointing to. Find the mahogany photograph album—the leather mahogany. No, the other one—I said mahogany, not caramel.” I pulled out the correct album and looked at her for more guidance, not wanting her to yell at me again. “Bring it here, clown.”
She was too weak to open it herself, so I did it for her. The album contained photographs, most of them professionally shot, of the trip to Africa. From the style of the clothing and automobiles, I guessed the pictures were from the late 1930s. I saw one photo of a girl about ten years old, riding an elephant and impeccably dressed in jodhpurs, safari jacket, and pith helmet. A man with a carefully groomed gray beard and tailored leather safari clothes was sitting behind her, holding her waist.
“That’s it!” Ms. Whitney said. “That is Father and I that summer in Kenya. It was so very hot that day and I got a terrible sunburn, and my father rubbed me with balm. The balm was cool and I remember how he took care of me so tenderly.”
At that moment I felt a kinship to her—another little girl longing for touch and tenderness, and so it seemed that she had morphed into both me and my mother at the same time.
“Turn the page, clown! See that one. That is Father and I in front of the Treetops Hotel. It was such an odd place with all its disconnected angles. It rained that day, and it rained so hard that we stayed inside. Father left me to my own devices, and he made me feel very grown up and self-reliant. I read Nancy Drew in a rattan chair shaped like a shell. That night the two of us dined on githeri and irio, and I fell asleep to the sound of the native drums. You see my heritage, don’t you, clown? You see how my father loved me? Put the book away now, and leave me alone, for I’m very tired.”
I did as I was told, and then I went to tell Molly Crispin about the photograph album. She was her usual distracted self and dismissed my concerns as beneath her overactive agenda.
“She may have come from a rich family,” she said, “but she’s a pauper now like the rest of them, and she’s also a royal pain in the ass. Excuse me, I have a funeral to arrange.”
I could not help from going back to Maison the next morning to visit Ms. Whitney again. Uncharacteristically, she was crying.
“They’ve taken away my telephone,” she said. “They’re drugging me to death with poison, and now they’ve taken away my telephone.”
I reached into my purse and pulled out my cellphone.
“I don’t use those little contraptions,” she complained. “You’ll have to dial the number for me.”
I did as I was told, then handed her the phone. She grew annoyed when she could not figure out how to speak into it.
Someone must have answered, however, for she said, “Charles Carlock, please. Lydia Whitney on the line. Yes, Charles. Yes, I am being drugged and I cannot think. Garrison is having me murdered. I want to execute the document we talked about as soon as possible. Yes. As soon as possible, Charles.”
Her face grew more peaceful as she handed my phone back.
“My lawyer will come this afternoon,” she said. “You can leave now, clown. I’m tired and I must rest. Charles Carlock, my attorney, will be here this afternoon.”
That night I could not sleep. I had an ominous feeling about Ms. Whitney. I drove to Maison de la Lumière the first thing the next morning. I left my car in the frozen steel-colored tundra of a parking lot, and as I walked toward the building, I noticed a limousine waiting at the entrance. A man wearing a camel coat and carrying a small leather satchel was walking toward the vehicle. I could not make out his features, for a scarf covered half his face. The driver opened the limousine door for him and they drove away.
The interior of the hospice was quieter and grayer than usual. The Serbian janitor was mopping the front entrance where the man had left scuffs on the linoleum tiles, and she seemed to be the only person in the building.
“Maritsa,” I said, “I saw a limousine outside.”
“That’s Handy Andy,” she said. “They always send him first class. Everything first class. He has such a dirty job, so they give him the best car, the best seat on the best airplane. Hell, he gets the best fork whenever he eats.”
I rushed past her to Ms. Whitney’s room. I did not bother to sign in at the front desk or change into my clown costume. I pushed open the door and found her still and barely conscious. She usually wore a long-sleeved flannel gown, but that day she was wearing a blue hospital dress. I could see now that her arms were emaciated and covered with the black splotches of death. Her mouth was parched and hanging open. I covered her shivering body with a blanket. I sat next to her. I took her hand in mine. Her hand was cold and limp.
“Ms. Whitney,” I whispered. “It’s me. It’s the clown. I’m with you, Ms. Whitney.”
She struggled to form a word that sounded like “name.”
“My name? My real name is Eleanor Adams. I’m with you, Ms. Whitney. I’m here with you. I’ll stay with you.”
“Adams. A good family. Adams was always a good family,” she answered in a voice I could hardly hear.
“Don’t try to talk, Ms. Whitney. Would you like me to pray for you?”
I said the Our Father, one of the few prayers I knew, and she breathed more slowly and calmly while I chanted the familiar words. In the middle of my second rendition, she said, “You’ve come! Oh, Father! Father!”
Once Mary Margaret Mapes told me that they always send someone you love to greet you when you die, and you usually find yourself in a garden with them. It’s her father, I thought to myself. Thank you, Father, for coming and helping us now.
Ms. Whitney stopped breathing. I felt her heart. I felt nothing. This is it, apparently.
I went down the hall to find Molly Crispin. We returned to Ms. Whitney’s room, and she touched the body, listening with a stethoscope and such. Then she confirmed the obvious. She excused herself to make arrangements, and I stayed with Ms. Whitney until the stretcher crew came. Then I went into the coffee break room to compose myself.
Maritsa, always eager for the latest gossip, came in and sat next to me.
“Ms. Whitney—she die, eh?” she said.
“Good. She was a pain in the ass.”
I shook my head.
“She was a bitch,” she said. “Is there any coffee left?”
Maritsa got up and went to the tureen to bleed out the last caramel drops.
“What’s with you?” she asked. “You work in a place like this and people gonna die. What else you going to expect from a place like this? That’s what this place is, for Christ’s sake.”
I walked out without speaking. I took out my phone in the parking lot and scheduled an emergency session with my therapist. I told her about the photograph album and the telephone call Ms. Whitney had made to her attorney. They were evidence in my mind that she was telling the truth about her family.
Too many puzzle pieces are missing, my therapist said. You have to accept that and then let it go. You can never really know another person. We’re not here to analyze Ms. Whitney, and besides, she’s gone now. You’re feeling overwhelmed because it’s as if your mother died, and part of you wants your mother dead. We’ll deal with that. We’re here to deal with your issues. You can never really know someone else.
Later I found the number of Ms. Whitney’s lawyer stored in my cell phone.
“Charles Carlock?” I said when I reached him. “I just want to tell you that your client, Lydia Whitney, died.”
“Oh I know,” he answered. “It took all of two minutes for her brother’s lawyer to inform me of that. Poor old soul. She suffered a long time. Chemotherapy and radiation and all of that.”
“So she really had cancer?” I asked. “She wasn’t being drugged to death?’
“She may have been crazy,” he replied, “but she did really have cancer.”
“I think they sent someone here to end her life,” I said.
“Garrison,” the attorney replied. “Her half-brother. He’s the one who arranged it. He had medical power of attorney, but I’m still the executor of her estate. Hah! She outsmarted the SOB. We signed her new will yesterday, and she left everything to Aid for Africa, with one exception. She left a small bequest and some personal things to a hospital clown who had been visiting her.”
“Mr. Carlock,” I said, “did you say ‘clown’?”
“Yes. She said the clown cared about her and was working behind the scenes on her behalf. Ms. Whitney particularly wanted the clown to have everything in her room—her albums, jewelry, things like that. She said she knew the clown would treasure them.”
“Mr. Carlock, I’m the clown.”
“Is that right? I think you should take the things you want, then, and you better do it fast before Garrison grabs them. I’ll make sure you get your check later.”
“But I didn’t help her,” I cried. “It was wrong, what happened. I didn’t speak up for her.”
“Well, you never know,” the lawyer sighed.
“I didn’t speak up for her. I should have, but I didn’t.”
“She said you were like a daughter to her,” he told me. “Obviously you loved each other. Well, you just never know. You just never know what you are to someone else.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.