"My goodness, it is nice to be getting back to Rutland."
The source of my customer's happiness was no mystery. Renee Bishop had just been discharged from a week at the hospital in Burlington. (I was going to say "Fletcher Allen," but I've heard they're changing the name of the place yet again — at least the third time in recent memory — so I'm just sticking with "the hospital" from now on.) Whatever else you have going on in your life, release from a hospital has got to come as a relief.
I glanced over at Renee sitting beside me. She was heavyset and wearing a violet caftan embroidered with a Middle Eastern motif. You could call it a middle-aged, hippie-ish look, though I wouldn't have pegged her for a hippie. She seemed weary, but her face was peaceful, almost serene, and her thick, strawberry-blond hair was pulled back in a bushy, jaunty ponytail. The thought occurred to me that this was a woman devoid of pretense; she was simply who she was, and her presentation to the world reflected her comfort in her own skin.
"So, Renee," I asked, "did they fix you up at the hospital? You feeling better?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say 'better,' but I don't have to be in the hospital for now, so that's better. They could have treated me for this problem at the Rutland hospital, but their two GI docs were on vacation, so that's how I ended up in Burlington."
"GI is, like, a digestive-tract thing?" I asked, then immediately felt like withdrawing the question as too personal. But we don't get to do that, do we? That's why it's good to think before speaking, a basic life lesson I'm apparently incapable of mastering.
Thankfully, Renee didn't appear offended. "Yes, but that's not my main problem," she explained. "My kidneys are failing, and I have a terminal diagnosis. I'm not a candidate for a transplant because of my diabetes and some other factors. And, in my case, a kidney transplant might not help, anyway."
I took this in, my left hand atop the steering wheel, my eyes on the road as we motored south on Route 7. The sky was clear and sunny — a continuation of this year's thus far nearly perfect summer weather. The idyllic day set in stark relief the import of Renee's words. Her clear synopsis had betrayed not a shred of bitterness or self-pity. Her life was soon to end, and she seemed to have arrived at a profound level of acceptance. I could hear it in her voice.
We rode in calm silence through a few towns, and then, passing through Salisbury, I asked about her relationship to Vermont. She proceeded to answer in full.
"I grew up in Denver and got married young to a guy with a top-secret NORAD job. You know — in Colorado Springs? Before I knew it, we had four kids. My husband began to get abusive with me, and eventually I escaped with the kids to an old friend's home in Greensboro, Vermont. It turned out they were dealing drugs out of the house, so we ended up moving to Proctor. For the past year, since I got real sick, I've been living at this nursing and assisted-living home in Rutland, a place that used to be a convent. Luckily, the kids were already grown and out of the house."
"So, what's life like at the home?"
"Well, as you might guess, at 50, I'm just about the youngest resident. But I don't mind. A lot of the women — and it's almost all women — are really wonderful people. I fell in with a card-playing group, which I really enjoy. I mean, both the game and the socializing. We play this game called 31, where you have to end up with cards totaling 31, the picture cards counting as 10, like in blackjack."
"So it's just you and these older ladies?"
"My kids come to visit when they can, and, yes, there was this one younger gal, maybe 30 or 35. I think she was there on parole and had drug issues."
Renee paused to chuckle and reset her ponytail. "You see, I've always been the kind to take in, let's say, the stray dogs. So I tried to befriend this girl, and we did chum around for a spell. But she had a terrible potty mouth and was always putting everyone else down. At the same time, she was, like, extremely needy. Eventually, I had to cut it off with her. I really don't think I was helping her, and she just put me in a bad state of mind."
We came into the heart of Rutland and, after a couple of turns, arrived at her residence.
"So this was an old convent?" I said, pulling up to the entrance. "I guess I can see it. Are you a churchgoing woman?"
"Not so much," she replied. "A protestant minister comes to the home one Sunday a month, and I enjoy that. But I never was much of a believer in organized religion."
"I hear you," I said with a smile. "I'm not much of an organization man myself."
She smiled back. "But I'll tell you this," she said. "I do believe in God. Always have."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.