How could they possibly know that the dark figure hidden within the over-sized grey hoody, tee shirt and checkered men's pajamas bottoms, with the thick soled, heavy black Velcro closing orthopedic shoes and glaring white athletic socks was really a masquerading queen of the highest order? This was a beautiful black woman with full, luscious lips from which sang heartfelt ballads. This person was more than a patient in a wheelchair. This was a queen, a doting daughter taking care of her own mother, a mother to her son, and girlfriend and lover to her sweetheart.
To the parade of nursing staff dressed in green scrubs who floated down pristine white and mint-green halls adorned with plastic plants hanging on the walls of some obscure green floral print, Yolanda was a stroke victim, who as all patients seem to have no prior identity.Their current identity is that of Bed A or Bed B in Room 101 or the like, either the one who screams uncontrollably, drags his or her right foot behind them as if tethered to a ball and chain, or draws imaginary artwork on imaginary canvases of yesterdays memories. Maybe some others like Yolanda recognized the Christmas holiday decorations stapled and taped to their room doors. Who knows.
I cannot say I know Yolanda's personal hell. I know of it. It has been a year or more since that night of singing at Leimert Park's World Stage when she sat down, not feeling well. One minute she was a remarkable vocalist and the next she had been rushed by ambulance to Cedars Sinai Hospital across town.
Her hell was different than my older sister Judy's. Judy was physically intact, able to walk with no difficulty. That meant she was also able to roam, lost down the corridors of her own mind, looking for her first-born son or her boyfriend who abandoned her as quickly as the first of several strokes took their toll, calling their names, "James, James, James..." or simply, "Ed."
My father could not understand Judy's confused state. I tried my best to explain it." Remember, I asked, "how the radio sounds when you're between two stations? Well, Judy's brain is kind of stuck there. She knows what she wants to communicate, but suddenly the wires have crossed."
That was Judy. Her personal hell was knowing just how effed up she was and that we couldn't help her. I was powerless to teach her the piano she had self-taught herself because I myself never learned to play. She was devastated that she could not figure out how to operate her keyboard or turn the television on or off. And pissed at me that I never learned so I could teach her. When I told her she was smarter than me, she shrugged her shoulders.
On my last visit to Yolanda at the facility where she lives, which was way too long ago to even admit to myself, let alone to my friends or anyone reading this, it brought great introspection. Her mind was as sharp as ever, and though she was medicated, she clearly made her wants known. I was happy to go to the store and get her a charger for her iPad so that she could go online when possible. On her bed was a book, "Music Theory For Dummies." She was smarter than me. I've never studied music theory except for one brief semester in junior high school maybe. And I say maybe, because honestly, I can't remember with any certainty. I have the audacity to get up and sing from some organic place within me, but she has the determination to learn the mechanics of music.
Yolanda is confined to a wheel chair. No one knows for how long. It is her body that has betrayed her. She tells her left leg to move, her left arm to comply with her wishes, and her left ear to hear what it no longer does, but it is a rebel and refuses to do as asked. I wheeled her outside to the sparsely decorated patio where she asked me to push her. She told me with no uncertainty how to change direction of the chair and take her over the threshold backwards so as not to dump her on the ground. I did as instructed and we found a spot where she could look upwards at the sky, and I at her.
Music is our common denominator, so it comes naturally that we speak of it. She asked about certain people who have seem to have forgotten about her - there to donate some money at a fundraiser, but nowhere around now. I could relate. I remembered how when my husband died, people first flocked with more casseroles than my daughter and I could eat, but after that was said and done, it was much easier to go about their own day. I'm not faulting them, I have done it myself. Who hasn't? I agreed with her, nodding my head affirmatively. Sighing.
And then Yolanda looked up at the sky and told me she couldn't wait to come back and sing, that singing is what frees her. "You know, Mary. I already know what I want to sing. One day I was sitting on the toilet, wishing I could really see more out of the window. But I was looking at the sky and I thought to myself, why? And then she sang, "When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around. Heaven opens up a magic lane.. When all the clouds darken up the skyway, there's a rainbow highway to be found, leading from your windowpane to a place behind the sun, just a step beyond..." Oh my stars, it was the introductory verse to Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow, " and she knew it. I was stunned.
She went on and sang the familiar beginning of the iconic song, and it was lovely. But when she hit the next part of the song, I thought I was going to lose it, as a tear ran down her face, "Someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney-tops, That's where you'll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can't I?"
By now, I was at a loss of words, which I assure you doesn't happen very often. Perhaps she took my silent reflection of just how amazing I thought her to be as a quiet sadness, and before I could interject, she added, "But maybe I won't sing that. I don't want to make anyone else sad."
We pretty much wrapped up our visit right after that, as her meds were starting to kick in and she got a little chill, asking me to take her back inside, and for me not to forget to turn that chair around. Again, I did as told.
I returned a month or so later with my friend Ada who volunteered her car which was better suited to transport Yolanda to the venue in Hollywood where we sang. She was wearing the easy on and easy off pull-on pants and a loose nondescript shirt. But around her face was the beautiful purple silk shawl that Ada had previously brought to her. She brought with her the faux fur coverlet I had given her to dress up a way too thin bedspread, and wrapped it around her like a jacket. The orderlies scooped Yolanda from her chair into the backseat with ease and then folded her chair and put it in the trunk. Though Ada and I tried to maneuver her safely from the car into her wheelchair, it was apparent we needed help. Two strong men came to our assistance, and soon enough Yolanda was inside. Everyone cheered her entrance, and then again when she signed up for open mic. She sang with heart and soul, but saved "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" for another time. People applauded and she seemed content to have had a "real dinner" out with friends and the opportunity to sing again. It had been so very long. But now she was tired and wanted to go "home." Through trial and tribulation we got her back to her care facility, and she was ready to sleep and dream another dream beyond the rainbow.
"When all the world is a hopeless jumble," Yolanda will see to it that heaven opens up a magic lane right into our hearts. Sometimes our earthly restraints are defined by being wheelchair bound, and sometimes our brains get stuck between two stations trying to figure out the world of telling each other what we mean. Sometimes a bluebird needs a nudge. Maybe this is yours and maybe mine too. Let's try to help each other take that elusive step beyond the rainbow. Maybe we just need to get off our ass and click our shoes. Damn. Sometimes I hate when I'm right.