Although the house smelled of medication, rancid dishrags, baby powder and urine, the remnants of a life well-lived were evident all around. Knick-knacks reflecting good taste and money waited for my dust-cloth. A black grand piano sat in ancient splendor in a darkened and neglected corner of the living room. A pile of dishes and a dirty stovetop didn’t quite hide the name brands that spoke of good breeding. The luxurious carpet hid my footsteps from the reason I entered the house.
My reason certainly wasn’t to get rid of the horrible smells, although that was the source of my income. My reason was not to cut the dust and allow the lights to sparkle off the ornamental decorations in the living room although that was on my to-do list. My reason was not to change the dirty sheets, nor to spray air-freshener, nor to wipe the mirrors, all of which needed it in the worst way.
My first reason sat at the table, silver blue hair matted in the back and smoothed in the front, rocking back and forth, murmuring “No, no, no, no, no, no…no.”
My second reason stood beside her, his own gray hair flopped to the side, nervous but conscientious hands fluttering to help out his adored wife of 60 years. He held out a spoon filled with mush and coaxed her mouth open, “Just one more bite, darlin’….you have to eat.”
“No, no, no, no, no.”
“Come on now, darlin’. Just one more bite and then we’ll go get your hair done. You’ll like that won’t you? You’ve always liked getting your hair done. Come on. One bite, darlin’. You need to eat.”
Moving in a burst of speed, he stuffed the bite in between another set of “no’s.”
Some dribbled down her chin and the discolored dishrag was put into use again, wiping the goo.
The rocking continued, echoing the defiant, “No, no, no, no…No!”
With a series of practiced moves, he finished up the feeding session and turned her wheelchair to the door, which I held open. As he eased his wife into the front seat of their car, he patted her hair as smooth as he could and then loaded the wheelchair into the back. He rounded the car and made to enter. I interrupted as gently as I could, respect in my every thought, “Elder Stevens?”
He looked up from sorting his keys.
“Your hair….” I paused, awkward about how to address an esteemed man such as he, relegated from Professor, Pastor and author to that of caregiver. He just stared at me, not helping me out. “…you might…want to…uh… smooth your hair a bit.”
He reached up with a self-conscious giggle and smoothed his hair. He motioned to his wife, “She would hate that!” He plunked himself into the car with a laugh and sped away at a speed strangely at odds with the slow pace of his household.
I took a deep breath and turned back to the house again.
I held that breath as I raced through the house, throwing curtains wide and slamming every window open. As I drew back the patio door, the fresh breeze swept through the house and I let out my breath in relief. I turned to the living room to start dusting. That job was the most pleasant and it gave the worst parts of the house time to air out.
As I dusted the lovely furniture and ran my cloth over that beautiful grand piano, I pictured Mrs. Stevens the way I’d grown up seeing her; elegantly stepping from their nice car and walking up the front sidewalk with a grace that made her medium form seem tall, her mink stole wrapped around her neck under perfectly styled and blue-tinted hair. Her husband would walk beside her, a gentleman as always, escorting her to their house with a hand at her back and another ready to open her doors. She would sweep inside and soon I would hear the smooth sounds of Mozart drift from their house. Sometimes I would pause while riding my bike and just listen to the flow of lovely notes coming from within my neighbor’s house. .
A stroke had zapped her in the middle of the night about a year and a half ago. My parents had gone over to help, before the ambulance could get there. They told me that it was bad, that Mrs. Stevens might not live. Our family prayed for her regularly over the next few weeks and were delighted when Elder Stevens had informed us of the joyful return of his wife.
I watched as their car pulled up the driveway and he came around to escort his wife to the door. I waited for her stylish appearance. Instead, he pulled out a wheelchair and a small, stooped and misshapen form was lifted out and into the chair. He wheeled her up the sidewalk while she said, “No, no, no, no, no.”
“See?” He beamed, “she’s getting her speech back!”
I was stunned and heartbroken for the loss of such a beautiful lady.
I finished in the living room and moved to their bathroom. That was the worst and I detested cleaning it. I had described it to my teenaged friends and they asked why I worked there and why I didn’t find a better job. I glared at the bathroom and donned my big rubber gloves. Here goes. Ugh.
Why do I do this? I thought to myself.
But as I scrubbed I thought of another moment I had stood, extremely reluctantly, in that same bathroom.
Elder Stevens had called me, “Carol, can you please come over, we’re having some difficulty.” Upon arrival I discovered she was stuck where she had fallen in the bathroom and he couldn’t lift her. It was truly the most uncomfortable moment of my life and I wanted to crawl away in shame. Mrs. Steven’s head shook and she cried, “No, no, no, no, no.” I wanted to cry with her but instead reached out a helping hand. Together we lifted her, as he crooned, “I know Darlin’. I know.” Together we carried her into the bedroom and laid her gently on the bed, where he smoothed her hair and spoke softly to her. “I know, Darlin’. I’m sorry. It’s just Carol. You remember our little neighbor girl, Carol. She just wants to help. It’s OK.”
He still was soothing her with gentle encouraging words as I slipped out the door to take a deep, fresh breath and collapse in my own backyard with tears running down my cheeks.
What kind of life was that? The elegant mink was in the closet, the hair was rarely beautiful and the only thing she could say, after a year and a half of therapy continued to be, “No, no, no, no, no.”
I moved to the kitchen. Yuck. It always smelled because the only time it got thoroughly clean was Thursday, the day I came to clean. Elder Stevens tried his best, but it was all becoming too much for him. He just couldn’t keep up and Thursday was his day to start again. Each week I noticed things were a little worse than the week before and each week I tried to take on more duties. He was tired, careworn, and I assumed he was heartbroken.
I checked the clock and realized I only had about 20 minutes until they would be back from the hairdresser. I liked to be done before they got back because that way they came back to a sparkling fresh house, and, that way I didn’t have to face her helplessness and his concern.
I vacuumed my way down their hall and as always, my eyes were drawn to the pictures on the wall: Elder and Mrs at their wedding, faces filled with hope and joy. The two in the mission field with their son. Mrs. Stevens with her sisters, and Elder Stevens with his parents. Her playing the piano in a glorious concert hall. Their 25th wedding anniversary and a picture of their 50th. Everyone smiling, happy and looking like they belonged together.
Wrapping the cord around the vacuum cleaner I spotted movement out the sliding glass door. It was their car racing back to the house. I zoomed the vacuum into the closet and sprinted through the house slamming windows closed and turning off extra lights. The garage door slid closed as I slipped out the front door. Through the breezeway between house and garage and over the sounds of repeated “no’s” I could hear his gentle voice, “I know Darlin’. You’re tired. It’ll be okay honey. We’ll just get you in the house and you can rest. You look so beautiful with your hair all fixed like you’ve always liked it. But then, you’ve always been beautiful.”
“No, no, no, no, no.”
“Well honey, you say that, but I love you. I’ve always loved you. We’ll get through this, just like we’ve gotten through everything. You’ll feel better as soon as you rest.”
I clicked the gate shut behind me as they came around the corner. Tears filled my eyes. This is why I keep cleaning their house. He doesn’t want a stranger for his Darlin’, and I cannot imagine a more beautiful picture of love. Every time I heard those sweet gentle words I knew I would clean any mess, for however long it was needed, for a couple so in love that the beauty never faded and the love never gave up hope.Family caregiving: when the beauty never fades and love never gives up #nationalfamilycaregivermonth #blessedbutstressed Click To Tweet
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