Once Mary knew where I lived, it wasn’t long before I noticed her walking past my house more often, that blue eyeshadow and a puffy red jacket which came down to her knees. Her hat was bright robin’s egg blue and crocheted like something you’d find in a hospital gift shop. I’m sure she bought it to match her make-up which only consisted of the eyeshadow. She wore light-colored jeans that were old and soft with elastic at the waist. On appearance alone, she was hard to miss.
Whenever Mary happened to catch me outside, she’d want to talk. What better place to yell back and forth than over the chainlink fence?
“Oh, haha! It’s you! Haha! How are you?” she’d say as if it always was a surprise. The fence came up to her armpits. She’d place one hand over the other on the chainlink and lean forward, as if to hear me better even though I knew she couldn’t.
“I’m good, Mary. How are you?”
“This is where you live,” she ignored (or didn’t hear) my question. “I keep an eye on it. I keep an eye on it for you.” She pointed at me. I couldn’t tell if she was keeping an eye on my house or on me in particular.
“Yeah, so what was that red truck doing last night? What was the red truck doing here? This morning too. And this weekend. You have a boyfriend? You have a boyfriend, Jill?”
“Oh, you don’t want to talk about it, haha. Okay, well I’ll keep an eye on the truck. I’ll keep an eye on it. You have a boyfriend?”
“I know, I know! Ah-haha!” she’d laugh and pat the air with her hand like my response was exactly what she expected. “You don’t want to tell me. Well, you must be happy.”
She’d wave her hand more as if to tell me everything was okay and continued walking down the sidewalk.
After I visited Mary the first time, I realized we’d need more time to make some phone calls about a medical bill problem she was having. Somehow Mary had two identical bills for a visit in January — one from the hospital and the other from the hospital’s radiology group. Both were for the entire cost of a mammogram and neither one showed that the claim had been sent to Medicare. I walked down to Mary’s house one morning to help her call the hospital’s billing department.
I could tell from how Mary paid the bills that her husband had managed the household finances in their marriage. Mary knew how to write the checks and had a simple budget but in terms of trouble-shooting when there were problems, she was in over her head now. It wasn’t something she was likely to learn at this point in her life either. In social work, we sometimes call this a “severe division of labor”. Mary’s role was cleaning and cooking; her husband took care of the yard and finances. When he died, Mary didn’t have the skills to do more than make sure the bills were paid. Now I was trying to explain to the person on the phone why I was helping Mary.
“Mary,” I said very loudly. “This woman wants to know if I can have permission to talk about your bills with her.”
“What?!” she crawked. I pointed at the bill.
“Can I talk with this woman about your bill?”
“Of course! I thought that’s what you were here for!”
“Mary,” I pointed at my cell phone. “You have to TELL her so that she can talk to me or otherwise she’s not allowed to.”
Mary leaned forward and placed the side of her face on my cell phone as if she was talking on it, even though I had it on speaker phone.
“Hello?! Hello?” I could hear the woman speaking loudly but Mary couldn’t.
“You can talk to her. I hired her to help me…” Mary looked at me. “Well, I guess I didn’t hire you because you’re free! Hahahaha!”
Between keeping Mary on track and explaining to the representative that Mary had two bills for the same scan, we were on the phone for 45 minutes. The women at the hospital agreed to look into the situation. Mary was in the backroom of the house trying to find something.
“Mary,” I called. “I have to go back to work.” I made a note on her bills that the hospital would call me at work once they figured out where the error happened.
Mary came back into the room quite proud of herself and holding something in a white plastic grocery bag.
“Here! This is for helping me. This is for helping me out!” She handed it to me. It was a large bottle of Dove body wash.
“Aw, Mary, thank you.” We were hired with state and federal dollars, though, which meant no taking gifts from taxpayers though. “I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to take gifts.”
“Take it,” she said and pushed it into my arms. “Take it; it’s for you.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m not allowed to.”
“Take it!” she demanded. “Take it!” And then Mary shoved the body wash into me as hard as she could with one hand and pushed me with the other. I realized that I was being shoved by a woman in her 80’s.
“Okay!” I finally said. She’d pushed me back a few steps. “Thank you.”
Mary smiled out from underneath her blue eyeshadow as if nothing had happened.
“Have a good day!”
In social work, people come in and out of your life. Even the most favorite clients only stay for a period of time and then they leave. You learn to hold it loosely. Still, there’s a lightness that you feel when people you’ve connected with appear in your life again. In the case of Mary, it had been awhile since I’d seen her in the neighborhood. I thought of her often and knew she hadn’t moved because her son still drove his Corvette too fast down our street. I checked the obituaries just in case she’d died without me knowing it. Then in the early summer, I received a phone call.
“Jill? Jill? I’m in a bad way. A bad way, Jill!” I knew immediately from the pitch of her tone that it was Mary. She sounded distressed.
“What’s going on, Mary?” I tried to make my voice loud so she could hear me.
“Well, I had to go to the hospital…the hospital, Jill!”
“I knew you went in January — did you have to go since then?” She told me the story.
“I was really tired at the pancake feed. You know the pancake feed?” Mary had been a dearly loved volunteer at the Masonic Lodge for years. “I was cleaning dishes, so many dishes. They made me sit in a chair. Then I just passed out!”
“Oh no! Did they call an ambulance?”
“Yeah, they took me to the emergency room. I was there for three or four hours, Jill….three or four HOURS!”
“Did they figure out what was wrong?” I asked. Poor Mary!
“Yeah. I had an infection in my eucharist! My eucharist, Jill!”
I was so thankful she was alright but I couldn’t keep from smiling.
“Yeah,” she sighed. She was still trying to wrap her head around the situation.
“Maybe your uterus?”
“That’s what I said! I said that: I had an infection in my eucharist!”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m feeling better but my yard is a mess.”
“Can your son help?” I asked, knowing that her son was not particularly helpful.
“He just ignores me.”
“Well, should we see if we can find a volunteer for you?” I could hear Mary getting tired but was glad she thought to check in with me.
“This lady stopped by and said she could help,” Mary told me.
“Do you trust her?”
“Well, yeah, but I couldn’t understand her. I couldn’t understand her, Jill….”
“You couldn’t understand her?”
“She spoke Mexican!”
I couldn’t tell if she couldn’t hear me or just was in too much distress to listen.
“Okay, but Mary, do you think she can help you?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Okay, will you call me if that doesn’t work for you?”
“Okay, take care of yourself, Mary. Call if you need anything.”
And I knew she would.