Note: This is a “throw-back” entry, written five years ago. I no longer deliver groceries on the side. At the time I wrote this is wouldn’t have been appropriate to post on my blog. Five years later, with all the names changed, it remains a poignant glimpse into that job and the holy lives I crossed …
An Unexpected Pick-Me-Up
David R. Weiss, January 23, 2016
Well, on Thursday it finally happened. I heard the words that every delivery person dreads: “Um, I don’t have any clothes on, but, yes, come in here—please.”
For over a year I’ve delivered groceries to Rose (not her real name). But I’ve never seen her. She lives with her mother, a delightful 90-year old woman who moves slower than molasses (yes, that is possible), but she also moves with a chipper demeanor and cackling laughter. Mom is the caregiver. Most days I only hear the daughter’s voice hollering out from a back bedroom, asking how much to write the check for. Thursday was different.
In the morning around 9:30, while still at Cub Foods double-checking people’s orders, I got a call from the office. Noah asked me how well I knew Rose. I replied that I’d been delivering to her home off and on for more than a year, but explained that I’d never actually met her because I only ever interacted with the mom. He went on to say that he’d gotten a rather confusing email first thing in the morning, sent by Rose’s volunteer order taker the night before.
It seems the order taker received a cryptic voice mail from Rose’s phone number, but not in Rose’s voice, just saying that Rose had fallen down and might need to be seen by someone. Noah had been trying to reach Rose by phone since 9:00 a.m. without success. He didn’t understand the message and asked if I had any insight. I said the voice on the message was undoubtedly the mom’s voice and that I guessed one of two things was going on. Either Rose had fallen and was going to need to be taken somewhere—in which case the mom was calling to say that they would not be around for delivery on Thursday. Or—and I thought this more likely—the mom had picked the wrong number to dial from a list of “important numbers” by the phone and had intended to leave that message for a home health care person.
In any case, we decided that despite Noah’s inability to get a phone response, I should attempt delivery, but not be surprised if I found no one home. This does present some issues as all the perishable items are simply taken as a loss (they can’t be returned to the shelf), and the whole order needs to be returned to the store and all the non-perishables “un-shopped.” But Rose’s home is in the middle of other stops, so it wasn’t out of my way to take a chance. Good thing I did.
Rose was my fifth stop of the day. I pulled up a little before noon. Since I had two heavy totes to carry up to the house, I decided I’d try calling first to see if there was an answer. No luck. Rang and rang, and eventually went to voice mail, where I was told the mailbox was full. Okay, but rather than just drive off, I figured I should at least ring the doorbell. This is always an exercise in patience, because even when the bell rings (and I can’t hear it clearly from outside the home), Rose’s mom moves so slowly that I’m never sure if she’s actually coming or not. I rang the bell, but couldn’t hear whether it sounded inside. I waited. Nothing.
Ah, but the storm door is unlocked, I might at least rap on the wooden door, in case the doorbell isn’t working. Rap, rap, rap. And then, distinctly, I hear a voice holler. I think it says, “Someone’s at the door!” I wonder if maybe it said, “Open the door!” or “The door is open!” So I try the handle. The door is unlocked.
I call inside, “I’m here with your groceries. I’ll get them out of the van and be right back.” I bring both totes to the doorstep and carry them inside. The entryway has its own little vestibule, maybe 4 feet by 4 feet before you step into the living room. They keep the house dark and there’s always a heavy drape hanging over that doorway. With the totes inside, I pull the drape back and take a look into the living room. I can see in the dim light that at the end of the sofa there’s a slumped body underneath a blanket. No, please, no.
Rose’s voice comes out of the bedroom in back, “Is my mom sleeping out there?” Yes, please, yes. At ninety-plus years and slower than molasses, the line between sleep and death might well hinge on “please.”
“Yes, she’s asleep.” “Well, can you wake her up? I need her in here.” “Okay, I’ll try.”
Then again, we are NOT supposed to touch our clients. (Or their mothers, no doubt.) Our mantra for safe boundaries is “Keep the box between you and the client. At. All. Times.” Time to think outside the box.
I go over to mom, and she is clearly zonked out. Ancient and exhausted. I do not want to startle her. Not sure she is capable of screaming, but if I were her and I was unexpectedly awakened by a long-haired, bearded man looming over me in my own home, I imagine I’d skip the screaming and go right for the nuts. So I cower a bit while I gently touch her shoulder. Geez, even after a year, I don’t even know her name.
“Is she awake yet?!” Rose has not mastered patience like I have. “Can you please get her to come in here? I’m in pain!” Mom opens her eyes. Sort of. She rises from her slumped position to sit up on the couch. Thankfully she recognizes me, so there is no fear on her face … or any longer between my legs. Praise Jesus for small favors.
But all she’s doing is sitting there. “Rose needs you.” Open, vacant eyes. She starts to get up. “Is she coming?!” “Yes, she’s awake, and she’s getting up.” Meanwhile, ever the one to keep myself busy, I carry the totes from the doorway to the kitchen to start unloading. “Please, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up! Is my mother coming or not?!” Well, damn. Shit just got real, as they say.
“Yes, she’s coming now.” Meanwhile, in my head, a whole lot more comes out: But, let’s be serious, Rose, this woman, who moves slower than molasses, whose shoulders are permanently stooped such that only once in fifteen months have I ever even made eye contact with her, this woman is NOT going to be able to do a damn thing for you if you’ve fallen. And, as I notice with some alarm, there is no chipper demeanor, no cackling laughter, and today mom is moving slower than cold molasses. She is walking weariness. Time to move to Plan B.
“Your mom is on the way, but she’s moving pretty slowly. Do you want me to come in and help you?” “Um, I don’t have any clothes on, but, yes, come in here—please.” Well, that didn’t go as planned. Ummmmmmmmmm … “Okay, I’ll follow your mother into the room.” Suddenly I find that I have a very active prayer life. And a very vivid one, too. And mom is barely moving. “Please, I need help!” Well, shit, here we go.
I step past mom, who seems barely aware of what’s going on, turn the corner, and prepare to … oh, Praise Jesus, Rose does not have any “clothes” on, but she is very well covered by her nightgown. My day has just gotten infinitely better.
She has fallen and is laying on her side, pressed against the wall midway between a plush easy chair rocker and a walker. Not sure which direction she was going, in or out, from sitting to standing or the reverse, but she didn’t make it, and she went down instead. Her legs are in very bad shape. Advanced diabetes? I don’t know, but it’s clear they cannot support her weight. And when she fell, she collapsed onto to her left side on the floor and she doesn’t have the upper body strength to get herself upright again, let alone off the floor. But, she is alert, and her mind is very clear—and very impatient.
“Please, can you help me sit up?! I’ve been down here for three hours and my mom has been asleep the whole time.” Note to self: so that explains why Noah got no answer three hours ago at 9 a.m. I move around behind Rose so I can crouch down and get my left hand around her left shoulder where the wall and floor meet. I am being very careful about what and where I touch—and, can I just say, I am missing that “boundary-box” desperately? “Just help me sit up, then I can call 911; they’re the only people who can get me off the floor.” Note to self: thank Jesus for 911 responders later today.
With Rose now sitting upright and leaned against her easy chair, life in the bedroom is much better. For both us. “Uh, could you please hand me my purse from the end of the bed there, and I’ll write you out a check. How much is it today?” So apparently life just moves on. Just like that? “And where is your phone, Rose? Can I get that for you, too?” You know, so you can call 911, and we can all say, thank you Jesus, together? “Oh, it’s right here next to my chair, but I couldn’t reach it after I fell.” And, sure enough, there it was. So close, but 90 seconds earlier, so far away.
Life was indeed so much better for both of us. But maybe not so much for mom. I went out into the kitchen to unload groceries. Mom followed like cold molasses. Only slower. In the absence of her chipper demeanor and cackling laughter the smell of urine was overpowering on the carpet outside the bedroom. She came and sat in a chair by the kitchen table while I put groceries here and there, between dirty dishes and other clutter. I called the amount out to Rose. “Thank you,” she said. I went back to the room I had never been to before today, this time like it was all so normal, and got the check from her. “Thank you,” she said again. “For everything.”
Ducking back into the kitchen to retrieve my empty totes, mom was still sitting there. She was the portrait of resignation and despair. Or was it merely weariness from a long night after an already long life? I pointed out where the cold food was and put the vanilla ice cream in the freezer. I wedged it there, diagonally and upside down, into maybe the last bit of free space there was. In front of two other half gallons of vanilla ice cream because I could have triggered an avalanche if I’d rearranged anything. Mom mumbled, barely more than mouthed, the words “Thank you so much.” Even in a broken spirit, gratitude had its way.
I left the home and drove three houses down the street to call the office. I’m a “mandated reporter.” Since I serve a vulnerable population when I see an unsafe situation I don’t get to choose whether to hold my tongue or not. I report it. People at a pay grade higher than mine decide how to respond. Note to self: one more thing to thank Jesus for.
I recounted everything to Cathy, our executive director. I was surprised at how I felt myself trembling as I spoke. While we were on the phone I saw in my side-view mirror the fire truck pull up in front of Rose’s house and watched the four firemen/EMTs go inside. I explained to Cathy my two-fold concern: first, even on her good days, I was not convinced that mom was in a position to care for Rose. Even her chipper, cackling self could never have righted the woman who had fallen in the bedroom. More to the point, the mom I witnessed today was barely capable of human interaction. If that was more than weariness at play, the mom needs help. And even if it was only weariness, a weary 90-something mom caring for a 60-something daughter with significant health challenges is going to be a losing proposition at some point.
Cathy asked me to touch base with the fire crew when they left, to see if they would report this to social services. Otherwise she would. They came out soon after I hung up. I met them, identified myself as the delivery driver who had just been inside the house and asked if they would be making a report. “Well … we really don’t get into that sort of thing,” said the first one. Then the captain (I’m guessing) stepped forward and told me they only report situations that are “medically threatening” or if they see a pattern, but this was the first time his crew had gotten a call to this home. Then he added, “But we work different shifts, so if a call came in on another shift or to different station we might not notice it.” I said we would be reporting it, particularly my concerns about the mom. “Yeah, I saw her sitting in the kitchen,” he acknowledged. Wait, so after I left her daughter was still on the floor in the bedroom, 911 was called—and came, and she’d never roused herself from the kitchen chair? He added, “I’ll put a note in my log, so that if there’s another call we have a record of it.”
Back in my van I had eight more deliveries to make. But I already felt “done” for the day. My hands were still trembling as I drove off, and my soul felt particularly fragile. Many of the elderly folks I deliver groceries to are just that: elderly. But more than a few are elderly-plus. Elderly-plus-poor. Elderly-plus-fragile. Elderly-plus-blind (or deaf). Elderly-plus-lonely. And plenty of them are elderly-plus-plus.
Me? To say that I “just” deliver groceries doesn’t even come close. But sometimes, no matter what, I feel like I don’t deliver nearly enough. And all I can hope is that the ache in my heart, an unspoken prayer, because, truly, there are no words, finds its way home.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.