Candy Rant

"I killed a rat with a stick once."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How I Landed Among the Elderly

The first time I "worked" with an elderly person was 3 years ago. I was feeling like a pile of rotten dogshit after a failed 4-month relationship with a putz with lots of money and expensive suits, on whom I spent way too much emotional energy before running for the hills. I was trying to navigate back to some kind of selfhood, and so I signed on with a volunteer organization called Faith in Action. You may have seen their public service announcements. Della Reese is their spokesperson. She packs an extra heavenly oomph after her years on "Touched By An Angel."

You volunteer to do things like taking people to doctor's appointments, helping them clean their house, grocery shop, etc. It's not a service exclusively for the elderly, but most who call FIA are.

My first assignment involved taking a very, very large 40-ish man with a wooden leg to Aldi's. After pushing the passenger seat in my car as far back as it would go, his stomach was still touching the dashboard. I took him back to his apartment and put his groceries away while his mildly retarded girlfriend watched from the couch with a big spearmint gum smile on her face. Especially when she saw the four boxes of chocolate chip ice cream and the six half-gallon jugs of sugary grape drink.

The next assignment was one I kept for over two years. There was a house-bound 77-year-old woman, Helen, who lived with her son, and who really wanted someone to come once a week to play Scrabble with her. So I went. I like Scrabble. Helen was on 24-hour oxygen, used a walker, was about 4-foot-nine, and had the roundest, most moonpie face I've ever seen. And very ready-to-laugh eyes.

Her son Don, 45, lived with her and took care of her around the clock. He did a little freelance graphic design here and there, but his mother was his job, social life, delight, and worry. Helen was a "brittle" diabetic and her blood sugar lowered into treacherous places a few times a week. Don managed her medicine and the very exact doses of peanut butter, apple juice and crackers that would cushion her numerical plummets.

Helen loved to watch the wild animals out the back window of her small house, so Don poured ungodly amounts of feed onto the back lawn. Huge bags of it. There was a ten foot square where no grass was visible at all. It was Party Central for the birds and squirrels and the occasional possum at all hours of the day and night. The neighbors were not amused by the fecal-bombing birds approaching the neighborhood in a cartoon "V" just to show up at the par-tay to see and be seen. And to eat and shit. It was as though P. Diddy had turned into a pigeon and bought the whole block.

Their favorite animal out back was a squirrel Helen and Don named Pearl. She was only inches away from eating cashews out of Don's hand. He and his mother were in agony when Pearl disappeared. And delighted when she returned five weeks later, apparently knocked up.

After I moved to Phoenix, I got this email from Helen:

"Pearl gave birth awhile back. She took two weeks maternity leave. She came back recently for cashews but hasn't been around much. I understand squirrel babies are weaned at around 40 days. I imagine she has circled the date on her calendar."

Helen and I played Scrabble almost every Saturday afternoon. She and Don played sometimes, but she got itchy for a new opponent. A new face to talk to. Also, she could beat me. Don was one of those guys who had the entire Scrabble dictionary memorized, and could regularly manage to use all his letters in one turn, and land at least two of them on some big-ass "triple word" squares. There were many things about him that made me want to bludgeon him. For instance, when Helen and I were playing and having a nice relaxed conversation, here would come Don, spewing some lengthy opinions about the current political situation. And they just happened to be in direct and violent opposition to all of my own political stances. I never spoke up because my time in that house was about Helen and Scrabble and knocked up squirrels. It was not about listening to the idealogical outpourings of Don, while stray hairs escaped from his long wavy ponytail. Dude.

But it was a love/hate thing with him. Because he knew every word of every episode of "Family Guy," and that kept me from killing him. I would pretend to try to remember a particular scene, and instantly he would begin to recite it. Dance monkey dance!

When Helen's turn at Scrabble came, and she got stuck, that shit-head Don would come up and help her. Hey, he'd say, look at this space and look at this "Y"! Now who the hell would be so socially and boardgame-inept that he would come up and do that? Helen would politely tell him to stop helping, and I would put away the knife I had just pulled from my purse. He would then lumber off to the living room to sit next to the birdcage which housed Ozzie, their yellow cockatiel. At least I think it was a cockatiel. I'm not bird literate. Bright yellow, with perfectly round, dark pink "rouge" spots on his cheeks. Ozzie looked like a drag queen trying to make up as Betty Davis, the Final Years. Fine, I thought. You sit in there and talk to that bird and stop horning in and cheating. And anyway, Ozzie craved company. He had gotten blind in his old age and fell off his perch at least once a day and needed to be reassured that the world/living room was still in its place.

It is hard, though, to think poorly of a man who takes such good care of his mother, politically malformed or not. They watched every season of "Dancing with the Stars" together. Helen loved that show. "It just really gives you something to live for," she told me.

She and I emailed only a few times after I moved west. She wasn't a big emailer and I am not a big phone-caller or letter-writer, with the exception of calling my mom every day.

Don emailed me in February to tell me his mother had died. And then he emailed a couple weeks later, subject line "It keeps coming":

"Tuesday I was having lunch with Ozzie when he suddenly collapsed and died. When he was hospitalized last year the vet told me he had an enlarged heart. I suspect it finally gave out. Two months ago, Ma, Ozzie and I were perfectly happy and now there's only me."

He's doing better now, is slowly coping with his grief and has adopted an abandoned bird named Bob.

I meant for this post to be mostly about Scrabble.


  • At 7:54 AM, Blogger Dana said…

    Candie, I pray for the gift of words that you have.

    I've said it before, you make me laugh and cry all in one post.


    I can't wait for your book to come out. The one we all keep bugging you about.

  • At 12:26 PM, Blogger Citlali said…

    lol. yeah. Scrabble AND don't forget the knocked up squirrels. omg. lol. lol. you rock, Candy. = ]

  • At 3:12 PM, Blogger Tony from the Bronx said…

    Just a dingy-dangy minute here. You say "I was feeling like a pile of rotten dogshit after a failed 4-month relationship with a putz with lots of money and expensive suits, on whom I spent way too much emotional energy before running for the hills." Now looky here, Little Missy: I know that well-dressed putz!

    I really don't know what your problem is ... I paid for the extra mustard packets, didn't I? Didn't I?

    Ahhh, listen--it was me, not you. We were just babies practically...mid-thirties and whaddya know at that age?

    Anyway, thanks for noticing the suit.

  • At 10:49 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Dana, thank you. Big time.

    Citlali, the knocked up squirrels are of prime importance!

    Tony, you are so far from Putzville you couldn't even find it on a map.
    And it was the most meaningful mustard of my life.

  • At 11:04 PM, Blogger JBelle said…

    I've been saving this all day. Came home, got some nice hot peppermint tea and settled in. It did not disappoint. Despite most of the indicators, it's all joy, isn't it?

  • At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You know, Candy, the thing that keeps me coming back to your blog (besides the fact that I get a kick out of reading particularly funny passages to FP) is the way every post reveals what a compassionate survivor you are. You're so loved it's ridiculous, Candy.

  • At 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yep, she is. Lots of love from Anita

  • At 7:38 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    JBelle, I'm finding it of utmost importance to find even the splinter-sized bits of joy where I can these days. What an odd muscle to find out you haven't used nearly enough.

    Thanks for being here.

  • At 7:39 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Jackie O,
    One of these days I must meet FP. If only to take the beating I deserve for giving him such a hideous nickname.
    I miss you bad.

  • At 7:40 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Anita, I just keep thinking about that comment where you said you see your mom and dad every morning when you look in the mirror.
    So great.

  • At 10:24 AM, Blogger Jerry said…

    "Since Penelope Noakes of Duppas Hill is gone, there is no one who will ever call me Nellie again."

    An Old Lady

  • At 12:11 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Jerry, what a great sentence. But I can't find the reference. Is it a book, or an "old lady" you know?

  • At 2:17 PM, Blogger Jerry said…

    The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, which W.H.Auden edited with his colleague Louis Kronenberger, contains three aphorisms by himself. Its index has no listings under WHA's name, but I notice that the listings under "Anonymous" are all classified according to nationality (Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Russian), with two exceptions.

    The very last is attributed to "An Old Lady," "Since Penelope Noakes of Duppas Hill is gone, there is no one who will ever call me Nellie again."

    No one knows who "An old lady" was, but the sentence does not sound like it is fiction. Its poignancy reminds me of a woman that used to sit on a wall on the beach in Daytona Beach, Florida.

    In 1963, I was attending Daytona Beach Jr. College and working at a supermarket one block from the beach. During lunch, I would walk down to the beach and I always saw this small thin woman about 80 years old sitting on the wall alone...just looking at the water.

    Daytona was filled with retirees --many of whom were of importance before they were relegated to life's back shelf. I once talked with a woman about 93, whose husband had been a psychoanalyst in Vienna. She had attended grand parties with Freud and Jung.

    But, the woman on the wall always puzzled me...I wondered what she was thinking about. Her youth? Her life back in the world, when she was a relevant and not an unnoticed person in the background. Because I had known loneliness at an early age, I could empathize at some level. But, no one could know just how solitary her life might be.

    I always felt a little heart-sick, seeing her there. But I did not know how to help. I still don't. We may all be there someday...looking out at the horizon...thinking about our life.

    I know how Nellie felt.


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