I’m not a saint.
I’m a wife and a mom, and I hate to admit I’m anything less than Mother Teresa, but yeah, self-sacrificing, stoic, patient, and charitable are not me. I’m also a writer and maybe that’s the problem. At our best, writers are anti-social. That’s us sitting in the farthest corner of a room at any kind of gathering that has more than one person. At our worst, we’re just downright cranky as hell. J.D. Salinger used to lock himself away from his family while he wrote in a bunker. Only someone who isn’t a writer is shocked to hear that. I, on the other hand, understand completely and wonder if our backyard is big enough to accommodate one.
I love my family, but I also love putting words to paper, and sometimes those two worlds collide. While I do the mandatory labor – cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I do it at the barest minimum. I’m content being the C- student, unless we’re having company over and then, like an undergrad illicitly buying a Moby Dick essay online, I pay someone to do the cleaning for me. And as for taking care of everyone’s needs: I nurture when it’s needed, and I hope to God it’s not needed for long.
Unfortunately, a hip operation and rehab takes months.
That’s what my dear husband went through in December, and as we are approaching February, he’s still on the mend. He’s graduated from physical therapy in the home to three days a week every week at a physical rehab center. So in addition to all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, picking up of groceries (which is a real challenge for a recovering agoraphobic terrified of Albertsons), and doctor appointments, I now have to be a chauffeur to and from physical therapy. The only writing that’s getting done by me are To Do lists.
Yes, I know – My dear husband is the one who is going through all of the pain from the operation and the hard work involved in getting better. I’m just the wife and caregiver. But you know how marathoners talk about “hitting the wall” at mile 20. I hit the wall yesterday.
We had rehab yesterday and also a doctor’s appointment. That meant one hour at one location waiting in the car, and another hour at another location waiting. That was after a morning of doing my version of grocery shopping: Quickly running into Albertson’s (at daybreak when no one is there) to grab the first eight items I saw, and then, rushing to the checkout (to avoid a panic attack), and out to the car where I then drove to Walgreens to pick up paper towels, toilet paper, milk, and cereal, before going to a little butcher shop to buy meat for the week. Small stores and short errands are the only way I can manage grocery shopping on my own, so yep, I was ready for a nap by 1 pm.
Which is exactly the hour when we had to drive to physical therapy.
I had just enough time to pack up my iPad, research books, and work-in-progress pages before driving to the mall (taking side streets since I still don’t drive freeways) and dropping off my husband at the physical therapy place at the mall. I had every intention of attempting an hour of responsibility-free writing, with the hope that I wasn’t too tired to nod off mid-sentence. What I needed was a strong hot cup of tea for vitality, and with that in mind, I put the car in reverse, and drove off for the exit of the mall and the closest Coffee Bean & Tea.
That’s when I saw her.
What I noticed first was the mechanized wheelchair, and the fact that it was just sitting there in the middle of the road. Then, I noticed the plastic bags filled with God-knows-what that had fallen off of her lap and onto the ground at her feet. I couldn’t tell how old the woman was – only that she was bending over and trying to gather up her bags, and she wasn’t having much luck at all. She’d grab one bag, and another bag would fall, and she’d start the process all over again. All the time while just sitting there in the middle of the road right in front of the exit of the mall. Cars were whizzing by her, and really, I ask you: How could I not stop?
I didn’t want to stop. I wanted that cup of tea. I wanted to write! I had planned on writing. I’m a writer – I need to write. If I don’t write, God help you if you have the misfortune of being around me. I’m moody. I sulk. I get angry. I roar. The last thing in the world I wanted was to encounter a woman in her late 60s (being closer now I could tell this) who was juggling her personal belongings in shopping bags while sitting in a broken down wheelchair. The exit was just in front of me. All I had to do was do as the other cars were doing – drive around her. It would have been so simple. Just pass her by, and then, I could have my day back.
“Can I help you with something?”
I asked her, after rolling down the window in a momentary lapse of self-survival.
Any decent person might have answered me, “No, I’m fine. Go do some writing, why don’t you? You look like you might be a writer – a damn fine one too! Go put those words of yours on paper, not just for you, but for all of mankind.”
But no, this woman didn’t say that to me. She had the audacity to say, “I think I do need some help.”
Well, now what?
The thing about offering help to someone is that you should have some idea how you can help. Maybe I was expecting another car to stop, and another citizen to lead the way. But as far as I could see, everyone else was content to just drive around us. “Oh look, honey, there’s a woman who needs help in a wheelchair. We should probably stop and help…Nope, there’s a lady doing that now. Let’s just go on with our day. Hey, let’s go get some coffee and write!”
I was in this scene all by myself.
Well, not really. The wheelchair lady was in it too.
But I was clearly the person who needed to start the ball rolling. So, I did what I was certain I knew how to do best: I parked the car. After that, I just ad-libbed, going moment by moment.
“So…uh….what’s the problem?
Now, the two of us stood (well, she was sitting) in the middle of the road at the exit of the mall, and I tried not to think that this was how people get run over: by offering to help. When you don’t help, a Honda can’t hit you. That’s just a fact.
And then I noticed all of her plastic bags.
They were crammed with empty tupperware. Call me shallow, but I did not want to lose my life for Tupperware. I needed to speed this encounter along.
“Where do you live? Can I take you home?”
She looked at me.
“I don’t even know you…How can I trust you?”
Well, that makes two of us, lady.
This woman with hair that hasn’t been combed in weeks, wearing not a blush of make-up (God forbid), dressed in ancient peddle-pushers, a stained sweat shirt, and old Keds is asking me a question I should be asking her. It’s a good question. It’s the perfect question to be asking at the moment. But why is it the woman who looks like a bag lady is the one asking it of the woman who looks like a soccer mom from the suburbs?
And how the hell do I prove to her she can trust me?
I pointed to my nine-year-old Camry with the 2008 Hillary bumper sticker.
“That’s my car,” I say proudly. Meaning what exactly?! That I voted so I’m trustworthy?! “With the Hillary sticker!” I add, as if she hasn’t seen it and that my support for a woman candidate only proves my solidarity to sisterhood. So yes, Sister, trust away.
The bag lady looks at me like I’m crazy.
I actually feel a little crazy at the moment.
But clearly, this woman is desperate and decides to take a chance on me.
“I don’t live too far – You can follow me home,” she says and hands me an armful of Tupperware.
Putting her wheelchair in gear, she leads me over to my car – obviously, taking charge because I seem like an idiot. I open my trunk where I deposit her many plastic bags, and she gives me directions to her house, “It’s past the condominiums.”
O-Kay. What condominiums?
“Is there a street name?” I ask.
“Walnut,” she tells me and is about to leave.
“By the condominiums!”
I’m thinking I better take charge of the adult reins here because she’s about to disappear down Walnut street (a very long street, I might add), and I’ll never see her again, and end up with more Tupperware than I could ever use.
“How about I write down my cell phone number, and I give it to you, and that way if I get lost, you can call me?” I suggest.
This makes perfect sense to me. But to this woman, not so much. “Ho-kay,” she tells me with a little laugh, looking at me like I’m a bit desperate for her taste. She just needs to get her Tupperware home, not make a new friend. Humoring me, she takes my cell number I’ve scribbled on a sheet from a notepad, and when I insist, she reluctantly gives me her address that I write down.
Obviously, this will be the only writing I do today.
Negotiations accomplished, I jump into the car, ready for this new adventure, and put the key in the ignition, turning the engine on.
That’s when there is a tap at my back window.
“Your trunk is still open,” she tells me.
And I can see in her eyes that my stupidity has now won her trust.
By the time I’m out of the car, and slamming down the trunk, the woman and her wheelchair are roaring down the road to the mall exit, and crossing the street against the light in the middle of the block. By the time I get my car in gear and follow her route, I’ve lost sight of her and only praying that I haven’t hallucinated this entire event.
I find Walnut and go block by block looking for the numbers on the street signs, and of course in typical Santa Barbara suburban fashion there are no numbers. I have almost reached the dead end of the street when my cell phone rings.
“I know. I’m lost,” I tell her without needing to hear her voice.
Of course, she expected this. We’re old friends by now.
She’s standing on the sidewalk…well, sitting in her wheelchair on the sidewalk, so it’s not that big of a challenge to find her house. She disappears down a little driveway and I follow tentatively behind her, parking the car.
While I unload the trunk of Tupperware, she heads into her house, and tells me to follow.
It’s an old house, and it probably hasn’t seen a paint brush since the last century. The front of it is overgrown with bushes and shrubs – a wooden fence holding in the backyard has a couple of broken slats, and a huge tree trying to bust out over it. There is a small hand-crafted plywood ramp leading up to the open front door, and I hesitate only slightly when I walk up it and enter.
It’s too late to turn back now.
Someone has to carry home the Tupperware.
The lady’s name is Loretta and she lives with her father, Charles. He looks like he’ll never see 90 again, closer to 100 maybe. He’s in a wheelchair too, and he wears an old faded baseball cap. He meets me in the oversized living room that looks more like a rumpus room – no carpet, no lights on, and just about everything they own sitting out in the open. Dishes, pots and pans, half-finished little jobs still hanging around on top of a formica kitchen table, the couch, an armchair, and a kitchen counter with a box of wine as its centerpiece with a Dixie cup poised underneath the spout.
Always at the ready, I guess.
Charles just smiles at me but never talks.
Loretta does, non-stop.
Out of the motorized wheelchair, she hobbles around now,
“I don’t really need that wheelchair – It’s my father’s, not mine. I hurt my ankle in the garden so it was easier to take the chair to the mall. I don’t need it. You like avocados?”
How can I say no?
“I do,” I tell her.
Charles keeps smiling.
Loretta grabs up one of her endless plastic bags that seem to be everywhere, and goes into an enclosed porch, talking non-stop as she gathers up the fruit.
“This is the good stuff, not from the store. Grown here, right off the tree. The best!”
This is the Goleta Valley, and all of this land used to have fruit trees on it. But the track homes and condos around this old house have replaced the walnut, avocado, and orange trees that once grew here.
“These are for you,” Loretta says, as she hobbles over to me and holds out the plastic Ralph’s bag now filled with six avocados. “One or two of them are ready to eat. You can have them tonight.”
I thanked her as she thanked me.
And as I left that house and was heading back to my car, I could hear Loretta say to Charles, in a voice loud enough for a man his age to hear her: “She’s a nice lady!”
It took me a moment to realize she meant me.
I never got a chance to get myself that cup of tea yesterday. It’s exhausting when you stop your life to help somebody. So I went back to the car and took a nap. And you know, of course, I didn’t do any writing at all the rest of the day. But I made a point to cut open one of those avocados later that night, and slice it up really pretty on a plate. We ate it for dinner and I thought of Loretta and Charles.
And she was right.
It was the sweetest avocado I’ve ever had.