I didn’t notice Rhonda for the first couple weeks of the quarter. A middle-aged woman who sat in the back of the room and listened carefully, she rarely participated. One evening after class (we met once a week for three hours, which was grueling enough, let alone that class let out at 9:45pm) she asked if she could speak to me.
She was, she told me, suffering from lupus, and lately had been having some pretty unpleasant symptoms. She held up her fingers, the tips of which were wrapped in bandages.
“My fingertips have split,” she said. “I’m not sleeping very well because of the pain, so if I seem out of it, it’s not you.”
Somehow I resisted screaming “Omigod your FINGERS HAVE SPLIT??? OUCH!!”
Instead, I offered a sympathetic and professional “Thanks for letting me know, Rhonda. If there’s anything you need or if you have to miss class for any reason, just let me know.”
“I will, Ms. Professor,” she said, her voice a little ragged and her huge brown eyes sunken slightly in her face. I wondered how I could have neglected to notice she was ill.
Sure enough, she was gone the next week. And the next. This was about ten years ago, before students communicated with me via email. She never called, and I had no way to reach her. Each time I saw her empty seat, I privately worried that something terrible had happened to her.
When she returned to class, she was like a different person. As tiny and waif-like as she had been, now her stocking cap and thick wool coat nearly swallowed her whole. She shuffled into the classroom, sat in back (as usual) and struggled to stay awake while I spoke. After setting the class to work on a group assignment, I went over to her.
“I’m glad you’re back, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”
She looked at me, her huge eyes glassy, her formerly clear brown skin mottled with gray. When she spoke, her speech was slurred.
“The pain got so bad I finally had to go to the emergency room. The medicine they gave me helped, though. It’s called OxyContin. They use it for cancer patients,” she chuckled, “it’s that strong. But at least now I can sleep at night. I can take care of my babies.”
Her “babies,” I knew, from her introductory paper, were nearly grown men: big, strapping boys of 16 and 18 who played football and adored their Mama. I hoped they were taking care of her.
At the time, I had barely heard of OxyContin. Just a few months earlier, another student had written a paper about this relatively newly available drug and its terribly addictive properties. He worried that it was being used indiscriminately when its original intent had been to treat intractable pain in patients too ill to function anyway, not unlike morphine. He wrote about a black market, about junkies crushing the pills and snorting them, about addicts hooked after a single use, about physicians prescribing it in emergency rooms.
The next week, Rhonda was even more out of it. She approached my desk on a break, and with eyelids at less than half mast, asked me to explain what I had just gone over.
“I’m not sure I understand the assignment,” she murmured, barely intelligible.
I did my best to clarify the details for her, but I could tell she wasn’t getting much. She barely stayed conscious the rest of the evening, then shuffled out the minute class was over.
I stayed behind to answer a few stragglers’ questions and pack up my bag, and just as I was leaving, Rhonda reappeared in the doorway.
“I can’t remember where I parked my car,” she slurred. “Can you help me?”
“You drove here yourself?” I tried not to sound as horrified as I was. I wanted to tell her she was nuts, that she had no business driving, that she was being overmedicated, that she needed help. But instead, I just said, “Why don’t you call one of your sons to come get you?”
“I have the car. They don’t have any way to get here.”
Had this happened now that I’ve been at the same school for 11 years, had it been at a time of day when not every single campus office was closed, had I not had a babysitter at home who had to be home by 10:30, had I been more willing to venture well outside the comfort of my usual boundaries, I would have called her sons or found out where she lived and taken her home myself. Instead, I just said, “Let me walk with you. I’ll help you find your car.”
I knew that there would be a security guard in the parking garage, and sure enough, one of the friendly regulars was there, bundled up to his eyeballs in the frigid February night.
“Sir, this lady needs help finding her car and getting home. Perhaps you can find a campus police officer to help her?” I looked at Rhonda, wondering if she’d be embarrassed, but she was too far gone to care. Then I patted her awkwardly on the arm, told her to be safe, thanked the security guard for his help, and hurried off to my car.
Rhonda never came back to class, but I thought about her all the time. I took to skimming the obits in the local paper, wondering if I’d see her name, and what the cause of death would be: Rhonda Simpkins, age 42, of complications from lupus.
Six months later, I was in the college library with a research class when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rhonda. I was so happy to see her I almost grabbed her and squeezed her. She looked great. Healthy. Alert.
“It is so good to see you, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”
She told me she had been through rehab and had been clean for a few months. That she had been so badly addicted to OxyContin she’d almost died. That she didn’t remember very well the last time she’d seen me or what happened that night, but she was sorry I’d had to see her that way. That she was reenrolled and starting classes anew. That her boys had been wonderful, and her lupus was under control. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Then I gave her a hug and she went on her way. I haven’t seen her since.
I never found out what happened that last night she was in my class. I don’t know if her sons came to get her, if campus police took her to the hospital, or if she somehow drove home herself, God forbid. All I know is that I passed her off, and that things turned out okay either in spite of or because of that. That’s good enough for me.