When I squeezed into a parking spot at the post office the other week, I noticed an elderly woman beside me at the rear of her car. A hatchback. As I got out to see if she needed assistance, I heard another woman’s voice.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” the voice said.
“I need to get my walker out,” the elder woman said. She was bent over in the shape of an upside down J so that her head pointed down toward the ground. I knew immediately what had happened. Spinal stenosis had caused her to become a hunchback. Her silver hair was cut in a bob, and held away from her face with a barrette on one side.
“I can help you,” the voice said. I could see now that it was coming from a younger woman. She wore a sweatshirt with the word Thunderbolts emblazoned across the front. I stood by and watched as she opened the hatchback, removed a flattened three-wheeled walker, set it on the ground and unfolded it.
“There,” she said. “You’re all set.”
“Thank you SO much,” the older woman said.
“Have you got your keys?” Ms Thunderbolts queried in a gentle tone, neither patronizing nor saccharin. “I wouldn’t want you to get locked out.” I liked that she used ‘I’ and not ‘we.’ It was respectful.
The older woman checked her purse, which she had placed in a pouch on the walker. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve got my keys.”
That was smart, I thought to myself, I might not have had the foresight to ask about the keys. The young woman closed the hatch.
“Do you want me to wait for you?”
“That’s very kind, but no. I have to do an address change and it will take time. Thanks again.”
I hadn’t said anything, just quietly observed the work of a Good Samaritan who clearly had the situation under control. No need for me to interfere. Once the elderly woman looked ready, Ms Thunderbolts and I started walking toward the post office. I was a few feet in front of her. When we were out of earshot of the older woman, who was proceeding at a snail’s pace behind us, I turned to Ms Thunderbolts.
“Thank you,” I said. “That was a nice thing to do.”
“My parents raised me right,” she replied.
“They sure did,” I agreed.
I went into the mailboxes section of the twin-roomed post office and got my mail. Two parcel notices. I needed to go into the retail section to pick them up. But as I approached the door, the elderly woman was coming into the building. I knew she wanted to do an address change, which meant she needed to go where I was heading. There was already one person in there and only two people are allowed at a time. I opened the door for her and let her go in. Then I went outside to wait for the other person to leave so I could collect my parcels. As I stood out on the street, Ms Thunderbolts exited from the mailboxes.
“I have to go and pick up my daughter,” she said. “But I’m worried about that lady putting her walker back in her car. It’s heavy.”
“I’ll wait for her,” I said.
“Great.” She had taken off her mask and I could see the relief on her face.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“And you have a daughter?”
“How old is she?”
“Eight,” she said. “I had her when I was seventeen.”
Seventeen. A baby having a baby.
The sky was overcast. It looked like it might rain. But the air was warm. Or warm-ish for early October. Twenty-six-year-old Ms Thunderbolts and I stood about eight feet and forty years apart, two women connected through helping another, sharing a bit of ourselves on Mill Street.
“What’s your name?” I was already planning to write a story as a way to recognize her and her thoughtfulness.
“Meghan,” she said. And then in a rush of words: “I’m going to college next year. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m excited about going to college,” Meghan repeated. “I have my own house cleaning business, but it’s not enough for me. So I’m going to college.”
“What will you take?”
“Early childhood education.” She grinned, straightened up a bit, looked me straight in the eye.
“Good for you,” I smiled, thinking she would make a fantastic elder care professional.
“I’ve gotta pick up my daughter now,” she said and started briskly back to her car. “Bye.”
The person who had been in the retail section of the post office when I had opened the door for the elderly woman came out. I went in, and up to the left-hand counter. A male clerk was helping the elderly woman with her address change at the right-hand counter. I couldn’t help but hear their exchange.
“What’s your address now?” the clerk asked.
“We live on Corkery Road,” the woman said. Her voice was soft and sweet. She had said ‘we’ not ‘I’. She’s not living alone, I wonder if her husband is still alive…?
Corkery Road is out of town. A country road with farms and single-family dwellings. Beautiful homes with gardens and fields and open spaces and kilometres between them.
The clerk asked the woman if she had some identification with her existing address on it. She fished around in her purse, withdrew her wallet, took out a card and placed it on the counter. She had to reach up a little because of her hunched back.
“Thank you,” the clerk was polite. “And what will your new address be?”
“Ontario Seniors’ Manor,” she said. “In Carleton Place,”
My chest tightened. My heart sank. I knew what this meant. She and her husband, or whomever she was living with, had to leave their home. She was moving to a seniors’ residence or long-term care facility of some kind. A warehouse for older people. A jail of sorts. My mom lived in one for four years. I visited her every day. It was like watching her being tortured to death.
I was flooded with compassion for this woman I didn’t know standing a few feet away changing her address. I felt as if I might cry.
“Susan Macaulay?” The clerk questioned from behind a plexiglass shield designed to protect us from each other. I turned my attention from the older woman to the clerk. She held two boxes, stacked, in her hands.
“That’s me,” I smiled. She put the boxes on the counter. Slid them under the plexiglass.
I thanked her and made my way out through the glass doors, one that led from the retail section to the mailboxes and the other from the mailboxes to the exterior of the post office. I stopped and waited outside. A couple of minutes later, I saw the front of the woman’s walker edging toward the first door. I went in and opened it for her. When she was safely through, I opened the next one. She shuffled across its threshold into the grey afternoon.
“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was clear despite her mask and the fact that her face pointed earthward instead of skyward. “It’s lovely of you to help me.”
“It’s my pleasure. Really.” We paused to take off our masks. I put mine in my pocket, she shoved hers in her purse. We made our way towards the parking lot behind the building.
“I’m sorry you have to move,” I said as we walked side by side at a quarter of my normal pace.
“My husband’s got Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a very difficult illness,” she said matter of fact, no rancour, no regret.
“So is spinal stenosis,” I replied. She didn’t respond to that.
“He used to be a marathon runner. Now he leaves the house and goes out on the road and I can’t catch him,” she said, again matter of fact.
Of course she couldn’t catch him, she couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without support. Spinal stenosis is painful and debilitating. It’s sad about her husband, but somebody should be taking care of her. Helping her.
“I love my home. I’m going to miss it terribly. But we have to move.”
I didn’t tell her my mom had also lived with Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t mention that I understood how hard it is to care for someone who lives with dementia, or that care partners often die from the stress long before their loved one succumbs to a secondary effect of whatever disease has caused the dementia. I didn’t say how much my mother wanted to stay in her own home too, how she could have were it not for my brother’s greed, how she suffered neglect and abuse that I was powerless to stop.
I just said, “I know.”
I hope this woman and her husband will be better cared for than my mother was. But if they are, it will be an exception to a cruel reality. Our Canadian elder care system is broken, and everyone involved — from workers to residents — suffers the soul-destroying results every day.
“I love your sweater,” she said. “It looks so soft and fluffy. It makes me want to reach out and touch it.” But she couldn’t reach out because she couldn’t let go of her walker.
“And the colour is beautiful. Purple. I love purple.”
When she turned her head toward me to deliver the compliment, I could see she had lipstick on – a light shade of pink. It made me think of spring. Her eyes were blue and clear. She’s beautiful.
“I’ll put your walker in the car if you like,” I said as we approached her hatchback.
“That would be wonderful.”
I put my boxes on top of my car and came back to lift the hatch door on hers. She let go of the walker with her left hand, and clutched the back of the car. Then she did the same with her right. I folded the walker and hoisted it into the vehicle. Thunderbolts Meghan had been right. I was heavy. Surprisingly so. How could she ever get this in and out of the car on her own?
“How’s that?” I asked once the walker was inside with the wheels facing me.
“Perfect,” she said. “Now wait a minute. I just have to get around and get a hold of something.”
She released her left hand, felt along the side of the car until she found the back door handle. She grabbed it. Pulled herself forward and then did the same with her right hand.
I shut the hatch, skirted her and opened the front door. A small, shaggy black dog with a pink collar sat on the passenger seat. She was a bit bigger than my mother’s cat Pia Roma had been. They wouldn’t let Mom bring Pia into the residence when she went there. Even though I begged them to.
The little black dog looked up at me and cocked her head slightly. She didn’t bark.
“Good girl,” I whispered to her. Her ears perked up a bit more and she dipped her head to the other side.
Meanwhile, the woman stretched herself along the side of the car, like a climber on a rock face, until she reached me. She rotated her body counter clockwise and crumpled into the driver’s seat.
“Oof,” she said, expelling a puff of air through pursed lips. “There we are.” She dragged her
legs into the car. Painstakingly. First the right. Then the left. Another small exhalation of breath.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh yes,” she replied. “I’m fine. Thanks again for helping me.”
I wondered how she could see over the steering wheel and the dash to drive. I shut the door. Watched as she put her seat belt on.
I went around the rear of her car to mine, retrieved my boxes from the roof and got in. I tugged my own seat belt across my chest and waist, slipped the key into the ignition and pushed a button on the left armrest. The window slid down. I swivelled my head to the left. The window on her passenger’s side was open a crack. Probably for the benefit of the dog while she was alone in the car.
The woman twisted slightly. I saw her right shoulder and upper arm move. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but I knew. She’s patting the dog on the head. Scratching behind her ear. Her lips moved. She’s talking to the dog. My ears couldn’t hear; but my heart could.
“You’re a good girl. Yes, you are. Such a good girl. What would I do without you?”
© 2021 Susan Macaulay. I invite you to share my poetry and posts widely, but please do not reprint, reblog or copy and paste them in their entirety without my permission. Thank you.