Friday, October 5, 2012
My visits with Rachael started three years ago, maybe four. She was “assigned” to me by my church when I volunteered to visit local nursing home residents. I was told she was all alone in the world; she needed a friend.
So most Sundays after church, I stop by the nursing home where she lives and give her cookies or Cheetos or shampoo or baby powder. I often grumble about it. I could find other ways to spend my Sunday afternoons.
Rachael is not interesting. And she has no teeth. So I have trouble understanding her. She lives in a facility for Medicaid residents--the poorest of the poor. Not all who live there are old. Nick, a 30-something paraplegic, loves the women. An endless flirt, he made a bad decision when he raced his car after drinking one night. And because of it, he’ll never truly know a woman again. I’m not sure about Bridget; she whirs around in an electric wheelchair and has difficulty speaking. But she seems happy; she smiles and greets me each time I visit. And so does Joe and Linda and Larry and Joyce.
I enjoy going just to see the other residents. And they can be entertaining. Linda, who sings and dances, was wandering the halls recently, naked from the waist down until an aid discovered her. She was trying to put her pants on by herself but balance abandoned her.
Rachael turns 83 this December, and over the years, I’ve learned a little about her family. She's a middle sister, like me. Unlike me, she had no brothers. She grew up on the Southside of Chicago; her father and mother, whom she loved, owned a bar. They were Italian. She married an Irish Catholic; he died young. She loved him very much, too, so never considered remarrying.
“Are your sisters still alive?” I asked her knowing that by now, her parents certainly wouldn’t be. “One is, I think,” Rachael answered. “Would you like to see her?” I asked. “Nah, it don’t matter.” How could that be? Had the disappointment of no visits from family for the 12 years she had been in the nursing facility hardened her heart? I knew I would want to see my sisters and brothers.
After more visits, I learned the sister’s name and the name of her husband. And that they used to live nearby. So I googled them. I found a 2006 obituary for Rachael’s brother-in-law that listed all the family members, including Rachael’s sister. With that information, I looked up and found their phone numbers.
And those numbers sat on my computer desktop for three months. Don’t ask me why. Lack of courage? Inertia? Low motivation?
Finally, I girded my spirit, picked up the phone, and dialed the number for Rachael’s niece, tentatively explaining who I was (nobody really, just a person who visits Rachael). “Yes, my mother had a sister named Rachael, ” she answered warily. After much explanation on my part, she trilled, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have Mom call you.”
A few seconds later, my phone rang. A clear, strong Chicago Southside voice was on the other end. I could understand every word she said. Turns out, Marie had been looking for Rachael for 12 years. “One day, Rachael was in the hospital; the next day I called and she had been released and the hospital didn’t know where she had gone. I haven’t been able to find her since.”
Rachael had been placed in a nursing home, leaving no trace for her family.
The day after talking to me, Rachael’s sister and her family visited her in the nursing facility. They stayed for hours, and when they left, they tacked their photos on her bulletin board. Rachael has a family again. When I stopped by Sunday she showed me her new outfit that her sister bought her. And the baby powder and the cookies and the shampoo.
Now my visits with Rachael aren't so necessary, and I am free to enjoy them.