THE FLAME from the memorial candle flickered, casting animated shadows on the wall. Alone in her apartment, Dora watched the dwindling light until it sputtered and faded away.
Since her husband's death three years ago, Dora remained in the apartment she and Frank had shared for 40 years. Advanced age, along with physical frailty, heightened her grief. Childless, she became a recluse. Most telephone calls on her answering machine were neither answered nor returned.
Visits from friends were discouraged. And with few exceptions, her door remained shut.
Determined to rescue my friend from falling further into depression, I concocted a lie. Faking a frantic tone, I left a message on her answering machine. "Dora, it's urgent that you call me back. Something has happened."
Immediately, Dora called.
"Dora," I lied, "I've discovered a lump, and I'm afraid to go to the doctor's alone. Please go with me."
I had anticipated her answer. "You have a husband; tell Jim to go with you."
Still lying, I said, "Jim is out of town on business. It would be heartless to call him and worry him -- yet." After a moment's hesitation, Dora said, "All right. Pick me up in an hour." I called my doctor and made an appointment for my annual flu shot.
Her eyes questioning, Dora greeted me as I left the doctor's office. "It was just a bruise," I said, smiling, "probably from bumping into the closet door last week."
Obviously relieved, Dora hugged me.
The second part of my plan could have ended tragically. Opposite the professional building was a shopping mall. Pretending the idea had just come to mind, I blurted, "Dora, to celebrate, I'd like to stop by Walden's and buy Tom Clancy's latest novel."
Dora frowned. "You know I don't go shopping. I want to go home." I almost conceded. However, I attempted a compromise. "I promise I won't even stop to window shop. We'll go directly to Walden's and then straight home." Reluctantly, she agreed.
At the book store's entrance was a rack of current best-sellers. Suddenly, Dora's eyes widened. "I'm going to buy this book," Dora declared, removing it from the rack. Overjoyed at her renewed interest in reading, I glanced at her choice. My joy turned to panic. It was "Final Exit."
Roughly, I snatched the book from her hand. Too startled to speak, she tried to wrest the "instruction manual for suicide" from my hands. "No!" I shouted, attracting stares from nearby customers. "This book is not for you." I tossed the book onto the closest table and hustled Dora out of the store.
We drove home in silence. When we reached her apartment building, Dora snapped, "I can always order it, you know." Forcefully, she slammed the car door and hastened into the building.
Guilt over my deception and sadness over losing Dora's friendship weighed heavily on me. Still, I continued my daily calls. They were not returned.
To ease my concern, Jim drove by Dora's apartment each night, checking to see if her lights were on. He also reassured me that her mailbox in the lobby had been emptied regularly.
Finally, after two weeks, I wrote Dora a letter. In it, I confessed my plot to break her cycle of isolation, including the lie about the lump. "I did it out of love, Dora," I explained. "You seemed to be growing desperate, and I wanted to prevent you from doing something drastic. Your Frank is gone, but you have the gift of life. Please," I implored, "give me the gift of your friendship again. I need it; I need you, Dora. Forgive me." I prayed for a response.
Two days later, Dora called. Choking back tears, she said,
"You're a sly one, aren't you? Yes, I was desperate, dangerously desperate. But," she continued, her voice husky, "if you could invent all those schemes to save me, I don't want to leave you. I need you, too."
Sensing we were both about to cry, she quickly said, "Now get dressed. I'm taking you to lunch." Too overwhelmed with emotion to say more, I stammered, "See you at noon."
As I hung up, a phrase from the Talmud flashed through my mind: "He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the world."
Beverly K. Fine lives in Baltimore.