This comes from a chapter of Thomas Schmidt’s book A Scandalous Beauty:
I was a college student when I met Mabel. It was Mothers Day, and I was taking some flowers to the county convalescent home to brighten the day for some lonely mothers and grandmothers.
This state-run convalescent hospital is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless people who are waiting to die. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and it smells of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.
On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few people who appeared sufficiently alert to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.
As I neared the end of the hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was a horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new aids arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bed-ridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.
I don’t know why I spoke to her--she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” She held the perfect flower up to her distorted face and tried to smell it. Then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously the product of a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.”
I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in the chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Before I could speak, Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here. This is from Jesus.”
That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. We distributed the rest of my little supply of flowers in the same manner, and I wheeled her back to her room. There I began to learn more. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died, and then she managed the farm alone. Her social life was limited to the country church near her home, where she had played the piano from the time she was a girl. Finally blindness and sickness and poverty sent her to the county convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and weaker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomach aches. Then the cancer came. There was little medical care for people like Mabel, people with no money merely waiting to die. For company she had three roommates, human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never spoke intelligibly. They often soiled their bedclothes; and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was overpowering.
Mabel and I became friends, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box she kept near her bed. Some days I would read to her from her beloved Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns. Once, for example, while singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” following the line, “Is there trouble anywhere?” she murmured softly, “Oh, yes, there is.”
It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down things she would say. I have a few of those notes now (I wish I had had the foresight to collect a book full of them), and what follows is the story behind one scrap of paper.
During a hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once by all of the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about--hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”
And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”
I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote; so slowly that I was able to write it all down. This is what she said:
“I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . .
I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.”
And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad, he makes me glad.
He’s my friend.
This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. I watched her for three years. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening--and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?
The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.