Being alone, truly and completely alone, should not be a burden carried by a human being for long. I’m not so sure we were born for it. Our lives are such fragile existences just as they are – it only takes one blow to unhinge the mechanisms which hold us together. There are few who can survive for long in such conditions. I was lucky enough to have known a woman who had survived essentially alone in a cacophony of insanity for forty years.
In her late twenties, Lillie immigrated from Sweden to marry the love of her life. Two weeks after she married, he died. A new foreigner, not able speak the language, not knowing a single soul, she had a nervous breakdown and committed to the Wingdale Mental Hospital. She was put to work washing floors. Just as she was getting better, she fell and broke her hip. Arthritis quickly set in to immobilize her.
My mother was a charge nurse at Wingdale State Hospital in Wingdale, New York. It was a facility where the elderly and mentally unbalanced were housed until the 1970’s when the government dismantled them and dumped most of the inpatients onto the streets, ostensibly to be cared for by the communities in which they lived. In reality, few received the necessary care. Mom worked in the wards for the elderly insane women. It was there she met Lillie when Lillie was in her sixties or seventies.
Mom was appalled by the conditions these women suffered – cold water showers on mental gurneys that was essentially waterboarding. Bed sores from not being turned. Diapers not changed for hours, indigestible food. She reported all the aides and began a campaign to close down the facility, writing up to Rockefeller, then governor of New York. She eventually succeeded.
While Charge Nurse on that floor, she arranged for a private room for Lillie, wading through a multitude of paperwork to do so. Until then, and after, she brought me and some women from the church to visit her regularly. She was given a radio to hear music and connect to the outside world. The thing is, Lillie spent all her time praying for us, for people she heard needed help from the Lord. There was nothing in her that thought for herself.
Mom wanted to remove her from the hospital, even thinking of bringing her to our home if a good residential home could not be found. Just as Mom got permission to release her, they found she was riddled with cancer and only had a couple of months to live. The Doctors felt it would be too much of a shock on her system to release her.
I remember Lillie as a being of light, an angel on Earth. I say that not for its poetic value or to milk emotion. It’s a fact. No one could live forty years in an open ward of a state hospital for the mentally challenged, with nineteen other women, and amid constant clamor, no one to talk to and still stay sane. Not only that, but to pray continually for others, never herself.
She certainly didn’t get mental stimulation from the aides. How did she do it? Monks and other religious individuals who live in isolation do it when they are either by themselves or living in a community designed to support mutual silence. But Lillie – what did she have? I will never be able to completely convey the atmosphere of the open ward . . . those rows, one piling on top of the next, with its toothless crones strapped to their beds, holding their dirty cloth dolls, caterwauling at ear-splitting din. They were all in hospital gowns with stringy hair and vacant eyes above mouths that either cried or raged. Could you do it? Would you last a week? A month? A year? It is an environment that none of us should ever face. We have to be more aware and more willing to act so the Lillie’s of the world don’t have to wait forty years for salvation.