A Portrait of Pauline

Pauline moved into the hotel a few weeks before I arrived. I knew very little about her and what I knew was not certain. She had lived most of her adult life in a mental institution and was released back to the community when hospitals were deinstitutionalizing long-term patients. She was a daughter of a wealthy family. Before her illness, she was considered a beauty. She married into a prominent family. She was an alcoholic.

In an effort to cure her, the family committed her to St. Elizabeth’s hospital where a lobotomy was formed.  She no longer drank or had violent outbursts, but neither did she resemble her former self. She lived at the hospital until she arrived at the hotel. She left behind a boyfriend, another patient who worked as a baker in the kitchen. He frequently sent her day old donuts.

Pauline was a large woman, with a frightening and confrontational exterior. Beneath the gruffness, however, was a kind heart. She kept a tame, wild mouse in her room that had arrived in one of the boxes of stale donuts. A cigarette was always dangling from her hand. With each inhalation she rocked back and forth on her feet.  She wore fuzzy bedroom slippers even when we went on day trips outside of the hotel with other residents. She didn’t have to do anything for people to feel intimidated. What made her threatening was that she was incapable of being untruthful.


Speak Your Mind



  1. Will you be telling us the rest of the story?

    • Pauline was amazing. Sometimes she would be near my office when I went into work. She would look at me and say, ” You like like shit today.” Once I took her on a trip to a live local tv show ( I was invited to bring a group of senior citizens to a show about exercise). When the host of the show came out on stage right before we went on the air, there was a voice that rolled out over the audience, ” Look at her. She dyes her hair.”

      I am not sure what happened to Pauline. Right before I left the job, she was diagnosed with cancer and went back to the medical part of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. I visited her there once. I don’t think she returned to the hotel.

  2. Barbara Goodrich-Dunn says:

    More, more!

  3. Fabulous!

  4. Paul Lichtenberg says:

    Dearest Em,

    I ever so lightly, accidently, fortuitously, in the moment, stumbled upon this, your most moving site. I am so happy that your feet are “barely touching the starting line.” I think it would have grounded you too much and we, the readers, would have lost that very vulnerability we need to stay in touch with to understand the suffering and isolation of our elders, and so, ourselves. `The Hartford House,” or “Heartfelt House,’ as I like to refer to it, is that very reminder that Buddhist monks, as they turn their cups over before sleep, need to not only realize the ultimate nature of reality (the awareness of which leads to freedom from suffering) but to develop a deeper and deeper empathic mind. And so, `The Hartford House,’ as you so perfectly describe and Arnold so poignantly photo journals, is our house and, more importantly, our home that we must pay attention to, as Linda Loman, in `death of a Salesman,” demands of her sons who ignore their father’s slow, painful death to dementia. My mother, Iris, suffered that death, too. One day 5 years ago, I stood in the corridor one of her nursing home waiting to visit my mother. I was peering down at this woman hanging over her wheelchair in a stupor and felt nauseous until I realized it was my mother. I died at that moment a thousand deaths. Please keep reminding me of my death, Emily, until the death knolls transform my suffering into joy and freedom.

    Please keep your blog alive in the impermanence of forever 🙂


    Dying In My Mother’s Parkinson’s Disease

    The way sound forms around her tongue
    crawling like a yawn that can’t rise above
    a whisper. So far from the lulling trills
    of Saturdays cleaning the apartment
    or taking out the wash. In the days
    of my youth, in her cotton dress
    she was the scent of fruit,
    her voice succulent
    in the melting pulp of summer.
    I would follow her to the yard
    and lie under brooding afternoon
    clouds; the grass wild, plush
    a green ghost of myself
    upon rising; now, a sudden wind
    and sheets ripple up like wings
    bodiless as snow.

    She shuffles like an old broom across the floor
    stands there, body moving without her; her fist
    held tightly against a stained smock. The air
    is stale, medication and death. Her eyes
    vacant as moon; she can no longer
    see into them, into the memories
    lost somewhere inside a poem.

    My step-father stands behind her, downcast,
    lost, dying in words he cannot speak.
    He is too old to care for her now, he fears
    she will fall, he won’t be able to lift her again,
    or wrap around, with the arms
    he once used to caress,
    the bruised frame he empties,
    as he does everyday, into the sofa.

    She empties herself into the TV
    until she dozes off to sleep. She will
    awaken, startled, and call me as she does
    every night wondering if I remembered
    to take my keys with me to school,
    or the names of my brothers and sisters,
    or if I heard from her mother. When I tell her
    she died long ago, she says, oh
    gets frightened and tells me she is lost.
    My step-father gets on the phone and cries.
    He promises he will not put her in a home.
    He says he no longer prays to God; he prays
    to days, he prays to nights,
    he prays to a future already past.


  5. I am in deep gratitude for your comment and this amazing poem. What you have written about your mother, I have seen in so many families that have crossed my path. I remind myself that this is me, this is all of us – I must cherish my life now. How sad these situations are. And yet, to continue to do what I do, I search for life – the tender thread, the breath, of what still is, even if it is only a fraction of what was. Your post fills me with love and hope for my life right now. Thank you

  6. Paul Lichtenberg says:

    What is it in the suffering of Pauline that speaks to us? That demands, “attention must be paid to this (wo)man”? How can that part of our consciousness, named Pauline, stay close to our hearts so that the rest of the children, all potential Paulines, never have to face the brutality of consciousness we call inhumanity?

  7. Until recently I forgot how the story of Pauline resonates so deeply. I lived so much in the moment with her – completely engaged with her unfiltered, uninhibited, way of being in the world. At the time, I rarely allowed myself to ponder her life prior to our meeting – what her suffering must have been and then what happened to her in the name of ” alleviating suffering.” Those around her tried to alleviate suffering by taking away a part of her being. The “cure,” destroyed any possibility of real healing. That is what hurts so much.