Right or Happy
The first time I saw Gloria, tears were streaming down her face. Sitting on a bench in the hallway alcove, she poured out her sad story to the three residents gathered around her. My ears picked up the words, “I was dropped off like garbage. Against my will. By my son.”
Long, stringy pieces of gray hair escaped her loose bun as she grew more animated while telling her audience how her daughter and son just didn’t understand her.
Her voice had a distinctly grating tone as more tears flowed and her confusing story continued. This one is going to be a handful, I thought, as I stood from a distance and listened. Stories like hers were compelling, but I was working on “staying in my own yard.” Gloria was none of my business; she was not from my building and not my concern.
The second time I saw her, she was using a walker. The seat she was supposed to sit on when she got tired was piled high with papers, books, and trinkets. A silver rosary swayed from one of the handles and clanked like off-key chimes when she walked.
Gloria seemed to live in the hallways, grabbing anyone who would listen to her story. Yet, no two stories were alike. Her daughter was at fault one day. The next day, it would be her son. God was also somewhere in the mix, and she was mad nobody listened to Him; if they had, she wouldn’t have been dumped here.
Gloria and I ran into one another a lot. A lesson was hiding here. But I’m a slow learner in some areas, and for me, it was easier to ignore the warning and flat out dislike her without asking why.
One Thursday morning, she showed up at the line dancing class I loved.
Two Kleenex boxes joined Gloria’s treasures on her walker seat. I glared at her. She ignored me. I knew she couldn’t line dance. What the hell did she think she was doing? The instructor asked her name and then welcomed her. I seethed inside. I wanted to be in a “normal” class, not share it with a nut case.
During the lessons, I observed Gloria didn’t actually dance but instead sang the songs she knew while her body moved back and forth and the rosary on her walker clinked and clanked, playing a tune of its own. During an ultra-fast dance, Gloria’s head and body moved to the beat. More gray pieces of hair escaped from her lopsided bun as she abandoned her walker and waved her hands high above her head. Damn it, I thought, she’s going to kill herself.
When the last note of the song ended, I exploded. “Gloria, if you’re going to dance, you need to hang on to your walker. You’re going to freakin’ fall.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do; you’re not my mother,” she shouted in her demanding singsong voice. “Now I want to hear that tequila song again. Yoo-hoo, instructor, will you play it next for me?” The teacher smiled, seeming to find her funny and cute. I found nothing cute about her. I only wanted her gone from my class.
Gloria didn’t go away, though. So I entertained another thought. It was a phrase I had picked up in my study of “A Course In Miracles.” “Would you rather be right or happy?” Yes, I thought, I am right; Gloria is in the wrong level of care, she manipulates other people, and she flat out ignores what other people tell her to do. But I can’t fix Gloria’s situation, and how I’m treating her makes me unhappy. So, Jamie, what are you going to do?
I limited my walks through the halls over the next few days and thought about how to make things right within my own being. I needed to set Gloria free, go back to living mentally in my own yard, mind my own business, and be happy, but I was unsure how to make that happen. So, I trusted that I would know what to do when the time was right.
It happened almost two weeks later. I was on my way to our Bistro to get lunch when I heard the familiar clanking of the rosary. For a moment, I considered ducking around the corner before she saw me. Coward, I said to myself. Right or happy? Make your choice now.
We stared at one another for a moment. I swallowed and said, “Gloria, I need to apologize for the way I’ve treated you. You have every right to be who you are…” and before I could say another word, she took her hands off her walker, came towards to me, and surrounded my body in a big hug.
“I knew God would work this out,” she said in her still grating voice. “Now we can be friends.”
My eyes bugged as my jaw dropped. I was speechless. Friends? What a complete 360. I was not sure I wanted to go that far. Let her go, my mind whispered. Friends will be much better than the war we have created between us.
And it was. As the months passed, our interactions were less frequent, but when our paths crossed, I was always introduced to others as her friend. My lesson with Gloria had been learned… well, almost.
It was close to St. Patrick’s Day when I passed by Gloria’s apartment. The words “help me” drifted through the door that was open, just a crack. I stood still to make sure I’d heard right, and as I listened, I heard the same words. Shit. Now what?
Ever so slowly, I opened her door and took in her apartment. It looked like a cyclone had stormed through it.
At the foot of the now open door, Gloria lay backward over a small bench. “Help me,” she yelled. “I can’t get up.”
Oh man, what a mess! Gloria,” I said, “You know I’m not allowed to pick you up. I’m going to call 911 and then get the nurse.”
“No,” she screamed, “you get me up now!”
“I can’t,” I said. “Nurse Brenda will be here soon.”
Soon the ambulance arrived, and I walked back home. But as I approached my apartment, the feeling I was still needed grew in my mind. Making a quick turnaround, I headed back for one more look at Gloria’s apartment. When I got there, I saw Brenda in the hallway in deep conversation with the fire department. The gurney was empty.
Curious, I asked Brenda, “How come they’re not taking her?”
“She refused to go,” said Brenda. “And, as you know, if a resident says they won’t go, we can’t make them.”
“But she needs to go,” I said.
“I know, but…”
“Let me try. Okay?”
“Okay,” Brenda said, shaking her head, “see what you can do.”
I had no idea what I was going to do or say, so I centered myself and went in. Gloria was sitting on a kitchen chair, still in mismatched pajamas at two in the afternoon. She looked like an Irish banshee. A shamrock necklace was wound around her neck, and her hair was a wild mess. For a brief moment, I considered leaving.
Instead, I looked at her straight on. “Hey, kiddo, how’s it going?”
“I fell, and nobody would pick me up.” She whined.
“I know, that must’ve been scary. I hear they want to take you to the hospital to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself.”
“I’m not going,” she said.
“Well, you may want to think about that because the reason I’m here is God just told me to tell you that he thinks you should go to the hospital to get checked out.”
“He did?” she said, with one of the most angelic smiles I’d ever seen.
“Yes, he did,” I said. Then, whispered, “Sorry God, I have no idea where that came from, but really she should go.”
“Well, if God said I should go, I guess I should.”
“You bet,” I said, as I opened the door and said to the EMTs, “She’ s ready. Take her quick before she changes her mind.”
They were stunned, and frankly, so was I. As they transferred Gloria to the gurney, she looked at one of the EMTs and said, “You’re Irish, aren’t you; I can tell. I love the Irish.” And then, God help me, she sang an Irish ditty as they rolled her down the hall and into the waiting ambulance.
I have wondered about these chains of events many times. Would I have been able to make a difference in Gloria’s life that day if I hadn’t decided to change my behavior? Chances are, she would have gotten worse as her stubbornness kept her from seeking help on her own. She was in the hospital for over a week and never recovered enough to return to Independent living.
She is now living in assisted living. I see her occasionally. She remains feisty and always gives staff a run for their money. But every time I see her, I’m glad I decided not to be right but to stay in my own yard and be happy.
Misty Watercolor Memories
The catered care building was my destination that night. I was going to take a quick walk and then come back home. But the universe had something it wanted me to experience. As I passed by their gathering space and looked in the door, I had to stop. DJ, a resident I knew, was sitting erect in her chair. Her hair, the color of silver that needed polishing, dimly shone in the overhead lights. She often wore her bright red bathrobe as a sweater from morning till night. Tonight, I could see she wore clothes that matched. Good for you, DJ. You must be having a stable day.
Sarah, the program aide, was holding a watercolor class for the residents. DJ was among the group. A pan of smeary watercolors and sketch paper sat before each participant. A green potted plant sat in the middle of the table. Residents asked questions, painted, or finished their rough plant sketches.
DJ. sat stone still.
I approached her slowly. “Are you going to paint tonight?”
She stared at me with vacant eyes.
Knowing she had hearing issues, I said louder, “DJ., are you going to paint tonight?” No answer.
I chose two brushes from a nearby can. One long. One short. I stood before her. “Which one do you want?”
A small smile appeared on her face.
“This one,” she said, choosing the shorter of the two brushes.
I looked at her sketch. It reminded me of a preschool child’s drawing. Every line placed on her paper appeared uncontrolled. My heart sank. Damn, Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease.
You see, DJ. had been an accomplished artist. Her exquisite paintings lined her apartment walls. But, now, this disease and the effects of aging left her with little comprehension of what to do with a paintbrush.
“That’s beautiful, DJ.” I said, as I encouraged her to dip her brush into the water and then the paint.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she replied.
Minutes passed. I silently stood next to her.
Her first brush stroke was weak.
“Good,” I said, “keep going.”
Together we dipped the brush back into the water, then the paint. The second and third strokes looked like feathers. Her artist’s hands knew the movements even though her mind did not. The artist she used to be was hidden under the veil of confusion.
Sarah and I praised her, but she wasn’t buying it. The smirk of disbelief crinkled the corners of her mouth.
“It’s not very good,” she said.
“It’s perfect just the way it is, DJ.,” I said.
“Yes,” Sarah added, “I can see that artist is still a part of you.”
And always will be. No matter how insidious this disease was, DJ. would always be an artist. I watched her a while longer, again wondering what goes on behind a brain full of holes.
I thanked Sarah for including DJ. So often, a confused resident is not encouraged to join a group. I knew DJ. would be moving to memory care in two days, where her steady decline would eat away at the rest of the rough scattered sketches on the thin paper of her mind. And as I walked back to my apartment, I wondered again what part of my brain would go if I got this cruel disease. What part of me would be left? Please, God, help me keep the good part. Please.
What I Found
Our prompt that day was to write about things we lost. I, however, chose to write about what I found. It was my fourth and last vision quest, and it hadn’t gone well. From the beginning of the prep work to actually going up on the hill, I had experienced tension with my mentor Carlo, a Lakota Elder. He told me I didn’t have what it took to go up on the hill. He said I wasn’t ready. I probably wasn’t, but I wanted to complete my commitment and be done.
Midafternoon had arrived, and after being in the scorching Missouri sun all morning, I was thankful to see clouds forming. Relief would be coming my way, and I thanked Great Spirit. But as I watched the sky transform from blue to gray to black, I started to feel anxious. Soon the thunder started. There was no visible lightning. All I could hear was angry thunder bouncing off the hills. Quickly I removed my cotton dress and tried to tuck it under the blanket I was sitting on. Soon the sky opened. The rain was not kind. I felt like I was in a car wash with water pelting my sunburned body.
Not knowing what to do, I stood, pulled my second Pendleton blanket over my head, and sat back down. Huddled inside I panicked. Big time! My already frayed nerves envisioned the rain continuing all night. A rush of adrenaline ran through my body. I wanted off the hill right now. I was sure that if I couldn’t leave right then, I would lose my mind. I could see the door to the Psych Ward standing open, waiting for me. I couldn’t breathe as I saw myself walk through the imagined ward door and then heard it close behind me with a loud bang.
I didn’t know what to do with the pent-up energy inside me, so I stuck my head out from my blanket and yelled, “Carlo, come and get me right now! This is crazy. I’ve had enough. I want out of here. Now!
I could hear my words bounce off the hills along with the thunder. I was a hair’s breadth from leaving everything and walking back to camp. My body was on fire with fear, and even with the rain, I felt like I would burn to ash at any moment. The trapped feeling brought on another scream and one more plea to get me off this damn hill right now! But that only made the rain fall harder.
With huge deep breaths, I then changed tactics, stood and called to Creator, “Please help me. I can’t do this anymore.” And no sooner than my words left my mouth the rain started to let up. I felt my breathing returning to normal and took a few more tentative deep breaths. As my racing heart slowed, so did the rain, little by little, by little, until it stopped.
I let my blanket drop to the ground, my shaking naked body now exposed to Creator. I felt like I had come through a second birth or baptism. I wasn’t sure what to say or think. I had nothing left in me to reason with.
During my panic, my dress had not made it under my blanket. I wrung it out, then slipped it over my head and sat back down. I was cold and miserable but still alive and sane.
As I looked over the valley, it took a moment before I believed what I saw. A perfect rainbow filled the whole sky with brilliant colors. And there, right in the middle of the field in front of me, was the end of the rainbow. It was a pure column of mixed light. I was sure that if I left my circle of prayer ties, I would find the pot of gold.
The sky was ablaze with reds and pinks while still containing some black clouds. I could detect a faint yet perfect second rainbow through these clouds.
All was still. Not caring how wet everything was, I sat in awe until the colors faded away as the sun went down over the hilltops. I now knew that I was being cared for, and night was not far off.
It wasn’t long before the flies came in. There were hundreds of them. How they love wet wool! The mosquitoes accompanied them, and they, like the rain, were not kind. As I prayed for patience, I tried to shake the water out of my blankets, but it was hopeless. All I had to sit in was one square foot of dry space where my blanket had been.
So doing the best I could, I folded the semi-wet Pendleton and placed it around the top half of my body. The other wet wool blanket I put around my legs and feet. Laying down, I watched the stars appear. Soon my body started to warm. I thanked Creator. It didn’t matter if the wool was wet or dry; it kept me warm. It wasn’t till every bit of light had been wrung from the daylight that the flies finally left. But the mosquitoes stayed all night.
For a long time, I watched lightning light up the sky. “So, Creator, I said, unless you want a repeat performance of the crazies you were exposed to earlier, please do not let it rain again.” This time she listened.
The night sounds were peaceful. The mists were thick. I soon was lost in a world that I imagine looked like Avalon. I heard the delicate tinkle of bells, followed by the sound of rattles. I somehow knew the Grandmothers were healing me. I imagined their rattles at the top of my head and then rattling up and down my body. Not moving a muscle, I let them continue while breathing in their healing energy. It was so incredibly perfect.
I spent the rest of the night sleeping on and off. Then, getting up when my body cramped, I danced around my circle to bring back the circulation. I would then lay back down when I got too cold, watching the sky for the moon to rise.
It was late rising, which was good because it was not long before the sky started to lighten. Dawn was on its way, and I knew that this, my last Vision Quest, was almost over. And I was oh so glad I hadn’t left, because with the first rays of sun, I also found that I knew, at long last, no matter what life threw at me, if I asked, Creator would always find me, and enfold me in the promise of a rainbow.
Jamie Weaver lives in a studio apartment in an independent living facility in Batavia, Illinois. She belongs to three writing groups and is in the process of writing her memoir Locked in the Psych Ward: A Memoir of Broken Promises and False Confessions.