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.