Last Thursday, November 11, death claimed my neighbor and good friend. I first met Thelma in the early 1980’s but had known of her long before that time. Thelma, at that point in time, had a reputation for rescuing stray animals and for owning not one but two Lincoln Continentals. People thought of her as being a bit eccentric, I thought of her as being content to beat to the sound of her drum. I knew she had four sons and I also knew she had been widowed but for a long time that was the extent of my knowledge of Thelma and her life.
Thelma married “Slim” and moved into the house next door to my family. Slim had been my friend since my family moved into this neighborhood when I was just eleven years-old. His wife, Geraldine, had provided me with loving guidance when my mother first developed cancer in 1974. I visited Slim and Geraldine on a daily basis and they helped me to find the strength I needed to cope with my mother’s illness and all of the responsibilities that had fallen on my young shoulders. My brother and I filled a space in their lives they had never filled with children of their own. They made me laugh, they made me think things through, and they helped me find faith. When Geraldine died a few years later after a long battle with lung cancer I felt an emptiness I could not explain in words.
Thelma was an intensely private person by nature but gradually she started to toss snow balls at my young boys, talk with me across the fence, and visit with us on holidays and special occasions. Slowly, oh, so slowly, she allowed me into her private world. I eventually realized that Thelma feared having anyone discover her vulnerabilities, or at least what she considered to be vulnerabilities.
She and Slim were happy for a number of years before his health began to decline and he became more and more confined to the house. My boys had grown into young men and Thelma often called on them to help her pick her husband up after he fell or was just too ill to get on his feet. I made many trips with Slim and Thelma to the hospital, often in the wee hours of the morning. During our last trip to the hospital with Slim before he passed away he asked me, in a whispered voice, to please make sure Thelma was taken care of and not allowed to grieve for too long.
After a respectable period of mourning, Thelma remarried. Dan, a widower, was friendly and seemed to cherish his time with Thelma. Once again she seemed happy and that brought me a sense of peace. Her happiness, however, was to be short lived. When Thelma’s seventy-eighth birthday was approaching, I asked her what she would like to have to celebrate the occasion. Her response was, “As long as I don’t receive an oxygen tank I will be happy with anything.” It wasn’t long after her birthday that I noticed she sometimes seemed bewildered by decisions she had made herself and she became much more opinionated than I had ever known her to be. She was dealing with the impending death of an adult son at that time and I often wonder if she had any inkling then that her health was beginning to fail.
Over the last couple of years I have grown increasingly closer to Thelma and for the last six to eight months she has been a part of my household on a daily basis. She was a wonderful companion for my mother and she was eager to help me with simple chores such as setting the dinner table or sweeping the porch. She knew she was a part of my family and I am sure she felt useful, needed, and productive here.
She grew so cantankerous with her husband, however, that they could no longer live in the same house. He returned to the home he lived in before they married and she remained next door to be close to my family. Her husband was saddened that he was in one house and his wife was in another house but it was the only way they could get along and I agreed to make sure she was looked after for as long as possible.
Her stubborn refusal to visit a doctor or follow any helpful advice about diet or hygiene often reminded me of the teenagers I have dealt with over the years. She was rebellious and struggling to keep control of her life but it had to be a painful experience for her. It was painful for me to watch her struggle so fiercely. She feared losing her home, her independence, and what remaining family members she had left. She feared ending up alone without dreams or hopes for the future. These losses would be devastating for anyone at any age.
I guess we think of the elderly as more wrinkled and less independent but still the people they used to be. Sometimes we are just totally in the dark about what an elderly person is going through or what made them view the world the way they do. Over the long sometimes frustrating months I cared for Thelma on a daily basis I got to know more about her than I had in all the previous years before. It’s a bit sad that we sometimes wait until a person is trying to make peace with advanced age and infirmity before we really stop to listen to what they’re saying or see the years of experience that lives inside of them.
Thelma was only a few months old when her mother died from heart failure. She lost a brother at a young age and she had a teenage sister who was found dead in her bed one morning when she didn’t appear for breakfast before school. Her father loved her but Thelma was handed from one family member to another during the first seven years of her life because he liked to drink too much at times and he never remarried after her mother’s death. She finally settled in with her sister, Mamie, after Mamie married. When Mamie gave birth to a daughter, Thelma treated her like any big sister would treat a new sibling. They grew up as close as any two sisters could be.
She gave birth to four sons during her first marriage. She hung cloth diapers on a clothesline, sterilized glass baby bottles, carried babies on her hip while she worked in the garden and she read every book that was available to her. She never obtained a formal education but she wanted to be able to help her children with school work. She continued to learn throughout her lifetime.
A few weeks ago, Thelma was watching me prepare dinner and she told me, “I know that I’ve peeled more potatoes than any soldier that ever served on K.P. duty. My family thought they had to have potatoes with everything. I’m surprised they didn’t want mashed potato milkshakes.” I thought about that comment later and realized that she probably prepared thousands of meals during her lifetime. No wonder she loved to eat at restaurants in her later years!
One day she told me about an adventure she and her sister had with new hairstyles and make-up. “Well, Carol looked like she had a bee’s nest on the top of her head because the woman that did it kept teasing her hair and piling it up. It was so stiff with hair spray that she had to bend her head to the side to sit on the bus. Mine was not piled as high but was sprayed just as stiff with hairspray. We both had on so much make-up that we could barely open our eyes. We reeked about like an outhouse too because we had sampled every bottle of perfume we could find and it was making us sick from smelling ourselves all the way home. I fell over a coffee table and broke it when we got home. All our daddy could say was that we sure did look good.”
Thelma should have earned a medical degree for all the years she nursed measles, coughs, scrapped knees, mumps, colds, viruses, broken bones and even broken hearts. She became a caretaker to family members suffering from heart conditions, old age, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. “Why, I’ve taken care of twelve different people,” she would say, “and every one of them died!” I understood exactly what she meant but hearing her say it that way as her eyes widened and her face flushed with color added a touch of humor to the declaration. In reality, there is very little humor in a caregiver’s day.
My friend lived a full life. She knew the thrill of passionate love, the total unconditional love of a mother for her children, and the undying love we hold close to our hearts when loved ones leave this earth. She saw moments of success in her life as well as the heartbreak of mistakes. The warmth of friendship was a blessing she gave thanks for on a daily basis and the overwhelming sorrow of losing a child was always close when she knelt in prayer.
Thelma, like many elderly people, seemed to be obsessed with the past. I’ve seen the same thing with my own mother. It is more than just reliving good times or wanting to relive their youth. I think they need to feel that their life mattered to the family they know they will leave behind and to future generations yet to come. They want to understand what their life has meant in the grand scheme of things and they want to know that they are leaving memories that will linger on long after they’re gone. Thelma understood there is no battle between despair and euphoria. Life is both.
I don’t know how many meals she cooked or how many times she scrubbed the floors after someone got sick in the middle of the night. I don’t know how many cars she owned in her lifetime, or how many bedtime stories she read, or how many animals she rescued from the side of the road. I am positive however, that she had her share of laughter and tears, sunrises and sunsets, success and failure. She was compassionate and had a burning desire to make a difference to any wounded, neglected, or hungry animal that crossed her path. Her need to nurture spilled over to the people she held dear but she never wanted them to know how much she cared. She never wanted people to see her as weak or dependent. I have felt those same feelings many times over.
I am also positive that I learned from Thelma. I discovered a deeper potential within myself and an understanding that it is possible to be too independent. Sometimes instead of being so stern and self-reliant we need to let others see our vulnerabilities. Our past is a part of our present and what we are living today will be a part of the person we become in the future. It is unavoidable. It is life.
She is not dead,
She’s soaring up high,
The earth lies beneath her,
She’s a twinkle in the sky.
She is not lonely now,
She’s not worried or in fear,
Her sadness was left behind,
She’s crying not a single tear.
She's looking down now,
Hoping you won’t grieve,
She’s in a far better place,
She needs you to believe.
She is not dead,
She’s soaring up high,
The earth lies beneath her,
She’s a twinkle in the sky.
© Dianna Doles-Petry