Invisibility is a fickle mistress. Like any mistress, she is utterly fascinating; the subject of legend and story. From the Brothers Grimm to J.R.R. Tolkein to Marvel Comics, authors have been mesmerized by the possibilities such a gift bestows. But also like a mistress, invisibility comes with a price — often a very steep price.
Althea Waters had the gift of invisibility. She discovered the gift early on, in the first and second grades. When some classroom honor or privilege was to be bestowed, Althea would strain at the confines of her desk, fingers outstretched to their limit as her arm waved wildly. But it would always be one of the popular girls, one of the pretty girls who would be chosen. Once, and only once, Althea worked up the courage to ask her teacher why she had not been selected only to be told, “Did you have your hand up? I didn’t see you.”
Disappointing as that was, Althea often found the gift to be useful, as when students were called to demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics or geography or science before the entire class or when distasteful chores were being assigned. However, she quickly learned not to rely completely on the gift. All too often it failed her, such as on her solitary walks home from school when the mean girls spotted her from half a block away. The seventh of eight children, Althea found her gift of invisibility to be just as effective or just as capricious at home.
As Althea matured, she learned better how to control her gift and as importantly, when not to depend on it. As always, there was a price to pay. Invisibility might render her immune to layoffs at work or the machinations of her eldest sister who had taken upon herself the role of matchmaker. But it also meant she was overlooked for promotions or the attentions of attractive men.
Career moved Althea three hours away from her family, and to her multitude of nieces and nephews she truly was invisible. They were always surprised to receive a birthday card or Christmas present from her even though those events happened every year. As she aged, invisibility visited Althea more frequently, settling upon her shoulders like a soft cloak. After her retirement party, she could scarcely remove it ever.
Only at church was Althea fully visible, but even there, not to everyone or all the time. She was a dutiful church lady, creating delectable dishes and prize-winning desserts for pot-lucks, christening parties, and funerals. But come her own birthday, or special anniversary, the cloak would settle about her once more.
As accustomed to solitude as Althea was, the lockdown due to the pandemic brought no significant changes to her weekly routine, except for missing church. She had long since taken to making nightly rounds of her neighborhood in the wee hours. An arthritic hip frequently required her to use a cane by day, but at night she preferred her walking stick — a thick linden tree branch that was taller than she. Her younger brother expressed occasional concern about the dangers of the night, but Althea walked the blocks and passed the darkened houses unseen, the hollow thump, thump, thump of her stick the only witness to her rambles.
As the spring daylight lengthened and temperatures warmed, Althea took to sitting on her porch, soaking up the westering sun. The children from the house across the way playing in the street took no notice of her. Sometimes a sparrow even perched on the porch rail a few inches away or a chipmunk would run right over the toe of her shoe.
So it came as a shock the day the tranquility of her routine was broken. She was enjoying the spring sunlight as usual when Lori, her neighbor to the north stumbled out of her house, weeping. Lori blindly flung the phone in her hand and it soared over the porch rail to land at Althea’s feet. Lori’s weeping turned to wails. Althea picked up the phone and limped down the steps to return it. A shocked gasp stayed Lori’s cries for just a moment and then she fell into Althea’s arms. Flouting all conventions of social distance, the two women clung to each other for an eternity. Finally, Lori was able to speak. Her mother, Dorothy, had had a major stroke. She had been taken by ambulance from her nursing home to the hospital. She had not regained consciousness and was not expected to live through the night. Because of the quarantine, neither Lori nor anyone in her family could visit. Lori’s mother was going to die alone. A car pulled up and Lori’s husband Ted clambered out. He rushed to the women and took his wife in his arms, then led her, still sobbing, indoors.
An hour after sundown, Althea drove to the hospital and parked in the empty ramp. Walking stick in hand, she approached the locked doors. They opened for her, but the security guard never looked up. She had the room number for Mrs. Michalski and rode the elevator to the third floor. She passed mostly empty rooms until she reached the intensive care unit. Four nurses sat at the station closely observing a set of monitors. Althea slipped into Mrs. Michalski’s cubicle. Other than telemetry wires, the woman in the bed was not hooked up to any machines. Perching her good hip on the side of the bed, Althea took the woman’s cool, wrinkled hand into her own and began to speak. “Dorothy, I want you to know that Lori is heartbroken that she can’t be with you. She loves you so very, very much. But I’m here, and I won’t leave until you’re ready to go.” Althea felt just the slightest return pressure and then it was gone. Softly, Althea began to sing, “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart…” The pauses between each of Dorothy’s breaths became longer and longer until the silence was shattered by a strident beeping and the monitor displayed a flat green line.
Althea backed into a corner of the cubicle, clutching her staff as nurses swarmed in. They noted the time of death, unclipped the monitor and drew the sheet over the still form. Althea followed them out and began walking back to the elevator.
There were nine other cubicles in the ICU and all the beds were filled. Althea turned back. In the room next to Dorothy’s, a man lay attached to a ventilator. Althea took his hand. She felt a strength, a springiness, a fighting spirit in that hand. Smiling, Althea bent close and whispered in his ear, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all shall be most well.” After uttering a brief prayer and singing another hymn, she slipped into the next room. In each, she held a hand, smoothed a brow, whispered a prayer and sang a hymn. She stayed longer in some rooms, where the hands she held lay limp in her own. It was past 3:00 in the morning when Althea left the last room.
Althea had found her calling. The next night she returned to the hospital. She stood for a while at the nurses’ station listening to the chatter. “Isn’t that something about Mr. Woodman?” one of the nurses said.
A young man answered her, “I didn’t think he would ever come off that ventilator, but when I extubated him, the first thing he said was an angel had visited him and told him all would be well.”
Althea smiled. That night she stayed almost until dawn, going from room to room. She said a final benediction over two of the patients. The next night, she went back…and the next…and the next. Two weeks later, Althea woke to a world of pain. She felt chilled as the heat poured off her body and her sore throat was shredded by a dry cough. Althea knew what was to come but felt no fear.
Invisibility has its price.