Life of a Poet

Vassar Miller is broke, hospitalized and facing an uncertain future. Doesn't one of Texas' most esteemed writers deserve better?

From Wright's perspective, her attempts to set up a foundation to generate revenue for Vassar's care, her efforts to determine what happened to Vassar's trust funds and her promise to Vassar that she will be allowed to remain in her home are being thwarted by bureaucratic red tape and a court that did Vassar no favor by overruling her wishes.

"Applying for guardianship," Wright insists, echoing the stated motivations of everyone involved, "was my attempt to help her and to protect her. Now that she's a ward of the county, she's at the mercy of Harris County Social Services, who have employed extraordinarily nice people, but Vassar needs an entire staff to administer her problems and to clean up the ill that's been done to her and her estate. And I think the aim of social services, or the objective, really, is they look at each person as a case. There's a beginning, they do something and then there's an end. They have other people to deal with, and they have poor people to deal with. I think they mean well, but I think the mentality is, 'let's solve this case, on to the next case.'"

Johanna Williams sees the problem differently: Vassar's money, like that of too many people, simply ran out before she died. She maintains that the only party abusing Vassar Miller's trust is Sallie Wright, and that her own work on the poet's behalf went unappreciated by Vassar and Wright. That, she suspects, is because she's "not the right color" and doesn't have "the right family ties."

For her efforts, Williams says, she's been rewarded with Wright's "wild accusations."

"You do what you can do for people who are in need and then you end up getting stabbed in the back and taken advantage of by circumstances that are totally beyond your control. But I don't regret what I did for Vassar, I just regret the fact that it had to come to this, where her hopes were elevated beyond all good reason. She was given [by Sallie Wright] a 100-percent promise that absolutely nothing would ever be done to remove her from her home, and that she was going to be taken care of, and that foundations would be set up and that all of her needs would be taken care of. And it just has not happened."

In Methodist Hospital, Vassar Miller awaits Sallie Wright's decision to return her to her home, a decision hinging upon Wright's ability to concoct and present to the county a feasible plan for providing and paying for the 24-hour care that Vassar presently requires.

Harris County, meanwhile, has received court approval to announce the pending sale of Vassar's estate's small, fractional property interests, excluding the home, in an effort to provide the estate with liquid funds. Wright is afraid that without some form of further assistance, the house will have to be sold next. Wright says her concern is not that she will lose the inheritance, but that Vassar's one modest wish, the one Wright has promised Vassar will come true, won't be honored.

The house sits locked and empty, a small one-story shell containing Vassar's library and meager personal possessions. In the backyard, moss is growing on the small statue of a saint standing among the fallen leaves in a corner beside the empty doghouse. Inside a tiny garage apartment, the electric cart in which Vassar once controlled her own movements sits idle.

The faithful packed St. Stephen's Episcopal Church this recent All Saints' Sunday, filling the pews and standing-room alcoves. After the Holy Communion signaled the close of the parish's regular morning service, the congregation stayed on for St. Stephen's' 65th anniversary ceremonies. Representatives of various church groups stood at the front of the wood-paneled hall, placing an assortment of documents, photographs and icons in a bronze box that was to be sealed as a time capsule in the cornerstone of the church's new entryway. One of the last objects to be set in the box was the handwritten manuscript of a poem entitled "Thanksgiving after Holy Communion," written in 1974 by Vassar Miller. The Reverend Helen Havens introduced Vassar as a friend and inspiration to the church, and a fellow parishioner wheeled Vassar's chair-bound form to the front of the hall, where she watched silently as Havens' husband read the text.

You come to me like a bird
lighting upon my palm,
nesting upon my tongue,
flying through the branches of my being
into the forest of my darkness.

Your wings have troubled my atoms,
set intangibles striking
together in crystal music
as the light flowers out of my body
as my body bloomed from the light.

Vassar seemed at home in that sanctuary. Surrounded by friends, admired and respected both for her art and for her deep dedication to the church, she carried a dignity appropriate to her accomplishments and the example of her long life.

But the pomp and circumstance of All Saints' Sunday, unfortunately, is an exception in the life of Vassar Miller. When she left St. Stephen's, wheeling across the sun-streaked parking lot on a mild fall day, she returned to the hospital and an entirely different life, one to which she is not yet and may never become accustomed. It's a life in which Vassar is no longer the actor in her own decades-long drama of art and religion and achievement, but instead the almost inert object of a vastly more fractured and pedestrian narrative. At 70, an age at which she should rightly be living out her last years in comfort and dignity, Vassar has lost control of her home. Her very person, as well, is legally the domain of a third party. Her money is gone. She has needs ranging from food to shelter to medical supervision, and responsibility for meeting those needs has come to lie in a multitude of helping hands. Each hand claims to be working on behalf of Vassar's best interests, and yet no one, Vassar least of all, is satisfied that those interests are being served.

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