We adopted each other. We met through a car sale. Barbara called on a Sunday about 5 years ago to inquire about a little Subaru wagon we had for sale. She wanted me to drive the car over to her house and, at first, I thought this was a little presumptuous until she explained that she was in a wheelchair. She was strong and purposeful and told me that she’d been driving an Expedition and now that she was recovering from foot problems (the staff at the hospital had let her develop terrible ulcers on her heels to the point of not being able to walk) she needed a vehicle that was easy to slide into from her wheelchair! I drove it over and we met on Easter Sunday. She was a sweet little old lady, 80 years old and pretty spry for being wheelchair bound. She rolled herself up to the driver’s side and in she went – this lady was determined and she knew what she wanted. She told me she wanted the car and wrote a check for the deposit.
Over the next few years, we grew close and we “adopted” her as our grandmother. I’d visit her, bring her dinners and roses and we’d talk while she sat in her big blue recliner. Barbara had terrible emphysema and did her “breathing treatments” while I’d visit. She’d laugh and say it was her “peace pipe” as she puffed away on the tube that put out a white steam. I don’t know how much it helped, but she seemed to breathe a little easier afterward. Her lungs were damaged after all those years of cigarettes. Back in the 50’s, her doctor recommended she start smoking to help calm her nerves over the stress of having an over-active child. She’d stopped years ago, but, of course, it was too late. Even with her limitations, Barbara had the spirit of a champion. She was always dressed and sharp, hair fixed, jewelry and shoes to match. She had boxes of dancing shoes stacked neatly in her closet. She told me how she and her late husband loved to go dancing. I can still hear her gravely voice when she’d answer the telephone – always properly addressing the caller with Good Morning, Good Afternoon, or Good Evening – she was a business woman, too and knew how to handle herself in all situations.
A year or so ago, Barbara went to live with her daughter. They felt she shouldn’t be alone and she probably shouldn’t have, but I saw her spirit wane as she was unable to make her way into her own kitchen to fix herself a brandy and water at 6:00 sharp or climb up in that big Expedition to go grocery shopping for the specials of the week or get a big crock pot of soup going that she’d eat for a week. She was independent and she was strong – and when she left, all that changed. Now, dinner was at 5:00 and everyone went to bed by 8. She was left alone to sit in front of the television. She couldn’t watch her beloved “Sacramento Kings” because they didn’t get the sports channel. She loved watching the games. We’d talk to each other now and again, but not often enough. She asked us to come visit, but we didn’t. We planned to go – but for one reason or another, we didn’t. She always told us how she loved and missed us and how special we were to her. I knew she was lonely there. Conversations were always strained and difficult due to her breathing and the situation.
Weeks went by, and I dialed her up to see how things were going. She’d had a stroke and was in the hospital. They said it was a mild stroke, that the prognosis was good and we felt pretty good about it. Two or three weeks went by with no word, so one evening as we sat on our patio enjoying the early evening breeze, having a little libation, we dialed her up. Her son-in-law answered her cell phone and when I asked how Barbara was, he said, in a most matter-of fact tone, We buried her on Saturday. My heart nearly stopped. No one had called us. First I was numb, then the tears began to spill out. I thought about her there at her house, in her own space, fixing her own cocktails and dinners and breakfast; she was alone but she was doing her best. Her strength came from her independence and when it was taken away, her purpose went too.
We drove by her house yesterday. It sits quietly on a shady street, waiting for her to come home. Her mulberry tree stands solidly in the front lawn, healthy and green. Her American Beauty roses are blooming next to the front sidewalk. On her porch sat an asparagus fern that her mother had brought from the Midwest some 40 years before. It was a bit brown and spider webs had started to creep in. We put it in the back of our truck and brought it home. Kevin hosed it off and repaired the little table it sat on. This morning when I went out to our patio, I looked at it, sitting happily in the shade, clean and watered, new shoots starting to show, and I smiled. I imagined Barbara with lungs full of air, dancing in the arms of her beloved Tiny who she lost many years too soon.