Harry Brill sometimes opened his door wearing nothing but a frayed button-down shirt, this time one with the thankfully longer tail. He leaned on his walker and squinted through the screen, breath leaking out in a plume of smoke. As Home Care Manager, I’d had very few complaints about Harry besides his sporadic state of undress, but that alone kept many personal care workers at bay. Many quit the first day. I drove twenty miles out to the small, dilapidated trailer park to check up on him. As Home Care Manager I investigated complaints and took action as needed, among other things. Once more I would remind him of appropriate ways to behave with his aides.
He threw me a look of irritation, motioned me in and bumpily turned his walker around to move forward. I let the flimsy screen door slam, not from a fit of rudeness but because he’d once told me it always comforted him to hear it; his wife had let it slam on purpose each time returning home. I waited for him to back up and sit in the frayed blanket-covered easy chair, then sat across from him. I tried to breathe lightly. The air was slimy with smoke and bacon or sausage grease.
“Why gracing me with a visit so soon, Cynthia?” he asked with a barely disguised growl.
“Good morning, Harry, where are your pants today?”
He rubbed his sparse white hair. “Maybe in the bathroom. Sometimes they just stay put.”
“So I understand. But they need to come along with you to the living room and front door, remember?”
He gave me that look that said even dolts knew that but he’d consider it further.
“Ain’t always easy to get ’em back up, as you know.”
“That’s why you have help.”
“They ain’t always here, are they?” He pulled another cigarette out of his shirt pocket and stuck it behind his ear. “But now you’re here you can help.”
“Of course, Harry, as always.”
I entered the bathroom, retrieved crumpled black sweatpants from the bathroom floor. Harry pushed the walker aside so I could better pull them over his purplish feet, up over rough shins and knobby knees toward his hips.
“Your turn, hike them up the best you can. Got a hold of them now? That’s it. You’re better able when sitting here, I think. Maybe the back of the sturdy chair helps.”
“Yep, I guess, got ‘er done.” He grunted as I sank into the couch. I opened a folder of notes on clients I’d be visiting, taking my time.
“It’s hardly worth the effort some days, if you want to know. And my legs ain’t too bad-looking, are they? Just a little weak-kneed.”
“So you say. Now we can better chat. How is that Georgia working out three days a week?”
He leaned forward. “Well, she tattled on me, I see, not so sure. But she can cook the out of beef stew and chicken wings and fried taters. And she’s real clean, likes to polish.”
The main room didn’t look any different than before Georgia started working there. It was in colorful disarray: a few shoe boxes of snapshots and cards, old magazines and mail teetering, discarded cigarette packages. Two used bowls with big spoons along with mugs were on a side table where dust gently accumulated. The lamp bulb was dim but I make out the oval mirror behind Harry, a smudged, streaked glass. It wasn’t at all good for his allergies but the smoke was likely thicker than dust.
“She was last here Friday, Harry. That’s three days. The dust still gathers in random piles– if you even look for it.”
He sniffed. “Well, last week Georgia brought her son and we played instead.”
“Ah.” I wrote a line or two. Georgia and Terrance/confer with Boss Marcia– or not? “What did you play?”
“What d’ya think? Checkers! I beat that squirt and her. But nice boy, maybe five, minds his mom.”
I considered Harry as he looked out the door, then took the mashed cigarette out, lit it with his red Bic lighter. Inhaled, coughed, inhaled again. He was eighty and had had both hips replaced, the last surgery not as successful. His one living daughter was in Texas. His nephew came around every couple of months with extra food and a hundred for utilities, sometimes stayed for a quick chat. The nephew cared but he didn’t have time; he had his own life, as he reminded her when she called with an update.
Harry had had five personal care aides in the past seven months. If it wasn’t his smoking, it was his pants left behind; if it wasn’t surliness, it was his Meals on Wheels deliveries spoiling on the counter.
“I don’t know. I want you to stay here, too, but you sometimes get in our way…we have to have a sound strategy.”
“Yeah, guess that’s so.”
The cigarette was held up in front of him between index finger and thumb. He studied it as if it held an answer, then took a long drag. I waited from him to exhale; sometimes he’d hold it in an extra few seconds as if challenging me to say something. I didn’t. I knew he’d smoke until he left us behind. He had told me time and time again that his father and grandfather had smoked right up until ages 90 and 94. “It’s a genetic thing,” he’d say. “We got stronger lungs than most, nicotine sets with us just fine.”This despite his worsening cough for which he would not see a doctor.
He forced out the smoke between pursed lips, hacked once. “But what d’ya expect? I’m used to my own ways.”
“True. Well, do you want help or do you want something else?”
He narrowed his rheumy eyes at me. “What’s the ‘else’ part?” He stubbed out the cigarette. “Not my nephew again…”
I took a deep breath. I had not been looking forward to this moment. “A referral to other housing. That retirement place he had mentioned. He’s got the money to help out, as you know.”
Harry lay his crooked palm against his chest. “It’ll kill me. He’s always sticking his nose where it don’t need to be stuck… but I won’t leave. Georgia is pretty good, we can make do. I’ll keep my pants handier, I’ll figure out how to get ’em on, I’ll try to smoke less, I’ll eat those–”
“Hang on. You’ll smoke less? Is she that good?”
“By Jiminy, she’s great!” he said, mugging surprise at his confession. “She can cook, she can play a couple of games, she has a kid who laughs–what more could I want?” He shook his head and his brow wrinkled more. “But, that’s right, she can’t clean worth a damn! Maybe we can get someone else in for that if it gets too bad, huh? Gotta keep the nephew happy, okay?”
He tossed me a look. There was a glimpse of his sometimes hidden good nature beneath the bluster and pout. His color, I noticed, was better than last month. He sat up straighter with bony shoulders thrust back as if to convince me of his vitality. The truth was I already knew he was more hearty than most his age. That’s one reason I was fighting so hard for him to just stay put. Marcia was getting on me since we’d had complaints that he was not keeping clean enough, too often without pants, difficult to manage, whatever that meant. He took only a blood pressure pill and one for his stomach, something for pain on the few days or nights his hip felt too bad. His mind was working overtime from what I could tell. I saw no reason to recommend pushing him out his door but Marcia saw things in a different light.
“Georgia was well recommended by another client before… she… passed.” I looked right at him to see if that bothered him but he just nodded. “She’s a hard worker, but I didn’t know she didn’t clean well. That’s sort of important, Harry, hygienic conditions. You seem to manage, anyway, but she needs to step it up.”
He nodded again. “I do manage. I’m getting old, Cynthia, I don’t need perfection. But I’ll talk to her and Terrance, they’ll help me out.”
I considered if I should tell him her son was actually her grandson but did not. I had met the young one; he was big hearted, spirited but well-behaved. I knew the rules, but Terrance liked the old folks, Georgia said. I had told her to not mention her grandson going with her. I knew it might cost me a reprimand or worse but it just made sense. Most older adults enjoyed kids around a bit. It was a win-win as I saw it; I was trying to develop more inter-generational events at the senior center.
“Okay. I’ll talk to Georgia about a few things. Maybe she can come earlier in the day, get you dressed, make breakfast, too. We’ll see how you both do the next three months. And then I’ll be back, if not before.”
“Now don’t go hard on her.” His voice lost its edge and I paused. “You have kids, Cynthia?”
I put my folders into my briefcase. “I do. Five.”
“By Jiminy, lady, that’s a bunch of crazy kittens to let loose! How you manage all this?”
“I muddle my way through, Harry, just like everybody does.” I sighed to emphasize. “We each have our work cut out, right?”
“Well, you seem to do okay, I’ll say that. Maybe I like your stopping by.”
“You might? Harry, watch it now, you’ll go dewy-eyed on me.”
Harry picked up his crumpled cigarette pack and pulled out another cigarette, lit it with his trusty Bic and puffed. “Worse can happen to a man, I guess.”
“But you really need to keep those pants on if you can, Harry, it’s not so much to ask. It can scare people sometimes.”
“It does? Huh. I’ll do my best, that’s all I can do, they just sometimes slip away. But Georgia–will she come back?”
“I imagine so. I’ll call with our decisions about everything soon.”
When I stood up, he did, too, slow but certain, then shuffled behind me to the battered screen door. I pushed it open, took in a chest full of fresh air but carefully so he wouldn’t notice how much I needed to breathe it in. I needed to quit smoking, myself; the thought of being his age and still smoking like a chimney, playing with fate, was too much to bear.
I stepped out to the weathered landing of the wooden front steps, surveyed the trailer park slumped in another day’s slow ending. Half a dozen of them, all filled with older people, with their travails, longings and keepsakes. I knew them all and would be back.
His face on the other side of the half-opened screen brightened as I turned to say goodbye.
“‘Til next time, Cynthia.”
I ran down the steps and got in my car, started the engine and slowly started down the semi-circular dirt driveway. Harry was still at the door, waving. I stuck my hand out the window and gave a neat wave back. Afternoon light slipped through oak tree branches and made a shining path through fallen leaves. The scruffy, narrow yard lit up in a soft blaze of color. Harry’s door closed with an agreeable bang.
Notes on this post:
You may think this fiction, but it is loosely based on one of many real experiences; it fulfills criteria of (quite) creative non-fiction. That’s how I’ve chosen to categorize it, anyway, at this time. I have and shall change all names (most I have forgotten) and identifying characteristics. I’ve created scenarios that are amalgams of a few certain years and places that made up my experience. The elderly people I served are long gone now; it’s been thirty years.
I was employed by a large senior services center in a suburb of Detroit for a few years. Starting as a part-time Adult Care Aide, I progressed to Home Care Assistant and then became Manager. It was an even bigger job than I had thought. There were 350 homebound clients on average who required hot meals delivered as well as personal care services. All this so they could live and, perhaps, die in their own homes as they desired. I assessed and checked in on them, meditated family conflicts and provided resources. I hired, trained and managed 150 aides. Though it was a demanding job, I had a passion for it and missed it after moving to a new city where I began a different career. If there had been a comparable position, I would have continued in the field of geriatrics. (The need for income was paramount and addictions and mental health services offered more abundant work at the time. That turned out fine, too.)
I was told the place I once worked is no more, undoubtedly replaced by a larger building and better diversified programs overseen by county and state. But I hope to write of more personal experiences. The center was a unique place, and being of service for so many in need–who yet had much to offer, too–made a profound impact on my thinking and on my living.