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Sep 25, 2009

My Little Old Lady

Family Med is winding down, but before I can lay it to rest I have to complete a project. The goal is to learn about community resources that might help patients as well as how patients’ illnesses affect their daily lives. I was interested and excited about this project at the beginning of the month, but I will admit to dreading the assignment as the rotation wore on. The project requires the student to pick a patient that we have seen in clinic and visit them at their house, then find community resources that might be helpful to that patient, visit the resource in person, and then do a 20 minute presentation, 5 page paper, and a PowerPoint presentation about the whole thing. As I said, I’ve been dreading it.

It took me three tries to get someone to agree to let me visit them at home. The first two were not rude about it, but they were worried enough about inviting a stranger in to decline. I am intimidating, apparently, and I scare little old ladies. The third little old lady that I asked said that it was okay for me to come and that she’d make me lunch. It was my turn to decline, but I was thinking that I might have won the jackpot. I started referring to her as my little old lady.

I went to visit my little old lady today.

She lives almost an hour from me, way outside the city. The drive today was cold and wet, but beautiful in the way that makes you take in great heaps of air to clear out all the funk that builds up after breathing recycled office air for too long. My little old lady lives on a lake and so the first thing we did when I arrived was to walk down to the beach. She told me about how they first found the property, more than 40 years ago now, and that she and her husband joked that they would die before they ever left. And now, she said, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

Entering her tiny house is like walking into a consignment shop above a hospital supply place. Every available inch is filled with a ceramic bowl or a needlepoint flower picture or a crocheted doily with a vase full of silk flowers on top. The air is stale and warm and smells of medicine and hospital equipment. The refrigerator is not quite as tall as I am and her bright green kitchen is accented with pictures of young people sporting clothes that have not been fashionable for almost thirty years.

“Well, this is it,” she said, motioning around with an air of humility to conceal her obvious pride.

“It’s lovely.”

She beamed.

We walked around her home. She pointed out her favorite collected items and described the artists who made the items or the friends who gave her the treasures. At first glance, it was nothing more than a cheap, dated decorative bowl, but when she picked up with such tenderness, showed me the “symbol of the Chinese man who made it” on the bottom, and told me misty-eyed stories of the people she has encountered in her life, it was impossible to see her treasures as anything else.

In her small kitchen, we talked about her life, her health, her family. She is incurably optimistic, though she allows herself exactly one hour each day to be cranky. “Keeps things interesting and other people on their toes.” This makes a lot of sense to me.

Days of Our Lives
blared at us from the other room. Her husband hasn’t left the house in years and always leaves the TV on and up. She says she’s grown immune to the sounds, but she is embarrassed that he won’t turn it off for company. He won’t even get out of bed, in fact, or wake up. I wondered if I should check his pulse. Who is this person? Who behaves like that?

I asked her about him, how they met, how their life got to where it is now. She got misty-eyed again and hobbled over to caress an ordinary kitchen canister with blue and yellow flowers on it. She blushed as she told me how he gave it to her on their second date after they’d spent much of their first date in a pawn shop looking at bowls and mugs. She maintains that, aside from the gift of her son, it was the single most thoughtful and special gift she has ever received. As for their current state, she says it happened over many decades. Her face hardened as she spoke and her voice got sharper. They live totally separate lives and go for days without seeing each other or speaking.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s another one of my treasures. Another piece collecting dust on the shelf, only interesting when I remember him and what he meant when I got him.” She seemed surprised at this moment of clarity and took a moment to look out the window and collect herself.

Just then, a young deer awkwardly scrambled across her yard just in front of our window. Though my little old lady is more than 70 years old and nearly crippled with arthritis on this rainy day, she positively sprang from her seat and glued herself to the glass, her nose actually pressed hard enough to alter the sound of her voice.

“Do you see him?” she squawked, her voice a good octave higher than it had been a moment before, “Do you see the deer? We don’t get too many. Oh, look it’s a baby! Where is your mama, little deer? Ha, you dear little deer!” She moved over to keep him in her view. “Let’s go into the sitting room and see if we can watch him!”

And she hopped off her seat and hurried off through her tiny, claustrophobic house of treasures in search of the sight of a joyous baby deer through her window.

Aside from the gift of my own son, it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

1 Readers rock!:

Sarah said...

You don't have to love it, or even like it much, but that is part of why I want to do family practice. I'm sorry it has been a bad month for you.