A Death and a Duchess

Life in a new day

I met her after the death, after she was found, arms wrapped around her son’s lifeless body, dead for three days.

The location where the pair were found was a residential hotel in a destitute area of downtown Minneapolis, he dead from malnutrition, she clinging to life and yes, death. With no food or water, her senses dulled, the odor of his death becoming her own with the line of separation melting as they become one, waiting for the grave. She wanted and hoped that she would die with her son, but it was not to be as other tenants smelled the demise and authorities whisked her away.

Her room was one room with a bed shoved against the wall, papers strewn about, filth evident everywhere. This was my job in the mid to late 80’s, the social service arm of a private attorney managing guardianships for those who could no longer make reasonable decisions for their care. Now, discovered, Dora came under his management and my concern. Generally, I felt good about the work I was doing, the help I could provide people who could not cope on their own.

I next saw Dora in a stark room with shiny linoleum floor and bare cream-colored walls with light streaming in through the window. This cleanliness defied the smell that assaulted me as I entered with a fan blowing the putrid smell of urine and feces into my face. I saw her sitting in her wheelchair, a toothless grin on her face, cat eye rimmed glasses, thick yellow greying hair pulled back in a ponytail, emaciated from the lack of food, nothing more than a towel covering her bare bottom. I wondered, how have you survived?

The nurses expressed frustration, and I had agreed to talk to Dora about her behavior. I had brought with me a few of her worldly possessions that rested in our storage in four plastic bags and two large boxes. The lot of it mainly containing bits of paper, her son’s manuscript, old plastic bags, one dress, a sweater, a few cooking utensils, and a picture.

We reenter a discussion we had on my last visit:

Me: Dora, I understand you are still urinating in cups.

Dora gives me a nervous laugh and a look of insult.

Me: The nurses tell me you won’t use the toilet.
Dora: No, I won’t. It’s dirty. I can’t sit on it.

Me: I looked, Dora, and the toilet and bathroom are clean. I understand you go to the toilet in your chair or in paper cups and put them in drawers.
Dora: I don’t do that. Whoever told you that is lying. I need to live in a place where I can work on my son’s book. It is all I have left of him. 

I sigh as I focus my gaze out the window.

Me: Dora, I am tired of the same conversation and having to come over and check on you for not using the toilet.
Dora: You know they have no right to treat me this way, I am a Duchess. I have the papers to prove it. They are at my nephews. And my niece is Bette Midler

Me: Yes, Dora, I saw the mail order papers declaring you a Duchess of a nonexistent nation. 
Dora: I am on a cardiac diet. I can’t eat what they give me; it breaks my veins. I need to live alone in a hotel so I can get my meals at a restaurant and order what I like.

I listen, let Dora vent, and realize that all she is asking for is what we all desire, the freedom to choose, to live life as we want to live, believe what we want to believe. I wish for Dora to have this freedom, make choices that I might not make, and let her be. I wish for her that she could live in her own room under her own decision making, that she is a Duchess, work on her son’s manuscript, eat or not eat, as she chooses. It is what we all want. I have seen her son’s manuscript and wish for her that it was more than reams of undecipherable numbers and letters and symbols and squiggly lines.

In this moment, as I look around this room, smell the putrid smells, listen to the ramble of words, I wonder, what pain in your life brought you to this, Dora? What life events, circumstances, brought you to see this as a reality, to accept this as a life? And I realize, peeing in cups and hiding them is her effort at taking control of her life in whatever way possible.

I tell this story because it stayed with me through the years as a moment of truly seeing that at our core, we are all the same. We were both born with different tendencies, DNA, and life circumstances but in our humanity, Dora, and I both fiercely loved our children, both had thoughts that created our life, did things out of habit with some becoming an obsession, both wanted love and pleasure and avoided pain as best we could. To a more or lesser degree, we both believed our thoughts rather than letting them go.

Dora was the most challenging client I had encountered during those four years and the best teacher. There was not much I could offer her, but she was now in a place that could provide her with medication, psychiatric services, a place to grieve her losses, and maybe a move into a healthier future. Sitting with her, I felt more firmly committed to the course I had set in motion and was preparing for, wanting to work with individuals earlier in their healing process.

Dora taught me, get your thoughts in order, heal your losses, open your heart, make peace. It is the only path to truly live in freedom.


“…grief and the spirit were the two common denominators, the two underlying characteristics of all people, the ever present potential for hell or heaven at any moment.”

Stephen Levine, Unattended Sorrow

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” 

Mahatma Ghandi

And, one of my favorites:

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” 

Joe Klaas, Twelve Steps to Happiness

On Going Resource List

  • Forever Ours: Real Stories of Immortality and Living by Janis Amatuzio
  • Personal Power Through Awareness by Sanaya Roman
  • Violence & Compassion by His Holiness the Dahlai Lama
  • Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Devotions by Mary Oliver
  • To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue
  • Meditations From the Mat by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison
  • The House of Belonging: poems by David Whyte
  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
  • Soul an Archaeology Edited by Phil Cousineau
  • A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield
  • Listening Point by Sigurd Olson
  • I Sit Listening to the Wind by Judith Duerk
  • Dancing Moons by Nancy Wood
  • The Soul of Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks
  • Keep Going by Joseph M. Marshall III
  • Arriving at your own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer
  • The Hidden Secrets of Water by Paolo Consigli
  • Conquest of Mind by Eknath Easwaran
  • Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
  • Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brene Brown
  • Practicing Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron
  • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
  • On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
  • Unattended Sorrow by Stephen Levine
  • Joy in Loving, Mother Theresa
  • The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
  • Let Your LIfe Speak by Parker Palmer
  • Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Essence of the Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
  • Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through The Ways Of Animals by Jamie Sams and David Carson

Author: Mindful Contemplations

A weekly blog, in prose, poetry, or memoir, finding the sacred within the ordinary day to day experience. I offer inspiration and contemplation on the soul journey of the human spirit, diving deep and surfacing with hope.

6 thoughts on “A Death and a Duchess”

  1. As I age, I come more fully toward embracing and loving all of life, both it’s ineffable beauty and its fierce and gripping pain. You capture both, with genuine kindness, here. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “ we both believed our thoughts rather than letting them go.” Our thoughts are just a choice, we need to let them go. So strong, how difficult to learn this. Dora taught you well.

    Liked by 1 person

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