Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Guest Writer: Teresa Cortez

The Green Dress

She was in her early eighties when we met at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.  It was 1984 and I was a student in an x-ray program completing my internship.

I can't remember the woman's face but I do remember her dress.  It was green, a bright lime green, thick polyester that held its perfect shape when she moved.  It was old but clean, simple, unembellished.  She'd taken good care of it and probably wore it for important things like church, doctor's appointments and other special occasions.  She likely made the dress herself.  Emma Rudd was poor.

She was in the outpatient x-ray department of the Scurlock Towers, a tall glass building in Houston's bustling medical center.  Outpatients came in and went home the same day they had their procedures.  Scurlock was where lives changed, where "sick" became official with a real diagnosis.  Mrs. Emma Rudd needed a clear radiopaque injection to look at a growth in her abdomen which had swelled in her belly like a pregnancy.  The dye was mostly harmless but gooey and sticky.  The growth in her abdomen would turn out to be deadly.

I watched the radiologist, Dr. Moore, prepare the dye as he spoke to Mrs. Rudd.  He drew up the solution with a needle and large plastic syringe, pulled hard against suction then pushed out the excess air.  I can't recall the specific details of conversation but I remember how "everybody's grandmother" became someone I would never forget.

I was 18.  Anyone over 40 was old.  Emma Rudd was ancient to me and I guess at the time I felt she was "useless".  Before Emma Rudd, old people were almost invisible.  They were worn and ready to be stored away on dusty shelves, ignored and forgotten.  The old were slow, in the way, forgetful.  Maybe their frailty even scared me a little.  I needed to view the elderly as very separate from the young, different creatures altogether.  Life was for the living, not the near-dead.

I listened to Dr. Moore and his patient as they talked, sharing the things they had in common.  He obviously loved someone deeply who was much older; perhaps he was close to many others Emma's age.  He spoke to her warmly, respectfully, as if she were the first and last person in the world.  

As it became clearer how sick she was, I suddenly wanted to know more about Emma Rudd, what she looked like when she was a girl my age, how many children she had.  I wanted to know if she'd finished high school, what music or foods she loved.  I wanted to watch the long movie of her life, celebrate her achievements great and small.  Dr. Moore obviously saw no separating walls, no "us" and "them".  He'd been a doctor a long time, knew how fragile life was whether young or old.  Emma Rudd could have been any one of us - every other soul that lives and dies.  She was once an infant in someone's arms, a toddler running in the yard, a young girl falling in love.  Now she was a frightened woman facing her mortality, much closer to the end than the beginning of her life.  She had things to teach us, a long history of experiences and mistakes, beauty and loss.

Suddenly their conversation stopped and Dr. Moore began apologizing and dabbing at Emma Rudd's green dress.  He'd accidentally spilled the sticky x-ray dye on the front of it.

He seemed disproportionately sorry for his error, worked intently to remove the stain as he apologized over and over again.  One of his assistants ran to get a wet towel.  I watched as the doctor's hands scrubbed then as Emma's own knobby hands worked beside them.

As the two continued working, the dress became sacred.  It had a value far greater than a dollar amount.  It was Emma's best dress.  It was her effort to look nice, to look pretty.  She probably had little else to wear - this we all seemed to sense - and now her best was stained by a procedure we all knew couldn't save her. 

Perhaps the stain was reasonably removed.  I can't remember.  It's been so long ago, and even the race of the woman is in question.   Her age and appearance are unimportant now.  She became for me every person I ever ignored or discounted.  I dealt with my shame and think I might have even worked on the stain myself, tried to love Emma Rudd as I hadn't loved others. 

Twenty-six years later I still wear her green dress on my heart.

© Teresa Cortez 2010

Teresa Cortez is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the Houston Chronicle's Among Friends  and Texas Magazine.  She's written poetry and flash fiction for various anthologies and received a Certificate of Poetic Achievement from the Amherst Society.


  1. This recognition that old people are nevertheless people, with past lives and loves, is one tht comes to us all sooner or later I think - or are some people born knowing that I guiltily wonder at times? But this is a beautiful story, honestly told with all the easy flowing, precise choice of words you always bring to your work.

  2. Someone once said, "If a story reads effortlessly, some writer put much effort into it." This story was an effortless pleasure to read and, thus, the mark of a truly good writer. Thanks for publishing it, Michael.

  3. Wow, Teresa. I think this is the first time I've seen your work beyond the 6S format, and it's marvelous. You possess both pure talent and the gift of sight -- to recognize the stories in life that others cannot see. Seeing this in more than six sentences was like getting the whole delicious pie instead of a slice.

  4. I have to agree with everyone- a sad and well told moment- beyond the 6. Great work Teresa

  5. A memory revolving around a green dress... This is an exceptional piece!

  6. A defining moment captured beautifully, nice one, Teresa

  7. Your work is a pleasure to read, as if coasting down a smooth road. The story seems to be its style, easy phrasing. Especially commendable, is the telling through the teen's recollection and, as maturation occurs, so does the story. This is exemplary of writing not being a gift but art in purest form and sense. This reader is truly an admirer of your art.

  8. This is enormously powerful, moreso because the young me can relate to this. My first memory of "40" was when someone who was 40 died and all the adults kept saying (ludicrously, in my opinion) how "young" the guy was. Some great lines in this piece, too.

  9. Teresa, you continue to grow in warmth, and heartfelt sincerety. This is a piece to be very proud of. I love your writing.

  10. This story makes to reflect about how valuable is the experience of the elderlies.
    This story is about a medical student that will know it. The story is very long but it is very pretty.

    Luis Eduardo Pimentel

  11. This history is very beautiful because relates an object with his life, although spend time he recalls the lady's dress...

  12. Thank You Teresa, Michael warned your story would moisten my eyes, he understated its impact. I love that your words conjure images so easily and I empathisise with every word written.

    Debbie x

  13. This piece flows with the ease of water and has the emotional impact of a tsunami. A wonderfully composed piece.

  14. The green dress has a great significance in spite of having been tainted by liquid. Despite this, it was saved to her heart as the most clean and pure in her heart.
    --Itzel García--

  15. This is a very very interesting story, because it tells that a woman was very special for the person. She didn´t have money, was poor, but She had a beatiful green dress and, She liked it. She didn´t remember the woman´s face, but yes the dress. Her name was Emma, and she was sick and had Cancer. She had gone to hospital for x rays. This story is interesting because it is sad, and I think more about the life.

    Angela Idolina Hernández Aguilar

  16. This is a nice story, as seen in humility and simplicity of the individual. the story begins with a description of the person and situation, shows feelings and emotions.
    And really was a woman and not a man like one had

    Jose Guillermo Moguel Narcia

  17. it´s an interesting history to talk about the person whose related about the past of the person and the woman said that its important for her life.
    this story makes to reflect about how valuable is the experience of the elderlies.
    this story is about a medical student that will know it. the story is very long but it is very pretty
    --juan gonzalo---

  18. This is a good history. I think that it is a wonderfull history, relates a object associated with a life, some great lines in this piece. Is interesting, very long but and prety.
    Luis Adolfo

  19. Well this story is about Emma Rudd (perhaps 40 year old), whom dressed a old green dress, she always dressed it when she visited, Methodist Hospital in Houston. This story is a little bit different, not my kind of story.

    This story was wrote for a young internship.

    José Fernando Vera Granados

  20. I like this story because is reflexive about the life, I think that is the most important thing that we have. I enjoy the story of love, and it is fantastic.

  21. Teresa you pulled me in from the first sentence and held me to the end. I could envision the whole scene and enter into the feelings and thoughts of the 18 yr old. Each character was perfectly sketched in such a short piece, Emma Rudd, the doctor, even the assistants in the lab. And as the 18yr old went on her journey. experienced her epiphany, it reminded me of myself at that age and my own growth in understanding. Really great writing, clean, precise as someone else said, with the thread, the green dress, perfectly woven and weaving everything together. Great.

  22. On first reading this story, it brought a tear to my eye. Maybe I'm overly sentimental. Maybe it's just Teresa's excellent writing catching that moment, observing that telling detail. Here she has created a character in whom we discover the complexity behind the desire to get through an ordeal in the best way she knows, doing so with a smile, and our heart goes out to her. I love this tale and will be reading it often for its emotional impact and to learn from this author's style.

  23. How beautiful and moving, I feel the sadness you emit with with story Teresa. You are one very special person with whom I would much like to sit down with and hear your stories. Being so close to life and death (not that you would say its a blessing) is intriguing to me and I know I have much to learn from you about your views on life. Your non-fiction stories always fill me with wonder knowing that even in my wildest dreams that I would never be able to conjure up something as horrifying as this. Fantastically written.

  24. This is beautiful and begs to be remembered. You crafted a tale that teaches and tugs at all that is human inside of us.

  25. My God, where have I been? I just ran across this story. I have also had my "others" and then had moments when I was shaken awake enough to see past their otherness, and felt the same shame you did. I also felt that the awakening gave me a touch of humanity, a bit of saving grace. Dr. Moore is a hero and a giant and I hope that Emma knew he loved her.


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