Wednesday with Jen 8/22/12
It had been a few months since I visited my old friend, Jen in her assisted living residence (aka nursing home) in Hillsborough, NC. I don’t know how the time passed this spring and summer, but it did and in the meantime, Jen had turned 81. I felt bad about not visiting all summer. I had an appointment at UNC Chapel Hill in the dental school, so I decided I would just head to Hillsborough following that. Guilt came along with that decision, since it was my twin sons’ 14thbirthday and we had a dinner party planned for that night. I knew I would be racing against the clock to make it home for dinner in time, but something pulled me towards my visit to Jen and there was nothing that could stop me, it seemed.
I always get this nervous feeling as I approach a residence like this and I daresay, the fact that I have to go into the Memory Impaired section, a locked unit, makes me even more anxious. But, there was Jen sitting in a wheelchair at the nurse’s station. She had shrunk even more since I last saw her and with her sunken deep set eyes, grayish skin tone, and swollen feet and legs, she appeared frail. I had been warned by my friend, Lesley (who visits weekly) and told that Jen really was “ready to go.”
So, immediately, Jen recognized me, lit up and hugged me saying, “Oh Ann, I’m so happy to see you. Let’s go outside!” Okay then, I thought, and I pushed her wheelchair to the outside garden, pulled up a chair and sat close. Looking into Jen’s lovely grey eyes, I saw a glaze and a blankness that I didn’t remember being there. She told me frankly that she was tired and ready to die. I asked her what that felt like and she said that the TIA (doctor jargon for “small strokes”) were taking their toll and that as soon as she would get back her memory and word recall, she would be hit with another TIA. “I cannot tell my children this,” she said, “because they want me to live and they are afraid of my dying, so I don’t tell them, but I am telling you. My daughter in Connecticut thinks she cannot go on without me and that she won’t be able to make decisions without me, but she is smart and I reassured her that she would be fine.” I sighed and some uncontrollable tears rolled down my cheeks. I fought hard to be strong and just listen, unbiased and unemotional, but that proved impossible. However, I really was accepting of what she was telling me and she seemed to appreciate that. And then, we moved on and our conversation grew cheerful and sharp.
We spoke of fashion and of shoes and of styles. Of I Miller shoes and how she wished she had a good pair of size 10’s but that she was sure they were out of business by now. They are indeed, and have been since the 1970’s. We spoke of my sons and their problems. We gossiped about people we knew from Raleigh and Jen would just cover her eyes, head in hands over the most outrageous of the behaviors. Then, when she was finished with her moment of disbelief, we would throw our heads back, laughing. She remembered the minutest details. We spoke of the widowed deacon whom I suspect many older women hoped to become involved with. I did not realize that Jen had brought him dinner a few times. “Yes, she said, “he so clearly did not want to get involved with me. Why I even brought him salmon for dinner and well, that was the one time he invited me to sit down and share the meal.” We spoke of the rector from the church we’d both attended and how her life had so drastically changed as a result of a stroke as well. Jen confessed that in actuality she never really felt as though she was in the inner circle of the rector and her close friends. It was indeed, a popularity contest, we agreed.
She raved about the women who come to visit her every week and the “small sandwiches they bring.” “After all,” she said, “who wants to eat a big meal when you’re just sitting around?” I agreed. She told me that they are fun and nice and care for her and that it means so much to her. Then, she said to me, “Don’t ever feel bad about not coming to see me often. It is really okay. I know you care. And, I know you “always show up.” This has been our mantra of connection. We have both always respected that about each other – we knew that at every event, at every funeral or wedding, we would both show up. We would look at each other and nod in acknowledgment of “Yep, you showed up again and so did I!”
I asked her, “Jen, what do you miss most?” She sighed, closed her eyes and said, “I guess my freedom would be it and my car and driving. But I am really okay being here. I am not angry and am not fighting it. It is okay. I have had all these strokes and this is how it is.” I asked her about her husband whom I had never heard of. They have been divorced for a very long time and when I asked her why, she said, “He really didn’t care about me at all. He is 86 and has Alzheimers now.” She smiled a smile of irony.
Jen told me that when she heard about a family moving to Raleigh (in 1993,) coming to her church from Southampton, Long Island, she thought to herself, “Wow, they must be very rich and very chic.” She was surprised to find that we were neither! One thing we can always laugh about is the fact that when she came to help me with my newborn twins in 1998, she asked where the babies’ cribs were. “Cribs?” I asked. “We don’t have cribs. We co-sleep.” She never got over the shock and never stopped relating this story to others. We have laughed about this many times and yesterday she said, “Truth be told, I couldn’t believe that you didn’t ‘crush them” I roared laughing this time. “Crushed them??? Oh my!” I said.
We talked some more about our old friend the deacon to whom she had brought a salmon dinner and how eloquent he is. He was an English professor and I believe that he is almost tortured by his mind and his language that is so far beyond the average person. Jen said, “I used to use very big words, but there is no one here to use them with, so now I am forgetting them. “Oh no,” I said, “let’s think of some big words and use them right now. So we did, and we laughed some more. We decided that we were two very sophisticated women simply by virtue of the fact that she moved from Connecticut and I moved from Long Island. We really liked that about each other. It was simple and it was pure… just two women, many years apart in age, admiring each other.
We talked about the fat socks she was wearing and of the wrapping on her legs to stop the swelling. “It is my heart” she said, “it is not working and the water is building up in me – 40 something – liters? Quarts” I don’t know but it is a lot. I looked at Jen and wondered, just when does one begin to deteriorate this way? When do a woman’s breasts deflate or move down to join the belly? Does it happen on a certain day or always gradually? “I am closer now to my children, because they come and visit me a lot and the daughter in Connecticut is coming soon. My daughter who lives here is so loving, and we struggled with our relationship for years. But, not anymore. I love her so much,” she said. “I have a great son who I love as well and he will come to visit me soon too.”
I began to worry about traffic as it was getting near 5 pm and I had a long way to go. “Oh Jen, I said, I need to go for Sam and Will’s birthday dinner.” “Of course, she said, “You do need to go. I understand. It is fine. How could those little babies be 14?” I wheeled her back into the nurse’s station area and asked a woman who walked by to take a picture of us. I hugged Jen so tightly and held her hand. I love the photo! The woman who took our picture turned out to be the director of the facility and I said, “My friend Jen is a very smart woman. Be sure and involve her in things that make her have to use her brain and her great vocabulary.” “Sure will, “ she said. Jen said, “Oh, I love that.” And then, I hugged her again and made note of the fact that we had matching green lizard watch straps! We looked deep into each others eyes and I said, “Oh Jen, you’ve been such a good friend.” She said, “We really connect with each other. We always have. And, I love you.” “I love you too,” I said, “Goodbye Jen.” I knew…..
I drove home feeling guilty and rushed and had to take all kinds of detours to circumvent one traffic jam after another. Instead of 45 minutes home, it took an hour and a half. I got home in time for dinner and a birthday celebration, so it was fine.
I know now that God led me by the hand to show up one more time on Wednesday. I am so grateful that I did not wait. Jen had a major stroke this morning, is unresponsive and is in Hospice care this evening. I will show up one more time, and it seems it will be soon. Farewell, Jen. I have learned many things from you……