It all started with Vera. I met her in August of 2004 on a lunch break walk. She was pulling out weeds out of the sidewalk cracks. I joked about my own weedy sidewalks and she lit up and began talking to me without as much as a pause between sentences. Eventually I spoke up, “I need to get back to work.”
She declared, “I like you. You come back and visit me.”
I thought about it. “Okay.” And I made it a thing. Every Tuesday on my lunch break I visited Vera.
I didn’t realize it was dementia, but I could tell she had a memory problem. She couldn’t remember my name was Meghan, but she knew me as “the girl who visits on Tuesdays.” Her memory may have been questionable, but her stories and humor were top. She repeated herself, yet her stories sometimes changed and morphed. One time she waxed nostalgic about her deceased husband, how good he was to her. The next visit, she told me about the time he told her he was leaving her for a younger and more beautiful woman. The next day “that S.O.B. dropped dead,” she laughed. “Serves him right.”
She worried her children were going to put her into a nursing home. She didn’t want to leave her precious dogs. She loved those two fat stinky dogs. The house reeked of them.
It's Election Day.
I want to make sure Vera has a ride to the polls, so I drive instead of walk. I’m not sure why I think a visit to the polls will fit into my 30-minute lunch break, but, none-the-less, I drive. At her front door the stink is overpowering. Rugs, smeared in dog poop, hang on the porch railings. Inside, the smell isn’t much better. Vera is a bit of wreck herself, pacing and fretting. She’s anxious her daughter is going to put her in a home. I get her to settle down and chat for a while. She doesn’t need a ride to the polls; her daughter will take her later. Then she tells me her daughter wants to meet me. I figure this meeting will happen some other day. The phone rings. When Vera hangs up, she tells me her daughter is on the way over to meet me. I check my watch and realize I need to leave in ten minutes to get back to work. My coworkers need lunch breaks too. I wait. I chat.
Finally, I tell Vera, “I’ve got to get back to work.” I’m about to get in the car when Vera pokes her head out window and shouts, “My daughter is on the phone. She wants to talk to you.” I go back inside. I pick up the phone in the kitchen.
Will you be able to come back?
Right off the bat the daughter says, “Look, I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but I feed my mother.” There’s a harsh anxiety in her voice, “Look in the freezer. There is food in the freezer.”
“Whoa. I’m sure you feed you mother.”
I realize she thinks I’m a social worker. Vera has probably told her I work at the hospital around the corner, which I do, but I take care of babies. So I tell her my story, “I work at the daycare center at Beaumont and one day on my lunch break I met your mother while I was walking around the neighborhood. I’ve been visiting with her once a week. She seems to like my company.”
The daughter switches gears. “There are things missing. The maid has said there is jewelry missing from the bedroom upstairs.”
Stunned. Silence. How do I even respond to such a statement? I tell her, “This is the first time I’ve even been in the kitchen, never mind the upstairs.” I am clueless as to how to defend myself. All I can say is, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I repeat it three times, maybe even four or five times, like some dummy, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
We’re at a standstill. I have to get back to work. Before I go, Vera grabs my arm and asks, “Will you be able to come back and visit me?”
“Of course.” I give her a hug goodbye.
When I walk in the door at the daycare center two days later my boss Annie calls me into her office. “I got a call from human resources over at the hospital. They got a call from a woman claiming that a ‘Maggie’ who works here has been stealing from her mother. The maid said there’s jewelry missing. I talked with your co-workers and they told me you’d been visiting an elderly woman in the neighborhood.” But my boss knows my character. She knows this accusation is preposterous. She tells me, “I said to human resources, ‘Why don’t you ask the maid where the jewelry is.’” We shake our heads at this crazy situation. Then I ask Annie if she has the daughter’s phone number.
The first thing I do is call my lawyer friend Ed for advice. Ed tells me I need to put the power back into this woman’s hands. Right now she thinks of me as a threat, someone out preying on little old ladies.
I may be a daycare worker, but I work two jobs, and my other occupation is acting. Like any good actress, I prepare. I write a script. I do vocal warm-ups. I dial the daughter’s number and get her voicemail. I leave a message. I reassure her I will not visit her mother without her permission. I suggest we talk or meet so she can get to know me.
The next day I return to work and Annie relays yet another message from human resources: “Please stop harassing me and my mother. If I find out you have been anywhere near our property again I will have you arrested. By the way, your message was garbled.”
Garbled! I know how to enunciate. I used a landline. Garbled my a**.
She loved me, even if she couldn’t remember my name.
It was a huge defeat. I realized she was probably more threatened by my positive relationship with her demented mother than any concern for family jewels. Others have suggested Vera might have liked me enough to write me into her will and that scared the daughter too. I think it had a lot to do with the frustrating dynamic that sets in between aging parents and their children, the flip in caretaking roles, the crazy challenges of dementia. These days, I have a little more sympathy for Vera’s daughter and everything she must have been dealing with at the time. I hope she was able to connect with her mother in a loving way before the end.
Every day is a blessing and a wonder, to sit with them and hopefully absorb some of the wisdom they’ve gained.
I had only spent a mere 20 minutes per week with Vera for three months. She loved me, even if she couldn’t remember my name. About a month after Election Day, despite the warning to never go near her home, I dared to ride my bike down Vera’s street. She was out for a walk around the block, something we used to do together. I was glad to see they hadn’t actualized her biggest fear yet: the nursing home. I didn’t stop and she didn’t see me. I never saw her again.
Whatever motivated the daughter’s fears is still just a guess. As for my part, I had lost a friend. Though I didn’t know it yet, I also discovered my future.
Five years later I started interviewing elders and recording their stories. It is the work I still do today. Every day is a blessing and a wonder, to sit with them and hopefully absorb some of the wisdom they’ve gained. But the times I enjoy the most are the times when their humor comes through, when they laugh at life and all its seriousness.