Dorothy was born in 1911 and had lived in this house most of her adult life.  The neighborhood had seen a lot of change.  She grew up in a world that was completely segregated, and she would have been in her mid-fifties during the legendary civil-rights sit-ins in Nashville.

“I’m the oldest person in this neighborhood,” she said.  “When I moved here, it was all white.  Now I’m the last one on the block.”

She told us that people had asked her if she wanted to move.  Seeming tickled to talk about it, she said, “You know, I’m just an old woman.  I don’t care what color a person’s skin is.”  We asked her if she was afraid to live alone. 

“What would I be afraid of?” she replied.

Dorothy had a sharp mind and a quick wit.  The time flew by. 

The conversation turned, and she began to talk about her mother.  Her love was still immediate and powerful, even though death had separated them decades before.  As Dorothy spoke, I thought about her daughter, the one who had written the letter to Vince.  I though about the children that I had birthed.  I thought about the threads of need and love and care that tie us to our mothers, and then I listened.

Dorothy had been closer to her mother than her other siblings had been, not because she was the favorite, but because of unfortunate events that happened in her childhood.  For instance, one winter day while she was playing near the hearth, she rolled too close to the coals, and her clothes caught on fire.  She was in bed for months, her mother by her side.

A few years later, Dorothy Lee was playing with some children in the loft of their barn, when she lost her footing, fell to the ground, and broke her back.  The long road to recovery strengthened the special closeness they shared, and as the years rolled by, the bond between them held steady.

On the day her mother died, Dorothy recalled, her world ground to a halt.  She couldn’t find the energy to do much of anything.  Some days she could hardly eat.  Most days she never got out of her nightclothes.  She remembered hearing bits and pieces of one-sided conversations as her husband spoke to concerned callers from the phone in the hall:  “No, this isn’t a good day,” he would say, or “She seems to be feeling a little better today.”

Then one day, she said, she got up, put her clothes on, and went about the business of living. 

“How long were you in the bed?” I asked, remembering an acquaintance of mine who once stayed in the bed over two weeks because of depression.

“Oh,” she said, “I’d say two or three years, as best I can remember.”

Two or three years!  I was dumbfounded.  Had her husband ever wondered if she had lost her mind?  I asked her as much.  She said, “He was a good man.  You know, you cannot rush grief.”

Really?  I thought.  You can on the surface.  We do it every day.  Someone dies.  Friends and family gather at the graveside.  Flowers are sent.  Prayers are prayed.  Handwritten notes or Hallmark sympathy cards are sent.  But these days no one is allowed to check out of life for two years.  Instead, we prod and push the bereaved to move on, to go through the motions of living.  Grief has its own timetable.  What a concept.  The time it takes to heal is the time it takes.

My thoughts drifted away to a train station in Africa, back to a time when I was visiting my friend Jeannie, who was teaching school in the western province of Kenya.  It was January of 1985, and we were standing on the platform, wishing we had time to grab a warm Coke (the only kind there was in Kenya) before our trip.  No schedules were posted that we could see, and we wanted to be on the next train.