by Colleen Sutherland
My friends advised me to find some volunteer work. It would take my mind off my troubles.
“How is volunteering going to help me find a job or a new husband? How is it going to pay for my insurance or pay the bills?”
“It probably won't, but it will give you something to think about while you are looking,” Agnes said. “Look for something close to your apartment so you won't use any money on gas. And you could use the exercise. You're getting a bit plump, dear. Volunteering is better than staying home moping, watching The View and hoping things will get better.”
Instead, I walked down to the Portland shore to watch fishermen and feed the seagulls. I wouldn't be living in that neighborhood much longer. The alimony checks wouldn't be enough to pay for even the cheapest apartment. I might have to leave Portland, Oregon forever and how I loved it.
On the way home, I passed Tendercare, a high end nursing home two blocks away from my condo. Volunteer work, I thought and right over the harbor with a great view. I walked in and asked about volunteering. The next day I was working in activities, with Marsha, the director, telling me what to do.
It wasn't much. All I had to do was push residents around in their wheelchairs and help set up chairs for programs, usually some school kids singing off key, but what can you expect? Sometimes I helped with jigsaw puzzles, read newspapers or books, or just listened to the same stories over and over.
When I was pushing patients, or residents as the staff said I should call them, I noticed a tall old man with a full head of gray hair talking to an old woman, his wife, I thought. Usually they were in the foyer on a love seat, but if the weather was nice, he took her hand and led her out to the flower garden overlooking a grassy slope leading down to the ocean. He reached into the bag he always had with him and pulled out a brush. He undid her long braid and brushed her hair in long strokes. Her face wrinkled up in a smile of pure delight.
“That's my girl,” he said. “That's my sweet girl.”
She never said a word.
They never came into the activities department, so I didn't know much about them but finally I asked whether I should talk to them when a little country and western band came to play without much of an audience. Some of the groups were so bad nursing homes were the only place they could play, and even then, residents would refuse to get out of their beds to listen.
“No, leave them alone,” Marsha, the activity director said. “Aaron and Sheila are in their own little world. Besides, they have problems enough of their own.”
“Aaron and Sheila aren't married and that created a big kerfluffle when the new CEO started here a month ago.”
“What's the problem?”
When the new director arrived, she went over the paperwork for each resident. Sheila had never signed any authorization for visitors. Not leaving well enough alone, the CEO called the family about Aaron, and asked them to sign a visitor permission slip on her behalf.
“The same rules that apply to gay and lesbian couples applies to people that aren't married. Aaron has no right to see her unless the family says he can."
At first Sheila's son Arthur, who lived in the Midwest, said no visiting rights. Aaron pointed out that he was paying for Sheila's care, not Arthur. Arthur said there were cheaper facilities that Medicare and Medicaid would cover.
The CEO was frantically trying to work something out, knowing that she would have to explain to the board how she lost a high paying resident with a private room. "Aaron is here now, but there's a possibility he won't be able to visit her unless this is worked out.”
As Arthur started to check out other facilities and finding out his mother's bank account was non-existent, he began to realize that it was going to cost him more money than he wanted to spend. Still he caused problems. He said he would take care of things next time he could come to Portland, but that never happened.
“He's just being mean. He doesn't like Aaron and he wants to make him miserable.” Marsha said. The matter dragged on.
Tendercare started a daycare that fall in a vacant wing. I applied for the job and suddenly, everything was better for me. I worked all day as an assistant. From time to time, I brought the pre-schoolers through the nursing home to talk to the “grandmas and grandpas” as I explained to the children so they wouldn't be nervous about people staring blankly at them or worse, grabbing them.
Aaron always had some toys in his bag for them to play with, never anything noisy, just things they could scoot around the floor. Sheila ignored them.
I still volunteered in the activity department on weekends. I began to chat with them then or at least to Aaron. Sheila never said a word. As we talked, Aaron took the barrettes out of her hair and brushed it with gentle hands. “That's my girl,” he said and kissed her cheek. She smiled, a smile that widened until her teeth sparkled. Once they fell out and he carefully replaced them in her mouth for her. “Isn't my girl pretty today?” He patted her hand and held it tight.
The family argument continued, he told me. He couldn't understand it. Even if the family didn't like him, couldn't they do what was good for Sheila? He visited everyday but Arthur lived in the Midwest and almost never came to Portland to see his mother. There were flowers on Mother's Day, a new bathrobe at Christmas and hand lotion for her birthday. If her grandchildren happened to be passing through Portland, there might even be a visit.
Arthur talked about moving her to Milwaukee to “be near her grandchildren.”
“She doesn't even know her grandchildren any more,” Aaron said. “But if they move her, I'll move, too. I'll have to sell up here and sneak into wherever they put her, but I'll be there for her.”
Each day, Aaron was there pampering and petting her. He reminded her of the days they had spent together in a garden much like the one they sat in. He talked to her about trips they had taken, about fishing down at the harbor, about their history together. When I joined them, he told me what a beauty she was when he met her, how full of joy and mischief. He talked about their sex life, and got a bit too explicit for my taste, but I kept coming back. Sheila never said anything.
When he left for the day, he gave her a kiss and said, “Goodbye, my sweet girl,” as if he might never see her again.
The negotiations dragged on, Arthur being mean, Aaron being patient, and Sheila oblivious to it all.
Then I had an inspiration. “Marsha, why not make Aaron a volunteer?”
“That might work,” she said. She talked it over with the CEO who said he would have to work with other residents, too, and she wasn't sure he would be willing to do that. But of course, he was. He wheeled Sheila to the activities department every day and sat there making conversation with the occupants as if Sheila were contributing, too. He included her in any talks about the old days, always rubbing her back or brushing her hair as he talked. I saw them every Saturday and Sunday after that.
Then one warm spring Sunday, he wasn't there.
“Where's Aaron?” I asked.
“He won't be visiting Sheila any more. His landlord called. He died in his sleep,” Marsha said.
Sheila was sitting on an overstuffed couch in the lounge, staring at the wall. Her teeth had fallen out on to her lap. I put them back in her mouth, but I don't think she noticed.
“Then Sheila will be leaving, too, I suppose.” I said.
“She stays. Aaron told me about his will last week. It says that all his money goes to pay for her care here. Anything that's left goes for Alzheimer research.”
The director said Sheila wouldn't notice that he was gone, but there were never any smiles after that.
I've watched royal weddings, romantic movies and young couples walking hand in hand on beaches but I never knew what true love was until I saw an eighty year old man brushing the hair of a woman who didn't know his name.
“That's my girl,” he said.