You Can’t Save Me

Preface

This scene from January 9, 2017 was written from my own perspective, directly recounting imagery that I visualized in my mind. It falls in line with several character sketches I had already written for Verity, which at the time I considered to be background research or something to be rewritten later into proper narrative form. However, since Verity is not a novel and this is not its serialization, since I play fast and loose with perspective anyhow, shifting between characters sometimes within a single paragraph, and since I am already being intentionally explicit with my own commentary before most episodes, I don’t see any reason why I should exclude myself from being part of this story. I am most certainly part of this story, or rather, it is part of me.

On Stage

Ada’s hospital bed lies in the middle of a theater stage, its back tilted forward as hospital beds do, such that Ada is half sitting, half reclining. It feels like the upstairs stage at Steppenwolf which is in-the-round, and it occurs to me to feel bad for the audience seated behind the bed since they can’t see what’s going on. But maybe there are no audience members behind. Everything is pitch black except for Ada, her bed, and Mildred puttering about next to her, all illuminated by spot lights. All is completely silent, except maybe the soft sounds of Mildred’s shoes against the stage floor.

Mildred wears a traditional light blue nurse’s dress with white smock and white bonnet. She has her back to Ada and faces a small stage-prop table meant to represent something medical. A small assortment of medical tools and supplies have been carefully arrayed across the top, intentionally appearing haphazard, so that the actress playing Mildred can rearrange them during the scene, giving her something to do with her hands instead of dangling them lifelessly at her side. In a stage voice that at first always sounds so disconcerting as the actor projects what should be quiet words, Ada says, “You can’t save me.”

Mildred’s shoulders tense, but she remains silent. She stops rearranging the tools and supplies on the table.

“You can’t save me,” Ada repeats, observing Mildred’s reaction.

Mildred turns, looks Ada in the eye, and in her own stage voice, with a considered lightness and bravado that she doesn’t feel, replies, “I know.” She says it as though responding to a reminder about something of utter insignificance that had just slipped her mind, but which she feels slightly silly to have forgotten.

Holding Mildred’s gaze with her own, Ada repeats yet again, “You can’t save me.” Mildred nods her acquiescence as the two of them continue to look into each other’s eyes and the stage lights fall and all becomes blackness.

Postscript

It is important, perhaps, to point out that Ada was not saying “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic or literary sense. Usually the character who says it has given up hope and is saying so to their interlocutor. It usually means “I am beyond saving.” There is an implied “from” that follows the verb “save”. For Ada, however, there is no “from”. She cannot be saved because there is nothing from which to save her. She does not consider herself to be in peril, or to be suffering from anything that would permit the word “save” to be used in a logically and grammatically correct way.

Of course she does also mean “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic and literary second sense of “You must not try to save me,” but here again, for a different reason. For in order to save someone, the would-be savior must believe that the other needs to be saved, and that salvation is possible. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that Ada’s second meaning is “You must not believe that there is anything from which I need to be saved. You have no responsibility to try, because there is nothing to try.”

The Death of Ada Noble

Preface

I originally wrote this episode on December 21, 2016. Many scenes in Verity are simply direct and relatively immediate transcriptions of what I see during mental visualization exercises. By the time I wrote this one, though, I had replayed it in my mind a million times with a million variations. Below is only one possible way that it could play out. It is of course the climax of the first half of the story, and as such my natural perfectionistic inclination would be to obsess over every single word of it in order to do justice to its pivotal role. And yet for some reason I went the other direction.

I just picked a version, any version, and wrote it down. I think it turned out okay, but its imperfections don’t bother me as much as I would expect. I suspect that’s because even if I were able to write well beyond my current ability, even at a level of pure excellence, even then I think that words would be too limited to fully express how I feel about Millie and Ada, their love, and this moment in their story. As such, any written recounting can be no better than a mere approximation, so I might as well simply pick one and move along.

An Ending

“It’s time,” said Ada with a calmness and certainty that would allow no argument.

Millie had known this moment would come soon. She knew she could easily find a reason to delay it for one more day, and maybe another day after that. Eventually, though, she would run out of reasons, and Ada would leave her. Even if she could convince Ada not to end her life unnaturally, she would most likely be gone in a year anyhow. She could never ask Ada to do that, and yet she could not let go. Against her will, Millie’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“Please, not yet,” she whispered with no hope of acquiescence.

Ada did not respond, but continued to fix Millie with her implacable, unperturbed, knowing eyes. Millie wanted to scream at those eyes. How can you be so calm? How can you just decide to go? God damn you and your calmness! All of this Millie fought back, because she knew it would do no good, and because she knew it was selfish, that she had no right to ask Ada to prolong her suffering.

Of course Millie knew it would end, and yet of course she held out the hope that somehow this case would be different, that somehow Ada would be the one who survived. Never before had she been so desperate and fervent in her wish for such an impossible fantasy to come true. Now that she had met this woman, now that she had grown to love her and need her more than anyone in her entire life, even her own mother, now she felt she could not bear to let her go. Her heart thudded in her chest, her throat felt as if it would be ripped open from the inside as she fought back every urge to burst into childish, pleading sobs.

“Okay,” she said after getting control of herself and her emotions. “Okay.” She averted her eyes, afraid to look at Ada lest she once more be overcome. Her shoulders slumped in resignation, and she slowly turned to begin the process of termination.

Mildred left Ada’s room and walked quietly to the administrative office. “She’s ready,” she informed the Chief Administrator, who did not fail to notice something peculiar in Mildred’s demeanor. Together they filled out the requisite paperwork, and together they walked to the dispensary to get a vial of La Verdad. Together, and now accompanied by a clinic guard, they carried the vial to the room of the patient Ada Noble.

“You’re ready?” the Chief Administrator asked Ada.

“Yes.”

“You understand fully that this decision is irreversible once the process begins?” he continued.

“Yes.”

“Please sign here,” he said handing Ada the official release form, which she signed.

“First witness,” he said handing the same form to the clinic guard, who signed on the first witness line.

“Second witness,” he said handing the form to Mildred, who signed on the second line.

“Third witness and administrator,” he said, pro forma, to himself as he signed the bottom line. He then inserted the vial into the machine attached to Ada’s IV.

“God be with you,” he said to Ada. He said this to every patient, and every time he felt and showed the same compassion while saying it. He turned to leave the room, giving Mildred one last look, checking to see if there was legitimate cause for concern or if her earlier demeanor had been a misapprehension on his part. Now she seemed perfectly in control of herself, and so he exited, followed by the clinic guard who softly closed the door behind him.

Now Millie was alone with Ada to finish the process. It would be monitored and recorded, but there was no need for Ada or any patient to be surrounded in her final moments by relative strangers such as the Chief Administrator and the clinic guard. Clearly Ada trusted and felt comfortable with Mildred, and since she had no family by her side, Mildred alone would be with her as she made her way beyond.

“It’s going to be okay, my sweet Millie,” said Ada very quietly, but with a calm assuredness that surprised Millie, who despite the calm exterior she was managing to convey was fighting a tremendous battle within herself. Ada’s words nearly tilted the course of the battle towards an onslaught of pleading for more time. Just a little more time. Instead she made eye contact with Ada, smiled a half smile to show how brave she was trying to be, to show that she would allow Ada to leave her, no matter how much she could not tolerate her leaving. She would not let her selfish desires keep Ada from the relief which was her right. Had she known that relief was not Ada’s true aim, certainly then she would have pleaded, but she did not know that.

“Press here,” instructed Mildred after she handed Ada the small mechanism that triggered the pump that would inject La Verdad into her IV, moments later to enter her bloodstream and take its effect. Ada gave her a knowing and reassuring look, and then she pressed the button. A single “bing” of the machine as it started to administer the drug was the beginning of the end of two lives, one literally, the other less so. Millie lost her composure as tears began to stream down her face.

Knowing that such a display of emotion would be cause for her removal from the remainder of the procedure, she jammed a chair underneath the handle of the otherwise non-locking door. She knew that no one would try to break down the door in these, Ada’s final moments, but she also knew that she would lose her job over this, and she wished for nothing more at this point. Her continued employment had not the slightest importance to her now, nor did anything beyond her remaining moments with Ada.

She crawled into the bed with Ada. The drug would still not take her for at least a minute. Clutching Ada’s hand in hers, she lay with her face just inches from Ada’s, who had turned to face her.

“Read in my eyes…” Millie began. She did not finish the sentence, as her throat tightened, grinding with thick phlegm, and her eyes ran over with tears.

“I know,” said Ada, whose eyes also spoke thousands of words, not all of which were understandable to Millie.

Moments later every muscle in Ada’s body loosened as the bliss of La Verdad started to take ahold of her. “Mmmmmmm,” she murmured as her eyes took on a faraway look. “Ohhhhhhh.” This was the common response. The faraway look would never return and it was just a matter of a short time until Ada was truly gone.

Most patients in their final moments would exclaim wonder at their experience as they were opened to a profound unity with everything. “It’s beautiful! My God!” patients would gasp. Always it was about their personal experience of these few moments of ecstasy, but of course Ada was different than all those who had gone before her.

“Oh, my darling! If only you could see!” were her last words, spoken with surprising clarity, as her eyes pulled their focus from infinity to far closer. And then she smiled one last time and then she died and so did Mildred.

As the monitors showed their proof of Ada’s passing, so began the pounding on the blocked door to her room, a room that would no longer be hers, and a room that Millie, for her part, would also never see again. For she could never go back. After the loss of this woman who had been her mother and her daughter and her sister, she could never continue on in her previous life, the life of Mildred, nurse at the Verity Clinic. She removed her hand from Ada’s still warm hand and kissed her gently on the forehead, whispering, “Thank you for giving me the chance to feel this way about you.”

Millie walked resolutely to the door, removed the wedged-in chair. The clinic guard and the Chief Administrator spilled into the room. Millie thought that they were yelling at her and demanding an explanation, but she barely heard them. She walked out the door from Ada’s room, down the hallway, and right out the front entrance. Perhaps she had been followed by the yelling administrator and perhaps every staff member nearby stopped and gawked at the commotion, but Millie simply had no ability to care about any of that.

The Strength of Ada

Originally written on December 5, 2016 as part of the story Verity

Mildred looked up from her reading as the monitors started to make the soft pinging noises that indicated a wave of pain was about to overcome the patient. Ada had been sleeping quietly, but just as the monitors knew what was coming, so did her body. Her eyes opened gently, and she took a brief moment to gather her senses and realize where she was and why she had woken. And then it hit her.

The first wave was always the weakest, and yet so did it wrench a patient from their relative tranquility that most immediately cried out in pain. Ada merely gritted her teeth and closed her eyes again, though of course she would not be drifting back to sleep.

Already Mildred had rushed to her side and upped the pain killer dosage, for all the good it would do. She mopped her patient’s brow, held her hand until the contorted grip became too tight. Of course she knew how to handle this situation, but it was nonetheless terrible and heartbreaking to witness. This was her primary reason to be there: to be present with the patient during their worst suffering, so that they need not go through it alone, at the very least. If it truly helped or not it was hard to say, but it was something, and Mildred knew and believed deep in her heart that no one should have to bear such agony in solitude.

After a very long moment the pain subsided to a manageable level, and Ada’s muscles decontracted. It was however a very brief reprieve. The second wave passed through, more terrible by far than the first, and she tried again to grit her teeth and bear it. Most patients would now begin to sob and gnash their teeth and plead between labored breaths for relief in whatever form it might take. Ada did gasp, and did begin to whimper, as tears began to form in the corners of her eyes, but she did not cry out, she did not plead, she did not curse the world and everyone in it for her suffering.

An episode would often last nearly five minutes, wave after wave, which, according to reports in the aftermath, felt as though they lasted several hours longer than eternity itself. Midway through, the shrieks and wailing would typically be nearly deafening, though by the end the patient would have so exhausted themself that the force of their cries would be rather lessened, their throats ragged, their lungs clutching for air.

Ada reached the six minute mark, and still she made little more than a whimper and a thick, wet gurgle in her throat. Tears streamed freely down her face now, and her muscles contracted forcefully with each wave. Her face contorted, her back arched, she thrashed almost delicately in her bed. And then it was over.

She panted from exhaustion, sweat and tears drenching her body. Her grip relaxed and she sank lower into the bed. After many seconds had passed, she said in a near whisper: “I think I’ll sleep now.” And sleep she did, and for many, many hours.

Mildred observed her carefully for many minutes, wary of any aftershocks or other complications. She had been so focused on the physical manifestations of Ada’s episode that it was only now after it had ended that Mildred became aware of how unique the situation was. Never had she witnessed or even heard tell of a patient maintaining such a level of what, even under the circumstances, could only be called composure. Beyond that, the six-and-a-half minute long episode was far beyond the norm. Not unheard of, but definitely rare. She really didn’t know what to make of it, but it was consistent with her initial intuition that this was no ordinary patient.

Mildred’s Dream

Preface

From December 16, 2016. As was becoming my practice with Verity, when I didn’t know quite what to write about Mildred I just wrote something autobiographical, because she is a projection of me. Her dream is one that I had recently had myself, one in a series of very similar dreams. The feelings I describe during the dream are fairly accurate to my own experience, but I always recovered more quickly upon waking than Mildred does here.

A Patch of Concrete

Mildred awoke with a start and was immediately overcome by a profound sense of relief. She had had the same dream again, the third time in as many weeks. This time the dream was set in the house in which she had grown up. Her parents had just put the house on the market, which was ridiculous, since they had in reality sold it many years previously.

The problem was something likely unknown to her parents, though how they could have missed the surface evidence of something having happened was casually painted over by dream logic. The problem was the mismatched section of concrete floor in the basement.

Mildred had walked down the stairs and stopped at the bottom. Directly ahead of her were the furnace and the water heater; to the left, the washer and dryer. On the right, a large patch of concrete was much lighter in color than the rest of the floor. It looked as though someone had replaced it with a much newer batch of concrete, and that is exactly what had happened.

Mildred knew that the eventual home inspection would turn up the anomaly, and she knew that a deep scan of the underlying earth would be performed in order to determine the safety and correctness of the repair work. She knew as well that the scan would reveal the human remains that were buried underneath the mismatched patch of basement floor.

She had no memory of how the person came to be dead or how the body came to be buried there. Somehow the memory itself was buried quite deeply. She knew only that she was responsible, and that it must have been an accident, for she was no murderer, was she? The deed had remained hidden and unpunished for so many years, and now its imminent discovery would be her downfall. She felt primarily a terror of the impending consequences. Could she survive prison? Likely not. And what would everyone think of her once the truth came out? The thought was beyond what she could bear.

Underneath it all, however, and far worse, was the terror and revulsion she felt towards herself. Even without remembering how, she knew she was responsible for a person’s death. She didn’t remember if it was a man or a woman, and she didn’t know anything about his or her family or how they had dealt with the disappearance of their loved one. She had hardly even considered that. She had only concerned herself with hiding her crime, both physically and, clearly, within her own mind. Her cowardice made her nauseous.

As on the other occasions of the dream, she woke before anyone discovered her sin. As before, even the great relief of realizing it had only been a dream was only a half relief. Throughout the remainder of the day she carried with her a low level of tension and anxiety. She might continue to get away with it, to avoid being caught for now. But eventually it would catch up to her. Eventually her sin would be exposed, even if she had no idea what her sin was. Even though she had never murdered another person, she was unable to shake the sensation that she had committed a dark and unspeakable act in some distant past, its memory hiding in her subconscious, taunting and hinting, just waiting to spring into the open.

Young Ada’s Bad Day

Preface

Originally written on December 16, 2016, this episode from Verity was at first intended to be Young Mildred’s Bad Day, but the image in my head was of a dark-haired girl who couldn’t be Mildred because she has medium brown hair with a reddish tinge. So Ada it became.

The sequence came to me as I was trying to imagine what Mildred, then Ada, had been like as a child. I still didn’t know very much about either of them at this point, and I was trying to get acquainted with them. Only in retrospect did I even realize how fortuitous it was that the scene presented itself this way.

Beforehand I had no idea how I could even begin to show the development of the bond between the two women, and I dreaded the idea of trying to come up with enough substantive dialog that could take place in Ada’s hospital room. But this provided a means – their love would develop as they told each other their respective life story. And I knew that it would work because I was simultaneously retelling my own life story through a series of essays, in the process of which I found a way to truly love aspects of my personality that I had previously always seen as shameful defects. I might share some of those essays, I might not.

The Boy and the Book

Ada came home early from school that day in a terrible state of distress. Mrs Noble did what she could to pry the story out of her daughter, halting and stilted though the recounting was, interrupted by sighs, gasps, sometimes tears, etc.

Apparently Ada had been reading quietly after lunch while the other children were playing this game or that. At one point, the boy on whom Ada had a huge early-adolescent crush came running over to her, stared her straight in the eye with a wicked grin, and grabbed ahold of her copy of Wuthering Heights, with which he then ran off, cackling, finally throwing it into the garbage bins against the far gymnasium wall. He then rejoined his little group of stupid friends, and they all cackled together like the stupid, stupid little boys that they were. Even if the stupid thieving boy was really dreamy.

All the while Ada just stared open mouthed and confused as the boy and her Wuthering Heights fled from her. What had she done to deserve such treatment? Why was he being such a little jerk? It’s not as though she had ever even had the courage to talk to him before, so surely she could not have offended him in some unknown way.

Just as Ada’s shock and confusion was turning into indignation and self righteous rage, the other boy, the one who drove her nearly to insanity, the one who constantly taunted and teased her in some ridiculous and not even all that clever way, the one who, other times, followed her around like a little lost puppy, that boy came up to her, perhaps to add insult to injury, to make one more stupid joke at her expense. Instead, and far worse, he stopped short, noticed the distress and mounting anger on Ada’s face, completely lost his own jubilant and mocking energy, and slipped almost into a kind of uncomprehending stupor to see Ada upset this way, his face going blank. Then he leaned over and kissed her right on the lips. It was an awkward and clumsy kiss. He jerked back, as though waking from a trance. His eyes grew as wide as saucers, and a strange, strangled “mmm, hmmm, uhhh” came out of his mouth. He turned and ran to the boys restroom just as those classmates who had witnessed the incident broke into mocking laughter. News of the kiss spread instantaneously among all the other children. Soon the post-lunch crowd was one gigantic swirling, laughing, pointing, and gossiping mass of terror. Ada fled as the tears streamed down her face.

There was no way she could face the rest of the school day, and the next day was too far away even to contemplate. And so she ran. She ran right out of the gymnasium, right down the hallway, right out the front door. She didn’t even stop to retrieve her Wuthering Heights, because really, despite her tortured existence, what could Cathy possibly know about this kind of pain and humiliation?

And so that’s why Ada was home early. Mrs Noble listen attentively and calmly to the story, stroking her daughter’s hair and every so often interjecting a word of sympathy or encouragement. She knew of her daughter’s crush, but not much, and she was surprised that the boy had some sort of attraction to Ada as well. The boy who tormented her clearly had an infatuation, but Mrs Noble was surprised about him as well. She didn’t think he would have the courage or even the wherewithal to try something as brazen as a kiss. But then, going by Ada’s retelling, it appeared that the boy had been running on some kind of auto-pilot. Perhaps he himself didn’t have any idea that he had it in him to do such a thing. She briefly wondered what he was going through at this moment.

Mrs Noble spent the afternoon comforting Ada, who would cry a little bit every now and then, but mostly remained glum and silent. She would also ask every couple of minutes why boys were so stupid, why the world was treating her so unfairly, why it couldn’t all just go away, how she was ever going to be able to face her classmates again.

Ada really wasn’t a very dramatic girl, but this was clearly a new kind of experience for her. Needing to comfort her daughter in this way was also a new experience for Mrs Noble. Up until then Ada would get upset about the kinds of things that children get upset about: not getting something she wanted, a friend not being nice for some reason. Now boys were entering the picture, even if not in a serious way. Nevertheless, Mrs Noble felt that a transition of sorts had arrived.

On the one hand, she was excited to see her daughter taking the first painful steps into adolescence. Watching her daughter grow, seeing her become an amazing young woman, was something that filled her heart with the most beautiful and terrible aching joy. Having a part in bringing a long-ago squalling baby to this next period of her life, despite the difficulty, was one of the greatest blessings of her life. Of course, as all mothers feel, she was also deeply nostalgic for Ada as a cooing baby, as a rambunctious and inquisitive toddler, as a child with an innocent trust in her ability to take action in a constantly new and exciting world. Looking across her daughter’s life, she could not help but feel the most intense nostalgia, optimism, and pride. She couldn’t help but shed a tear or two along with Ada, partly in solidarity and sympathy, partly because of the importance of this moment in Ada’s life and how it signified the amazing and terrible passage of time and path of growth in a young person’s life.

Mrs Noble made her daughter some cookies, which they both ate while snuggling together and watching a stupid, silly movie that sort of lightened Ada’s mood. She might have laughed at one point, though it was the kind of half laugh that can only come after a good cry. Maybe red, puffy eyes and a runny nose made a full-throated laugh impossible.

Eventually the family dinner came and went. Eventually Ada did her homework, brushed her teeth, put on her pajamas, and got into bed. She fell asleep reading once again The Prisoner of Azkaban which fell, pages open, onto the bed linens.

Mrs Noble came in to turn off the light and tuck Ada in. She sat down on the bed and simply looked at this little girl on the edge of adolescence. She ran her fingers through Ada’s impossibly soft dark hair, and she might have cooed a little bit while doing so. She felt in her chest a tightness of emotion, of love and concern and pride and a whole host of other feelings. She sometimes surprised and frightened herself by how strongly she felt towards this amazing creature that was part her and yet so distinct. In quiet moments such as this, once she was not focused on responding to Ada, but just able to observe her, she felt nearly overpowered by her love and protectiveness.

She would do anything for this girl. She dearly wished she could ease Ada’s unhappiness, which she already felt as her own. She wished she could grab ahold of Ada, tell her how much she loved her, how she would gladly die a million times for her. She knew of course that what she felt was too heavy and burdensome to explain to a child, even one starting on her way to adulthood. She feared that her love was too powerful or too intense, that it might consume her completely. She never wanted to find out what it might do to her child to unleash such a torrent of emotion, and so she held it at bay.

Instead she merely bent over, kissed her sleeping daughter on the forehead, ever so gently whispered, “I hope one day you feel about someone the way I feel about you,” and then left the room. She did not know that Ada had half awakened to the kiss on her forehead, and that without opening her eyes she had heard her mother’s whispered words.

Doubts

Originally written on December 5, 2016 as part of the story Verity

The rest of the day Millie walked with a certain spring in her step, of the kind that she had long ago realized meant she was feeling some mixture of contentment and hope. Or maybe it could better be described as a very quiet elation. She wore a half smile as she went about her duties, most of which she could luckily perform by rote because her mind was not fully present.

Only later during her commute home for the night did she realize that she was treading into dangerous territory. It wasn’t that she was beginning to notice warning signs, for there was no point of comparison. She had never developed this kind of bond with a patient before. However, she could recognize the warmth running through her. She could feel the tug of wanting to spend more and more time with Ada, even though they spent almost every waking moment together. But that was as nurse and patient, and she wanted more. She wanted to learn everything there was to know about Ada, to hear every story about her life, about how she came to be who she was, and even how she came to be, finally, under Millie’s care.

This was an entirely new experience for her. She had always felt the greatest sympathy for her patients and had always worked herself ragged to cater to their physical and emotional wellbeing. Never, though, had she allowed any of them to do anything for her. Obviously clinic policy strictly forbade it, but she also wholeheartedly agreed with that policy. Those who came to the clinic were suffering in the most terrible way. All they wanted was release, and yet they had to be patient while endless tests and monitoring were performed, just so that no single life ended before that end was truly and definitively desired.

The fact of the matter, though, was that in the decade since the Verity Clinic opened, not one patient had failed to show him- or herself prepared to exit the world. The precautions were important, and Mildred strongly believed as much. However, they did delay the inevitable and prolong suffering. To ask anything of any single one of the patients, to add to their already great misery, would be simply unconscionable.

And yet here Millie found herself with this bewildering, enigmatic woman who was supposedly under her care, but who, more and more, seemed to be the true caregiver. She couldn’t quite put into words how she felt about the situation, but feel she did. Ada was a warm fire, beckoning Mildred in from an arctic cold. Interestingly, she was almost completely unaware of the cold, and yet the allure of the warmth was tantalizing nearly to the point of being painful. She felt a hunger, a deep burning hunger, and she felt ashamed for it, now, on the quiet train ride back to her apartment.

Beyond even the question of why, how was Ada even able to do this? Millie did not know much about thermodynamics, but there was a principle, she was sure, about energy flowing from greater to lesser potential. Was there some analog between people? She and the other nurses were expected to be the “greater potential”, their care and compassion flowing to the patient. How had this flow been reversed? Just who was this woman, this Ada Noble? And who was she? Who was Mildred Sheffield to allow this apparent change in role?

Again her face was flushed, only this time with shame. She was breaking the rules of her employment, and she was breaking her own moral code. She was taking, and she was taking from someone who was in no position to give. Mildred was failing at her job, and at the same time, her yearning was simply overpowering, her need to be near Ada.

Millie got off at the next stop, walked across the platform and waited for the next train in the opposite direction, which she boarded and rode back to the clinic.

“Oh, you’re back,” said Kimball, running into her in the hallway. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just got to thinking on my way home that my patient’s readings were a little bit strange earlier. I want to be around in case anything develops,” replied Mildred. This was completely normal – many nurses would spend the night if they thought their patients needed extra attention. All of the rooms had fold-out beds for just that purpose.

“Hope you sleep okay,” said Kimball warmly. “I’ll be around for a while longer. Let me know if you need anything.“

Millie was pretty sure that her colleague hadn’t noticed anything unusual in her behavior. She walked quietly into Ada’s room, folded out the temporary bed, and lay down. She looked over at the other woman’s sleeping face, unusually serene. She fought past a moment of guilt, instead smiled to herself and closed her eyes.

Lies es in meinen Augen

Preface

Originally written on December 5, 2016, here I was far too concerned with laying the foundation for two themes that run through Verity, and the writing suffers greatly from my focus on plot mechanics over character. The first theme is “read in my eyes all that which I cannot say to you,” which on the one hand refers to the things that people do not say in words but which are betrayed by their nearly imperceptible physiological reactions. On the other hand it also means the things that words simply cannot express and must instead be communicated in another way, metaphorically through the eyes. The second theme was to be Mildred’s renaming by Ada, which is obviously about her transformation into a different person. That got cut, though, possibly to be relocated to another scene if I get around to writing it.

Mildred’s misunderstanding is actually my own years-long misunderstanding about a quote that resonated deeply with me in college, but I gave it to her because she is a version of me. Certainly it stretches the imagination to uncomfortable lengths to assume that both women could have not only studied German but also read and remembered Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm, and I should probably just find another way of introducing the quote.

A Misremembered Quote

“Guten Morgen!” said Ada with rather more enthusiasm than Mildred had come to expect from her patient.

“Guten M…”, she began to reply before realizing how weird it was. “Wait. You speak German?” she asked. “How did you know I would understand?”

“Sometimes when you drop something or knock something over, you mutter ‘Scheiße’ under your breath,” Ada responded, a slightly mischievous glint in her eye.

“Well, it’s been a while,” continued Mildred, “I’ve forgotten quite a lot, but the basics are still there. What about you? Are you fluent?”

“I’ve kept up fairly well. I mostly just studied in high school and college, but for some reason I fell in love with the language. I make an effort to read something in German every now and then, just so I don’t get too rusty.”

Mildred had gotten a faraway look while Ada spoke, as if she were digging up some mostly buried memory and dusting it off. “I remember,” she began wistfully, “we read this play by Lessing, it was, uh, Minna von Barnhelm. It had a line that I absolutely adored and that stuck with me all these years. How was it? ‘Lies es in meinen Augen was ich dir nicht alles sagen kann.’”

“Read in my eyes all that which I cannot say to you,” Ada translated.

“Right!” Mildred continued, becoming animated. “It was right at the end, when the way is cleared for Tellheim to be with Minna, and he’s so overwhelmed with love and gratitude that he can’t even express to her how he’s feeling. I thought it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard.” Mildred trailed off as a wistful expression came over her face.

Ada chuckled lightly but tenderly. “I think you’re misremembering,” she smiled. “It was Tellheim who said it, you’re right, and it was after he realized he could be with Minna, but he said it to his friend Werner, the one who went to so much effort to save Tellheim’s good name. He said it out of friendship and gratitude. You could say it was out of love, but not romantic love.”

“Are you sure?” Mildred countered with rather some skepticism, not to mention a certain amount of resistance to the idea that she had been wrong for so long about her impression of that one line. How could it not have been meant romantically? How many times had she longed to hear a man say that to her, even in English? She was none too pleased with having to reinterpret that little snippet that had stuck in her head for so long. “Why don’t we look it up?”

Ada grinned slightly in assent. She had the look of someone certain they were right, but without a hint of smugness. In fact, she seemed almost excited to have a bit of truth to share with Mildred, like a child about to open a gigantic present on Christmas, only the present was for Mildred instead of for herself.

Mildred quickly did a search on her tablet and found the passage. “Damn. You’re right. He says it to Werner,” she conceded. “How did I misremember that so completely?”

“I don’t know, how old were you when you read it?” asked Ada with all the tenderness of a mother giving her child a piece of disappointing news.

“It was college. I was probably 20,” answered Mildred.

“And by any chance were boys on your mind a lot at the time?”

“Of course.”

“Well…”

“I guess I was quite the hopeless romantic,” Mildred admitted. “Funny how we can interpret things to fit what we want them to mean.” She was quiet for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Ada continued to smile softly at her, now almost with a kind of pride that her star pupil had worked through to a discovery on her own.

Postscript

There originally followed a few awful and clumsy paragraphs in which Ada renamed Mildred. It was going to be “Milla” because it’s closer to Minna from Lessing’s play. It was terrible and awkward, and I cannot allow you to see it.

Chapter I

Preface

I originally wrote this scene from Verity on October 17, 2016, assuming without reflection that I should start writing at the beginning. I discovered shortly thereafter that working sequentially through the story would not be an effective strategy for me. Perhaps because of that, or because these were the very first words I wrote, this passage feels rather forced, and I’m only including it here for historical purposes and because it has some exposition that I think is somewhat relevant.

The Beginning

Mildred Sheffield descended from the train onto the platform and then down the stairs to street level. Across from the station a wide lawn spread out before her, a gently curving, porous driveway and a solid walkway beside it leading to the porte cochère and entrance of the Verity Clinic. As the train rumbled away behind her, she began walking towards the building.

She had just finished her month of supervised recuperative leave. Her last patient had passed in the gentle fashion that was by then so customary of those who chose to escape their suffering, and whom the clinic assisted in doing so. As always, Mildred felt a slight trepidation to be returning, to be receiving a new patient, one that would inevitably leave as well. It was a cycle that would continue over and over until no one remained who was afflicted with the terrible disease.

Nevertheless, she felt confident and competent. She had received the best training in dealing with the care and eventual loss of her patients. During her recuperation period, she had received all the psychological and emotional aid that she felt necessary. The clinic cared deeply about the wellbeing of their employees. On the one hand, it was sheer practicality: there were only so many people who were able and willing to do the work of supporting the terminally ill and guiding them gently on to the next life. On the other hand the clinic administrators truly felt an obligation to do their own part, at one step of remove, in making sure that neither their patients nor their workers should suffer unduly.

Mildred had already had an opportunity to peruse the case file of her new patient, one Miss Ada Noble, aged forty-five, well progressed in the disease. She likely had about two months before the sickness would take her naturally. She was closer to the end than Mildred preferred. The pain and the debilitation would by now be quite bad. There was a certain amount of palliative care available, but even the most effective pain killers were insufficient.

The woman had clearly taken some time before deciding that a compassionately administered unnatural death was preferable to lingering, a delay which made the work even more difficult. As with her colleagues, Mildred’s job was not only to provide for her patient’s every psychological and physical want or need, but also to assess whether the patient honestly, in their true heart, wanted to make the terrible decision to die early.

After the ravages of the pandemic, after millions of people watched impotently as their friends and their children and their parents died in terrible pain, often only to succumb later themselves, after so much suffering, most of society came to the conclusion that it was better to offer an escape to the afflicted. Perhaps it was as much for the physically healthy, who could not rightly be said to have maintained their psychological health after so much loss, and loss of such a nature. And yet, if anything had been learned throughout the ordeal, it might be described as a renewed appreciation for the sacredness of life.

There was as such a strong tension between the desire to ease suffering and the desire to maintain and, when possible, celebrate life. The best conclusion, a compromise of sorts, was to allow the patient to decide for herself, and to support her in the decision. But the decision could not be made or accepted lightly. Often, after a wave of vomiting and nausea and nerve endings that felt as though on fire, a sufferer would plead for a quick end, only to recant later after returning to a more moderate level of discomfort.

Of course that was in the early to middle stages, which could last years. Few now made it all the way to a natural end, and it was always horrific for those who did. However, for each individual, there was a different line that could not be crossed. Many were able to last another week, another month, sometimes, although infrequently, another year; time in which they could bring their affairs into order, in which they could mend broken relations before it was too late, in which they could tell their loved ones how much they loved them. Thusly prolonging life, while it could be borne, was the reason for the work that was performed by Mildred Sheffield and those like her.

A Synopsis of the Story Verity

A century into the future society has changed in the slow, dull, and meandering ways that are completely baffling to those who would prognosticate by mere extrapolation from current trends. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the medical industry has radically transformed from a focus on procedure and medication to a greater emphasis on the psychological aspect of health. Not least of all in bringing about this change has been a pandemic that swept across the globe some years earlier. A vaccine was eventually developed, but many remain afflicted with the chronic, degenerative disease which eventually leaves the sufferer in intense pain and anguish, and which inevitably results in death.

The Verity Clinic is a provider of humane care and compassionate assistance for patients who make the decision to die before the disease leaves them in unbearable agony. Ultimate relief is administered in the form of a drug called La Verdad, which through much research has been shown to provoke in the patient a brief but real attainment of oneness with the universe, bringing a sense of true fulfillment and contentment which enables and elicits a joyful and sincere choice to leave the current world in order to rejoin the eternal. Society has in general come to see this as the most ethical and caring way of dealing with the terrible disease, for those who choose it.

Mildred Sheffield is a Nurse/Counselor at the clinic. Her role is to provide individualized and near constant attention to the patient assigned to her, anticipating and responding to each want and need and moment of pain, while simultaneously assessing the patient’s true desire and will to die before being naturally taken by the disease.

Nurse/Counselors at the clinic are chosen because of their greater than usual capacity for compassion and empathy, a trait which is reinforced and molded as its bearer is trained to recognize, direct, and control each emotion, no matter how small, in herself and in her patient. She is provided any psychological support necessary to fulfill the expectation that she give of herself all that she has, in order that she might ease the slightest suffering or discomfort of her patient, all the while making sure never to allow her own needs or wants to interfere. Emotional attachment to a patient is the clinic’s sole interdiction.

Mildred’s most recent patient is named Ada Noble, a woman of surprising calmness and perhaps wisdom. She is clearly suffering from the disease, resembling in most ways all the others who seek a graceful death, and yet she seems unusually capable of handling its ravages, less needful of relief. In their time together, the two women develop an easy camaraderie and then friendship. Ultimately, against all training and all rules, a profound and generous but not romantic love develops between them. Ada insists on calling her Millie, and Mildred for her part comes to see Ada as a sister, daughter, and mother all at once. Expected and inevitable as it is, Ada’s death tears Mildred’s life apart.

Certain that her reaction to Ada’s death has made it very clear that she has broken the clinic’s rule against attachment to a patient, Mildred simply walks out the front door without giving notice. She knows she cannot continue living the life she has thus far led. On her way home she calculates that she can sell her condo and live for some time off its proceeds along with her savings, renting a cheap apartment while still being able to afford to drink herself into oblivion, staying afloat long enough that she won’t even care what comes next.

That night she has a dream in which Ada tells her, “You can’t save me,” but in such a way that suggests that she did not believe she needed to be saved, that she did not choose to die in order to be spared the pain of the disease. Mildred awakens filled with the belief that her dream revealed a profound if cryptic truth to her: that Ada didn’t need to be at the clinic, that she hadn’t needed Mildred’s help, that she hadn’t really needed Mildred. Unable to make sense of what the revelation could mean, she abandons the previous night’s plan of throwing away her life, as she is now filled with both wonder and a driving need to understand what Ada was actually doing, certain that it was important. She calls her former coworker Kimball Brown to tell him about her relationship with Ada and about her new suspicions that there was something very different about her. She insists that he call her Millie now, like Ada had. Though bewildered by Millie’s transgression, Kimball offers to help with the mystery, even if neither of them has any idea where to begin.

Some time later while the two of them are in deep conversation over drinks at a night club, Millie’s attention is drawn to the powerful sadness and self recrimination in the voice of the singer of the live band that is playing, which she had previously been ignoring. The singer is Ada. Millie is stunned, but quickly concludes that the woman on stage, like Kim Novak’s dual role in Vertigo, must also be an actress whom the Verity Clinic had hired as some sort of test, a test which she obviously failed. Although she feels betrayed, seeing the Ada-woman again is the first clue about her mystery that Millie has been able to find, and she is deeply intrigued.

Millie and Kimball are unable to find out much about the singer, complete amateur sleuths that they are, but they do manage to discover some of the patterns of her comings and goings about town. For some time they surveil her from a distance, uncertain how to proceed. Meanwhile the time they spend together begins to be not only about solving the mystery of Ada Noble, but about spending time together because they enjoy each other’s company. A physical relationship develops, but Millie maintains an emotional distance which Kimball accepts with resignation.

Every week they observe the Ada-woman entering and then one hour later exiting a building in the center of town. The building is home to many psychologist offices, one of which is visited each week by Elizabeth Noble, who is trying to come to terms with the loss of her identical twin sister to the disease. Worse than grieving Ada’s death, however, she is wracked with guilt and shame over having pigheadedly refused to accept her sister’s decision to die or to take any part in it. Having cut her sister out of her life, she never had the chance to say goodbye properly, their last words together spoken in anger.

Eventually one day, impatient with her and Kimball’s lack of progress in discovering any real information about the Ada-woman, Millie confronts Elizabeth outside the building. She angrily demands an explanation, blurting out her agony at having lost someone so dear to her. Elizabeth is completely taken aback and confused, but then slowly realizes that she has been mistaken for Ada. She realizes that the yelling woman was present at her sister’s death, and she can tell by the anguish in Millie’s voice that her sister had died in the presence of someone who truly loved her. Elizabeth falls to her knees, clutches Millie’s legs, and sobs thank you, thank you, thank you over and over.

Still unable to find a satisfactory explanation for why Ada had chosen to end her life at the clinic, Millie nonetheless feels a sense of closure and serenity, once again firm in her belief that the love that she and Ada had shared was real. With the strength taken from the renewal of that belief, she realizes, perhaps like Ada towards her, that she doesn’t need Kimball in order to be fulfilled, but that she wants him all the more because she is now completely free to choose to have him in her life on her own fully conscious terms.