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When I think of “Cora,” in my mind’s eye I see a burned stick, still smoldering. I think of fire and violence. I think of coming to life in a wick of flame, burning, and then dying out.

Cora was the most offensive person I ever met: She was ugly, rude, and foul-mouthed. She blew smoke in my face, cursed judges, jeered at strangers, and showed up drunk for appointments. Cora had nothing. Nothing? Well, she had five children, but they didn’t live with her. She had no money, no job, no place to live, and nobody willing to take her in.

She drank. That was her identity. And she did whatever it took to get drunk.

I had been assigned by a court to help her. She did not want help. In the face of her stubbornness and flaming anger I couldn’t think what I could do for her, except just to show up in places where she was and ask after her. She was always amazed to see me. Once in a while she would call, ask to meet me in a certain vacant lot, and when I parked the car she would come over to the window and ask for $5. Just $5, never more. She was shy when she asked.

One day we had a document to fill out. Again, we met in the vacant lot. Although a young woman still in her 20s, Cora could not bring to mind any of the personal information needed: date or place of birth, Social Security number, or even last grade completed in school. Suddenly I understood that she could not read, either. She asked me to walk across the lot with her to a town house where her cousin lived. Her cousin would know this information.

The cousin had some unholy conference going on: three or four men shouting, waving weapons. They fell silent when we entered. The air quivered with their doubt and anger. There was no furniture in the house, not a stick. Cora said, “Ask her.” It seemed at the moment that the only way we would get out of that room alive would be to come up with a plausible explanation for being there, so I told our task. Sullenly, the cousin gave us facts about Cora. We backed out. I paid the requisite five dollars and drove the hell away.

Imagine a life where even who you are and where you’ve been is information kept in somebody else’s head.

Cora called me from a hospital. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. I asked to talk to the doctor. He refused me any information, except to say that she was terribly sick and was being sent home with a machine to help her breathe. I said, “She has no home.” The doctor hung up.

The next time Cora called it was from the sullen cousin’s house. She could see the end coming. “Then we have some work to do,” I said. “You’ve got to decide if that woman who is taking care of your kids, and doing it so wonderfully, can adopt them as she wants. We’ve got to put down what you want in writing, and get it signed by a notary.” She said for me to come over, she would do it right then.

The cousin’s house was buzzing with male energy: men in and out, hollering, glowering. Then I could hear shuffling footsteps, and Cora inched down the stairs. She looked ghastly. If I had met her in a graveyard, I would be certain that the dead walked.

“We can’t go out, Cora. You’re too sick.”

She wouldn’t listen to me. “Got to fix it up for my kids.” She scuffed first one foot, then the other, toward the door. To stop her, I would have to tackle her. I looked around for help. The cousin shrugged and turned her back. Nobody gave a damn about Cora.

So we started out for the notary’s office in my car, she breathing like a fire bellows, and me scolding like a squirrel. Five minutes into our journey her head jerked back, eyes rolled up, body shook; then she passed out. Desperately, I wheeled the car around and sped toward the nearest hospital. There the emergency crew, dressed in moon suits, tried not to touch her. Standing a good distance away they clamped machines on, then moved her to “the pit.” She lay there for hours, slipping in and out of consciousness. I rounded up the hospital notary, and all three of us wrote, signed, and sealed the document with her wishes in it.

At first I couldn’t figure out what was rubbing at the back of my mind. Slowly, though, I began to see. This was Cora’s exit door; she was on her way out. And look at her! She just accepted it! A couple of hours ago she was being kicked around her cousin’s place. OK. Now she was in this busy institution where people were using their energy, wits, and medicine to save her. She didn’t question that. If in the next hour they put her out on the street, she would accept that, too. Right now dying was happening. She just took it in.

It seemed unearthly. Almost angelic.

In the early evening I said goodbye. Cora said, “Have a nice day.” There wasn’t a trace of irony in her tone. Those were the first pleasant words I had ever heard her speak. They also were her last words to me.

At the wake, a fat, prosperous-looking man came up to me. He said that he and his wife wanted Cora’s children. He had told Cora that a long time ago, but she would not even talk to him about it. He didn’t know why she didn’t like him.

“Cora has already provided for her children,” I said, somewhat proudly. “You can challenge that in court, but she was clear about what she wanted for them.” As I walked away, I couldn’t help thinking that for Cora, this was as good as it got. It was a nice day.CP