Marguerite lived on the little hill north of town. You can see her house from the path along the river where I used to walk my beagles. Her tall, turreted Victorian seems to sit right under the constellation of stars in the northern sky I first knew in Swedish as Karlavagnen – Charleswain in Old English, the Plough in British, and the Big Dipper in American.
My house calls at Marguerite Rackliffe’s spanned a period of over ten years. She was already widowed and in her eighties when I began seeing her in her house on Village View Drive. At first, I would visit her every few months, but gradually my house calls became more frequent as her health problems worsened with her advancing age.
Homebound and with no family nearby, she relied on neighbors, acquaintances and hired workers from the community for many of her basic needs. In the beginning, our visits were sometimes more social than medical, but as the years went by, we juggled more and more complex medical issues. Sometimes our visits took place on a spiritual plane; Marguerite was an ordained minister, although she had never had her own church.
I had learned when we first moved to town that Marguerite was a writer. At one time, she had been an editor for a New York book publisher. Now she ran a small publishing company from her home and, by the time I first visited her, from her sick-bed.
I remember the first time I entered her home through the massive double front doors. Inside was a tall, tile floored hallway with a soaring curved staircase.
“I am here, Doctor,” her voice echoed from a large parlor-turned-bedroom. There were books everywhere – in dark floor-to-ceiling bookcases, on a rectangular table, on the mantle and in boxes on the floor.
She was propped up against the tall headboard of an antique bed near the front window, and she had a computer on a stand with the keyboard on an over-bed table in front of her. There were books strewn across the bed.
She spoke with precision and authority as she answered my questions during our review of systems. When I asked her to lie down, she interrupted me and said:
“It is so refreshing to finally hear a doctor say ’lie’ down instead of ’lay’ down.”
“I have to pay more attention, because English is my second language,” I replied.
She had read my column in the local paper and told me she liked it.
“You should write a book,” she said. She continued to say that every so often, and dismissed my excuses about being too busy in my practice. Once, she gave me Dr. Bernard Lown’s book “The Lost Art of Healing”, pointing out that he was a busy doctor and still took time to write.
In every visit with Marguerite, it seemed she gave me more encouragement than I was able to give her. She offered to edit and publish anything I might write, even though her failing eyesight by that time required her to enlarge the fonts on her computer screen to the point where she could only read a few lines of text at a time. There was only so much I could do to control her interrelated medical problems, and I had very little to offer in the way of help for her practical needs.
When I showed concern for her health, she was quick to reciprocate with concern for mine. She spoke of burnout, and gave me her own copy of Thomas Moore’s “Care of The Soul”. Sometimes, she asked if she could pray with me. I sat quietly with her hand holding mine as she prayed for me to have stamina and wisdom in caring for all of my patients. She asked no favors for herself.
We were on a first name basis almost from the beginning, but when she received an honorary doctorate two years before she passed away, she jokingly suggested I must call her “Doctor”.
Every night, walking my dogs, I would turn around after I got to where I could see Marguerite’s house. Most of the time, she would still be up, her computer screen’s bluish light radiating against the night sky. After she passed away, at age 93, I still walked the dogs along my usual route at night. In the beginning I caught myself half expecting to see the light from her computer screen, but her house always lay dark; the only lights near the Rackliffe house were the usual seven brightest stars of Ursa Major in the northern sky.
She has been gone for nine years now, and we have left town for a house in the country. I still do house calls and I sometimes go up Village View Drive. I often think of the decade Marguerite and I shared and how much I learned during those years. My patient became my mentor; her perseverance became my inspiration. She, more than anyone else, showed me how obstacles can make you stronger.
Marguerite’s clear voice still rings in my ears, “I am here, Doctor”. Indeed, she is. I can still feel her presence – praying for my work as a doctor and telling me to keep writing.