Several years ago, I met Jean, an 80-year-old woman with a sweet tooth.
On my first day of work we exchanged about 30 seconds of introduction before I prepared her for an acupuncture appointment. Five feet nine inches tall and a little rotund, she carried a palpable presence. I learned she had driven for sport her whole life, lured in by the freedom of the road at the wheel of her Aston Martin. She made the rules. But a stroke on the right side of her body had left her legs unable to feel the pressure of the gas and break pedals, and her fingers could no longer firmly grasp the steering wheel.
I tried to reconcile this strong-willed Jean, a picture of independence, with the one that was next to me that morning. Her beautiful car was dusted over in the garage, and I was the one doing her driving. I learned that for this woman, maintaining dignity was not always easy. Life was about remembering and relinquishing pieces of her identity.
I remember the day I walked through her back porch and into her bedroom. I closed the door behind me and found the room empty. My heart started to race as my eyes scanned the space and found no signs of Jean. When I heard a murmur rise from behind the bed, my panic eased. “Over here,” she moaned, barely audible. I hopped over the bed and discovered Jean — completely tangled in her blankets, her head barely peeking out atop of the mess. She was exhausted, having attempted to get herself up for seven hours. She didn’t have the emotional stamina to be embarrassed. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into as I labored to get her back on steady ground.
Then there were days I thought I was dealing with a con artist. After minutes of reminding her that another cookie was probably not the best idea, she would send me on an errand. I would come back into the room to find her nibbling, covers pulled up to her chin. A second cookie was nestled on top of the covers, near her knee.
“You caught me,” she would chirp as I smiled and shook my head.
Jean loved chocolate. Two large squares a day, in addition to one ice cream cone, M&Ms, and, occasionally her pièce de résistance, chocolate pudding (always with whipped cream). To this day I’m not sure she wasn’t a diabetic.
One afternoon, about four months after initial meeting, she persuaded me to look through her closet. She told me stories about each item as I laid it out for her on the bed. Matching outfits to her stories became a delightful puzzle. Then she asked me to try something on to see if it would fit me. She was sure I was the size she used to be and they would look great on me. Instinctively, I gathered a few outfits and turned into the bathroom. As I reached to close the door, I heard Jean say, “What are you doing?” I cracked the door and looked out at her, simply stating that I was changing clothes. I watched her brows furrow and her eyes narrow, and in those moments I understood her question. I was giving myself privacy with a woman who had none of her own. There was nothing private about Jean’s daily life, from her correspondence to her bedside commode visits. It was not a choice she had made to be more open, it was simply her reality.
So I opened up the door, and we had a fabulous fashion show for the next hour. When it was over, I attempted to make the gap of interdependence a little easier. It wasn’t glamorous. I helped give her a shower. I helped her get into her pajamas and then into the bed.
For someone who measures vulnerability not by situations, but who lives it daily, I suppose things like this were fairly normal. There wasn’t a choice to react any other way. Jean’s vulnerability shaped her life in primary ways, and it enabled me to see her story as a window into what surrender must be like. There was a certain strength, defiance, resignation. She challenged me to bring dignity to the messy areas of life. I learned when to speak and when to be silent. I learned how little I knew about caring for a whole person whose pieces weren’t ordered as neatly as they used to fit. But every day when I left her house for the safety and comfort of my own independence, I remembered that these are the sorts of positions Jesus seemed eager to affirm on a regular basis.
Aubrie Hills is an aspiring Thanatologist, a seeker of friendships with the oldest of old and a life story drafter in training. She attempts to create safe space for hard conversations to flourish so that real life can be experienced and real pain can be honored. She lives in Maryland with her dreamy husband Joshua and a little cat named Carl who is rather adept at the game of fetch.”
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