Michelle pushed her hair from her face and quickened her pace into the biting wind. Her shoes tapped lightly on the sidewalk and echoed faintly through the night air. Every now and again a car passed by, but other than that she was alone. Alone … at last. How strange—wasn’t aloneness what she was fighting? No, she thought, aloneness and loneliness are two entirely different things.
Michelle couldn’t help but think of the contrast between this deepening silence and the boisterous laughter that was probably going on in her apartment with her five roommates and their friends all talking at once about their plans for the weekend. She loved visitors, but once in awhile, like tonight, she felt an overwhelming need to be by herself.
Just where was she headed, Michelle wondered? Oh, sure, she had goals. Right now she was an art major, and eventually she wanted to do artwork for a living. She had always enjoyed recreating those things she thought beautiful. But somehow, at this moment, she wasn’t completely satisfied. A deepening sense of isolation and loneliness had been taking hold of her, despite the fact that she was constantly around other people. It was as if she were an outsider, or perhaps a cameraman, watching everyone else laugh and joke with one another, but she herself was unable to take an active part in the fun. And since nobody seemed to notice, she was finding it harder and harder to step outside her own mind into the world next to her.
And she had her long-term goals, too. Yet there were times when she resented the emphasis on marriage that was almost unconsciously a part of every conversation. Perhaps if she were nearer that goal, she wouldn’t be so sensitive about the subject. But as it was, the constant discussion of boyfriends and engagements only served to bring her to a more painful awareness of the fact that she rarely dated. Even going home for spring break was not as exciting as it should be. How was she supposed to explain her lack of social triumphs to her family and old friends?
It wasn’t only that, though. She could have endured the dateless weekends—because after all, she was just a plain, freckle-faced redhead—but it was the friendless weekdays that were getting her down. Of the six in her apartment, she was the only one who never received phone calls or visitors. Janice, the bubbly blond, had a knack for making new friends, so she never had a lack of attention. Bobbi and Kay were members of the ballroom dance team, and their dance partners were with them day in and day out. And Pauline, a curly headed brunette with winning dimples, was active in two singing groups on campus, so she had no trouble in meeting new people. Even Kerri, her best friend and special roommate who was not quite as active and outgoing as the others, still had the warmth of personality that attracted many close companions.
It was hard for her not to feel sorry for herself when the only phone calls she ever got were from either her mother or a ward officer asking her to give a talk or help out in the ward nursery.
Michelle shivered suddenly. Her hair was wet from the snow that had melted on it, and now the wind was beginning to blow again. She decided to turn around and start back. Being alone was getting her nowhere but further along the road to self-pity. She shivered again, but this time it felt as if she had swallowed an ice cube and the cold was coming from the pit of her stomach rather than from the icy wind. A hopelessness even greater than before settled over her, and she leaned forward at a hurried gait to reach the warmth of her apartment.
Finally she was among the old familiar homes and apartment buildings that lined the street she lived on. A glance around told her that it must be late since fewer cars than usual were driving by and lights in many apartments were out. She looked ahead at the white brick complex that was now her second home. Almost half of the 16 apartments looked dark, including her own. She cut across the snow-covered lawn and tried the door. It was locked, but immediately Kerri’s face appeared peeping through the curtains in the living room.
“Where have you been?” she asked, throwing open the door. Her face was covered with her special weekly oatmeal facial and her short, brown hair was half up in rollers. Michelle couldn’t help laughing faintly.
“Just been out walking and thinking. Nothing serious.”
“Oh yeah? Since when is thinking not serious around this place? The truth now. Who were you following? He must have been a real winner to keep you out in a storm like this.”
Michelle closed the door and followed Kerri through the living room down the hall to their bedroom.
“Yes, but I lost him after a few blocks. He just disappeared like all the rest of the men around this campus.”
“Can’t win ’em all. But seriously, Michelle, is anything wrong?” She looked at her through the mirror as she finished her hair.
“All right. Tell me, though, if you need anything.”
Michelle hung up her coat and pulled a towel out of her drawer to dry her hair.
“Is everyone else in bed?”
“Unusual, huh? We ran out of gossip early tonight. Oops, there’s the phone. I’ll get it—maybe it’s my prince charming.”
Michelle sat down on the side of the bed and closed her eyes. Thank goodness she had fun-loving, easy-going Kerri for a friend.
A shout from the other room made her open her eyes.
“Hey, Michelle, it’s for you! And it’s a man!”
Michelle groaned inwardly. What tact! If by some miracle a guy had called to ask her out, he’d have been scared away by now. Who could it be, she wondered? She stepped lightly down the hall to the kitchen and took the receiver from Kerri who winked mischievously.
“Michelle, this is Gary Feldman, the ward chairman for service projects. Listen, I know this is late notice, but the girl who was asked to go visit an elderly member lady at the nursing home tomorrow had an emergency, and I heard you were dependable so … well, I was wondering if you would mind going instead?”
“Oh … oh, well I’d be glad to.” Despite her struggle to sound cheerful, she knew her voice had betrayed a little of the disappointment she had felt. She should have known—it hadn’t been her mother so she should have expected the obvious alternative. How could she pretend interest in an old lady when nobody cared a nickel for her?
“Do you or one of your roommates have a car so you can get there all right?”
“Sure. What time shall I be there?”
“As soon as you’re through with classes, if possible. The home is in the center of town and the room is 313. I think the lady is Sister Zwindli. Hey, I really do appreciate this on such short notice.”
“Well, you’re very welcome. Bye now.”
Michelle slowly put down the receiver and sank into a nearby kitchen chair.
“Well, who was it?” came a shout from the next room.
“Only someone calling to ask a favor.”
“How dull and boring!”
“At least it was a phone call.” This time her voice sounded more cheerful than she felt, and an uncontrollable tear slipped down her cheek. She brushed it away impatiently and got up to go get ready for bed.
Pauline dropped Michelle off at the rest home at 5:00 the next afternoon. The sun had been shining brightly all day, and as she climbed from the car, she was almost blinded by its glaring reflection on the snow that had fallen the night before. The stabbing pain at the back of her eyes made her stop and wait a minute before they adjusted to the brightness. After a moment she looked up to read the “Friendship Gardens” sign above the glass doors of the red brick building.
As she stepped in through the doors, she was almost immediately overcome by the sickeningly sweet odors of medicine and sickness. She tried to calm her nausea as she haltingly walked up to the reception desk. A smiling, robot-type nurse in a starchy white uniform gazed at her through businesslike eyes.
“What can I help you with?”
Suddenly Michelle felt very self-conscious and out of place. After all, what did she have to say to a sick old lady whose entire life probably consisted of watching TV and getting shots to go to sleep? She stared back at the receptionist.
“Well … uh, I … that is, is it all right if I see the lady in 313? I think the name is Zwindli.”
“Mmmmmm. Let me check.” She leafed through her records and brought one out of the pile. “Oh yes. She’s down the hall on your left. Just go right on in.”
Now that she was here, she was frightened. What had they expected of her anyway? She hadn’t had time to make anything for Sister Zwindli, and surely anything she might have to say wouldn’t be of any interest to this lady. She had grabbed her sketchbook on her way out of the apartment as an afterthought, thinking that this woman might enjoy watching her draw, but now she felt unsure of herself. Maybe Sister Zwindli had poor eyesight and didn’t want to do anything but lie in bed and be left alone.
309, 311, and there it was—313. She stepped slowly through the door and looked cautiously around. There was a bed up against the wall in the near left corner. Michelle could see a thin form beneath the white sheets, but as she drew nearer, she could tell that Sister Zwindli was asleep.
Not sure of what to do next, she decided to sit on the chair near the bed and wait a few minutes to see if she would wake up on her own. Michelle let her eyes roam around the room. It was just like a hospital on a smaller scale. White walls, white curtains, white bed covers, a white metal nightstand, and even the gray-white tile floor that is so common in hospitals.
Then she took her first good look at Sister Zwindli. She was lying on her side so her features were clearly visible. On a sudden impulse Michelle got out her sketchbook and began to draw a rough outline of Sister Zwindli’s face. It was a thin face and looked taut and drawn, despite the fact that it was deeply lined above the brows and beneath the eyes as if she had suffered through many trials. Her wispy, gray hair looked like curls of smoke that might disappear at any moment. It gathered softly above her delicately high forehead and down around the temples and back to the ears. Her eyes were widely set above a thin, yet beautifully proportioned nose. Tiny creases radiated from the corners of the eyes, telling Michelle that in spite of her suffering, she had smiled often enough to leave the traces. In her mind Michelle imagined that Sister Zwindli had once been very vivacious, with delicate features set in a peaches-and-cream complexion to add to her dainty build and warm personality. But now sickness and pain had yellowed that skin and set down its story in the wrinkled brow that seemed too much for the weary eyes to bear.
Just as she was about to sketch in the mouth and begin the shading, a nurse walked in. This one did not look as inhuman as the one out at the desk. She was in her mid-50s and had a warm, congenial glow about her. As she caught sight of Michelle, she slowed and smiled gradually as if she were remembering something.
“You wouldn’t happen to be here on a service project, would you?”
“Why, yes I am.” She wondered vaguely how this nurse knew because she hadn’t mentioned that to the receptionist.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re finally here. You see, I was the one who called and asked to have someone take time out to come and see her once in a while. I knew Miss Zwindli was a Mormon, so I just called her church. But I’m afraid now just happens to be a bad time. She was in a great deal of pain earlier, so we had to give her a pain shot, and now she won’t be awake for at least another hour or so.”
“Would it be better for me to come another day?” She felt let down, for after having studied Sister Zwindli’s face, she had imagined she had recognized a sort of strength there—something she wanted to know more about.
“If you like—but it upsets me that she missed you because after I told her that she might be getting company, she talked of nothing else. Poor dear, she never has visitors other than the doctors and nurses.”
A guilty feeling swept through Michelle. Here was someone who truly had no one. She at least had a family and five wonderful roommates; and she had been feeling sorry for herself.
“Doesn’t she have any brothers or sisters?”
“Oh, I have heard her mention an older brother and two younger sisters. But they’re all back in Switzerland. You see Miss Zwindli joined the Mormon church when she was about 14, and consequently her parents disowned her, so she came over alone to America. An uncle from Boston paid her way and met her when she arrived in New York. But for some reason or other he tried to dissuade her from continuing in her church. Said he’d even pay for a college education in music and vocal lessons, which was what she had always wanted, but she refused, so he disowned her, too.”
“How did she manage all alone?” Michelle found herself wishing that she had been there to befriend that little girl who had been so brave and yet probably so frightened.
“She said she took whatever work was available at the time—housework or factory work. It took her a whole year to scrape together enough money to ride the train from Boston to Salt Lake—course that was back in 1920.
“After she got there, it was like a dream come true, being with people who believed as she did. From what she’s told me, it seems like she had a good life there—working, teaching in her church, singing in choirs.”
“Why didn’t she ever marry? She looks like she was once a very beautiful lady.”
“Oh, she had opportunities, but she never found the one she wanted to marry. That didn’t stop her, though. She kept right on working and serving.”
“Why is she here now?”
“She came to Boston a few months ago hoping she could locate some of her cousins. Seems they’ve all moved away. Then she got sick. Her doctor brought her in after he discovered she had stomach cancer. She’s been here now for a month, but the doctor didn’t expect her to last more than a few weeks. She was so resigned and accepting that it just about broke my heart. She never complains but instead is always going around in her wheelchair seeing if there is anything she can do for anyone else. She hardly has strength to do anything for herself.
“But for the last week she’s been unable to get out of bed. I’m glad you made an effort to come talk to her. She’ll appreciate the thought.”
Michelle looked over at the tired, worn face with the sunken eyes. She felt as if she had known this woman for a long time, although she had not even spoken to her. She couldn’t force herself to leave immediately, and as she gazed on silently, the nurse left the room to go help another patient who was crying out down the hall.
Tears burned in her eyes as she contemplated the great loneliness and suffering that this unselfish lady had lived through. She looked down at the drawing in her lap and realized how little of the inner struggle that must have taken place was evident in that sketch. She closed the pad and got up to leave, but as she glanced over once again at the bed, she saw that those sunken eyes were looking up questioningly at her.
“Oh, Sister Zwindli, I’m so glad that you’re awake. You don’t know me, but my name is Michelle. I know this may sound unusual, but I came over to visit with you because I needed a friend. I think God led me to you.”
The deep brown eyes widened and then seemed to take on a new depth of understanding. Suddenly she was crying, the tears streaming down her lined face.
“My dear child. He sent you just in time. We both need a friend.”
She took a thin, veiny hand from beneath the blankets and reached for Michelle’s. For half an hour Michelle did nothing but sit by the bed and hold that hand. Her heart was still heavy, but the despondency that had so long been there was gone. Finally she laid the hand gently on the edge of the bed.
“I’ll be back,” she whispered, “I’ll be back soon.”