I called 911 this evening. It wasn’t the first or the most terrifying time I’ve had to dial those digits, but it was part of an event that we’re still puzzling over in my home.
It started like this. The landscapers who were digging up our front yard to fix the warped and cracked drip system rang the bell. “Sabes la mujer aqui? No entendemos lo que quiere.”
An elderly lady was standing there, squinting against the harsh 105F light, swaying just slightly.
“Can I help you?” My husband asked, with concern.
The lady gestured vaguely. “Yes, I’m from the corner house. It’s terribly hot, terribly hot there. I need to call the rescue squad so they can come pick me up.”
Amado ushered her in and called me over. The lady stumbled at the doorstep, and I gave her my arm to hoist her up; with my help she shuffled slowly to an armchair and sat down.
The landscapers were watching curiously as we shut the door. I need to get her water, I thought furiously. Maybe she’s having heatstroke. Should I call 911?
I told her, “My name’s Jennifer. I’m going to get you some water. Would you like some water?”
“Yes!” she said with a small fading smile, sinking her head back onto the chair. “I’m just so HOT. It’s so HOT in there. The AC has been off for days, you know. Days. It’s simply unbearable. We just can’t take it anymore. I need to call the rescue squad, you know. Can you help me call the rescue squad? They shouldn’t be allowed to leave it like that. We’re suffering in there.”
She didn’t tell me her name, but I wanted to make sure she was OK first. I’d ask again later, I thought.
I got her a tall glass of water with ice and dragged the piano bench over as a makeshift table for her to rest the cup. She set it down without taking a sip.
“Drink some water,” I urged, nervously, “Your body will need it to rehydrate.” I pulled up a dining chair to sit near her. It was like a surreal coffee date with a friend.
“Just so HOT,” she repeated, waving her hand in front of her face. She was wearing a thing that I assumed would be called a “housecoat” in another time; it was a heavy, long brocaded kind of robe. She had orthopedic soft shoes on her feet and compression socks on her thick ankles.
She finally sipped at the water, but set it back down instantly.
I said, “So, you live at the corner house? And the AC has been off for…several days now?”
She darted her eyes to the side and her answer was vague. “I help out, you know, and all of us in there — that are more of them IN there, you know, they’re all hot. It shouldn’t be allowed.”
I still didn’t understand. I DID know that the corner house was an in-home nursing care facility, licensed to care for elderly patients, but I’d never met any of them and didn’t know the owner. This woman seemed very disoriented, but it seemed odd that a home-care facility would be without AC for days. Were they between patients, refurbishing, and this woman was one of the workers cleaning/fixing it up? Had she gotten heatstroke? Was she actually a patient (client?) there who was confused?
“So you’re a care worker at that house?” I asked her.
“Oh,” she answered vaguely, her eyes moving around again, “I did have a certificate in that kind of field. Oh, my! This is strange, isn’t it. You, having to nurse me, the real nurse!”
“But are there other people in that hot house?” I persisted. “Should they all come here to wait while the AC is fixed? Are they OK?”
“If I could just call my husband,” she faltered. “But I don’t know his number. But he’s with the squad. He can help. But he’s away, you know, somewhere in Chandler. He’s away. I really shouldn’t take up your time. And we don’t want them to fill your home!”
“You are welcome here as long as you need to stay,” I said firmly. “It’s no bother! Please, do you need water? Are you faint or dizzy? I think I should call the paramedics, just to check you out.”
“Well, I AM a heart patient,” she said, somewhat proudly.
She picked up the phone (which I’d brought her earlier, thinking she wanted to call her husband), and she looked at it curiously. She pushed a random number.
“Let me do that,” I said gently, and dialed it. 911.
The voice on the other end was prompt, efficient, and connected me to the fire department. She told me to put wet washcloths on the woman’s face and arms and blow a fan at her to cool her down.
“How old are you?” I asked my elderly guest apologetically, then gestured at the phone: “They want to know.”
She frowned, and paused. “Well? Just let’s say…I’m in my mid 40′s.” She didn’t seem to be joking.
While we waited, I asked her, “Is your heart racing? Are you feeling OK?”
She looked up at me, surprised, and gave me her wrist to check. “You can check my pulse,” she said agreeably. “But I do think it is really all right at this time. I could tell, you know, if were too high.”
I felt her pulse. It was strong and regular, not too fast. Her skin was pale, papery and extremely soft.
My daughter came up. “You can stay as long as you like,” she informed our guest. “I’m a girl scout and I like to help.”
“Oh! I used to be a troop leader!” our guest exclaimed. “My daughter is the kind of person who thinks that you teach by doing, you know? So she brings the kids to VISIT the firetrucks, not just to read about them. Oh, I just can’t get my words out.” She twisted her mouth. Please, I thought, please let her not be having a stroke. Let the EMT’s come now!
As I was asking her about her children, the doorbell rang. “Thank God,” I thought, expecting to see the paramedics. But instead there was a short, harried looking woman who peered past me. “You have the old woman here?” she demanded in a half-apologetic way, craning her neck to see into my living room. “Oh, Thank God. She got out. I usually lock the door, but I was in the bathroom and she snuck out. She can do the lock. M—-!” she yelled fiercely to the elderly woman. “Let’s GO! RIGHT NOW!”
It was like she was shouting at a bad dog. I flinched.
M—- (now I knew her name!) twisted her mouth down and clutched the arms of the chair.
“I’m not going back in there,” she said stubbornly.
“Ah, she told us the AC is out?” I asked. “She was complaining of heatstroke? I don’t think she should go back until the paramedics check her out.”
The shorter woman scoffed and snorted and waved her hand dismissively at me. She spoke in partially broken English. “She fine. She just old and she is, you know,” and she made a motion at her head, indicating that M was “nutso.”
Then she came into the house and demanded, “M—-! GET up right now. Or do you want me to call POLICE?” This seemed to be a threat that worked on M, because M sat up and picked up her purse, slowly but surely.
“M! Do it! Right now! Get over here!”
“Just wait a minute,” I said firmly. “Nobody is calling the police. She’s in MY house right now, and she’s staying right here until the EMTs check her out. I’m sorry, but I’m going to insist on it.”
“She’s FINE,” the short woman told me crossly. “She need to go back with me. She snuck out, that’s all. She’s fine.”
This was getting even more surreal. I stuck my hand out. “I’m Jennifer,” I said pointedly. She introduced herself quickly and said, “M—. PICK UP YOUR BAG. We GOING.”
I noticed that M’s mesh bag had a small purse and a roll of toilet paper in it, among other things.
“Your husband there!” the caretaker said enticingly to M. “He’s waiting for you. He’s wondering where you are!”
“My husband? He is there?” M was docile now, and allowed the caretaker to pull her up and escort her out the front door.
“Yes, yes, your husband. He’s waiting for you. He’s waiting.”
“No!” I said firmly, although they were now both ignoring me. My husband and the landscapers were watching as they shuffled slowly down the driveway and I followed, saying, “Just stay and get checked out, OK?” At that moment, the fire truck pulled up.
Thank God for real this time, I breathed to myself, and ran up to the first fireman. “I’m Jennifer,” I said for the third time in 15 minutes. “This is the elderly neighbor I called about. She’s complaining about heatstroke symptoms, but the caretaker says she is just confused. But can you please check her out anyway to make sure she’s OK?”
The caretaker wanted none of it, but the firefighters all walked with them back to the home. It was a strange slow procession; the caretaker and the elderly lady in her white robe and orthopedic shoes, her bag of toilet paper; then five or six firefighters clustered around.
Neighbors were peering out of doorways.
A few minutes later, the firefighters returned.
“She’s OK,” the told me. “The AC is on. It’s actually pretty cold in there. It looks like she’s has Alzheimer’s and she lives there.”
We thanked them and they drove off, and now we’re sitting here trying to explain to my daughter what it means to have Alzheimer’s, and NO, she’s not going to get it, and NO, we’re not going to get that way, yes, we promise, never.
And this is a big part of the puzzle that I struggle with: How is is possible that I can promise my daughter something so ephemeral and impossible? Why do I do it? Why do I need to protect her from worry? I know why; it’s because her anxiety is strong and fierce and she just needs to hear it over and over again: We’re OK. We’re alive. We’re strong. We are OK. Right now, at least, we are OK.
And we spent much time discussing the puzzle of poor M, and whether — even if she has Alzheimer’s — she’s somehow deeply unhappy with the place she lives, so depressed and horrified that she had to escape, complaining of the heat, asking for the rescue squad to save her? (“M—! Do I need to call the police? Let’s go NOW!”) Even if you forget the words, moment to moment, surely the emotion stays, somehow? M was unhappy, that I could tell.
Here’s the worst puzzle of all: How can it be that life is so interesting and maybe even exquisite, and then it can end up like this: You, shuffling along in confusion with swollen ankles and a bag with withered toilet paper, escaping the comfortable hell you call home and dreaming of your husband and kids, going into strangers’ homes and begging them to call the rescue squad to save you?
Of course my husband and I spent much of the evening barking to each other with great mirth, “M—! Get over here!” and “M—-! Damn it! Get off the computer!” or “M—! I’m going to call the fucking police if you don’t get over here right now!” Because, you know, we’re assholes, and we like to make things even worse so we can laugh at them harder.
And you have to understand that we are not mocking M. We are horrified and sad that M is the way she is right now. We are mocking – God, I don’t know. That’s another part of the puzzle I mentioned at the beginning of this entry – why do genuinely sad things also offer up so much opportunity for humor?
I think we are mocking the caretaker’s behavior ( so not-gentle! So NOT what you’d want for your mom or family member with Alzheimer’s!), and probably also rudely thumbing our noses at fate, at death, at our future selves who might also be found someday to be shuffling in the 115 degree heat in orthopedic socks, befuddled, sad, pathetic. We were trying to reassert our shaky dominance over life itself, to show ourselves that we’re OK. We’re here. We’re not that way, not yet, not for a long time…we still can laugh and joke together. We’re OK.
M, I’m sorry that you’re stuck in an inferno of your own decomposing brain. I’m sorry that you feel the desperate need to escape, to run. I wish your husband really was there to greet you. I wish you were cajoled into leaving gently, not forced into compliance like a mutt.
And to my sweet daughter: We will take care of you. We will take care of ourselves, and do everything in our power to stay as healthy and strong as we can, for as long as we possibly can. I make you promises I have no control of sometimes, but this I do promise and I really can do it: I will try to make your life amazing as long as I’m in it; full of fun and laughter and brightness. While we are together, we will soak up as much of life as we can. I’m not perfect, and there will be bad moments too, but I’ll do my best to make it fun.
I don’t know what the future brings, and I shudder to think of the worst possibilities, but while we are here, we will make the best of it.
And to you, my readers: DAMN IT ALL, do I have to call the police on you? If you’re not doing it right now, enjoy some time with your family before your brain rots, too. GET GOING. Do you hear me? I MEAN IT. Do it RIGHT NOW. They’re waiting.
(Ok, I know it’s bad, but we’re really having fun with this. “Damn it all! M! Brush your F***king teeth already!” and “M! Let’s get going!” and some other I can’t even mention. Because you have to. You have to find fun where you can, while you can. I think that’s my motto these days. DAMN IT ALL, M, you have fun, too!)