Our Featured Topic: Experiences from the Beyond
In 1989, I was dying from a disease called progressive systemic sclerosis, known more commonly as scleroderma. I’d been diagnosed in November 1988 after six months of pain and mystery. And, as if the doctors’ words — “incurable, fatal” — had gone straight to the control center of my brain, the disease process began to escalate. April 1989 found me crippled from head to toe, unable to digest most food, missing two-thirds of my hair, lacking energy, and compromised in my ability to breathe; my skin was as tough as tanned hide. As if I weren’t already having enough fun, my husband and I found ourselves having to declare bankruptcy.
It was an open-and-shut case. There was no doubt that we didn’t have a penny to our names, for obvious reasons. Once the papers were signed and submitted, all we had to do was show up in court where a judge would make it official. I’d imagined arriving at a grand, pillared edifice where we’d enter a court room such as those I’d seen in the movies with a judge in robes sitting behind a raised bench. To my astonishment, the building that bore the address we’d been given was an ordinary office building that had once upon a time been white, but was now veiled in the residue of exhaust. It sat mid-block in the low-end commercial section of a small city called Norristown.
The courtroom itself was a vast and mostly empty space with a dingy grey linoleum floor. The room, clearly divided into three areas, held a string of wooden tables across the far end, behind which were eight or nine official-looking people engaged in various activities. On first glance, no one stood out as the judge, but after settling into one of the many mostly empty pews that filled the middle two-thirds of the room, we determined it to be the woman at the far right, since everyone who approached the table ended up speaking with her — or we assumed they were speaking, because there was not a sound to be heard in the room. We were unable even to hear the people two rows in front of us, who were obviously engaged in conversation.
When our turn came, the judge did little more than assure herself that we were the people named on the papers before her. She signed the documents, then asked if I wouldn’t mind telling her what had happened to me. I did the best I could to hold back tears as I explained my condition. She expressed genuine concern and wished me well, after which I headed down the center aisle, following our lawyer as my husband followed me.
As we approached the totally empty back third of the room, I noticed a woman walking towards me from the far left corner. She was old, perhaps 80 or 90, and a little shorter than me. She was followed by a taller, bald man of about the same age. As she neared me, she held out her hands as if to take mine. I felt as if a bubble formed around us. Wordlessly, I offered my crippled hands, which she gently enfolded in her own.
She held my gaze as she addressed me, “I had what you have once. Now all I do is take a little _______ (AND HERE SHE SAID A WORD I DID NOT RECOGNIZE) and I am fine.” Her eyes told me that what she was really saying was that I would be fine, too.
She then backed slowly away, as did the man behind her who had stayed close, but had never uttered a word. The “bubble” popped and I moved on towards the door.
“Who was that?” asked the lawyer.
“I have no idea,” I said. But I did have an idea.
When my husband and I slid into our car, I turned towards him and said, “I think that was you and me.”
His eyes were filled with tears as he answered, “I think so, too.”