The first time I lived by myself was in a one-bedroom apartment on Winthrop, a few blocks south of Bryn Mawr in Chicago. It was on the 5th floor, on one side of the U shaped building, and my windows overlooked the parking lot below. I could hear an enthusiastic sports fan punctuate the air with a few loud claps here and there when something good happened on his TV. A crow liked to perch outside my window and flap his wings fast while at a standstill, what I later learned was a mating call. I called him Simon. Horny Simon.
This was in 2008, and I had stumbled into more responsibility at my job in touristic photography, filling in for a pregnant operations manager. I worked long hours and started to value a quiet night at home; not only to refresh for the next day, but to enjoy the delivery food I could now sort of afford. This was also the apartment where I got bed bugs, but that’s a different story. Everything I mentioned up to this point is a different story, what I want to talk about is the time I helped an old lady look for her son.
I was doing laundry one night and as I left my apartment, walking to the stairwell to head down to switch my load to the dryer, I heard an elderly woman’s voice from around the corner call out “is that you Jimmy?”
I replied “No, it’s your neighbor, I’m Jeff.” I poked my head around the corner to see where she was in her door frame, an African American lady. She looked maybe early 90s, shrunken and frail, but there seemed to be a bounce in her, a feistiness that resembled possibly early 70s. I offered my hand in introduction. There was something that caught me off guard about her eyes. It wasn’t like she was blind. She seemed able to see me okay but it felt like she wasn’t quite registering me.
“I thought you’d be home earlier Jimmy,” she said.
“I’m not Jimmy, I’m your neighbor Jeff. I live down at the end of the hall.”
“Oh, where’s Jimmy?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t met Jimmy yet. Is Jimmy your husband?”
“Jimmy’s my son. You know Jimmy?”
“No, I don’t know Jimmy, I’m sorry.”
“He might be at work.”
“Oh, where does he work?”
“Okay.” I wanted to excuse myself so I could go finish my laundry, and then soak for a bit in my bathtub to relax before the long day I had ahead of me, but it didn’t seem like she was done with me. She was hovering, anxious about Jimmy.
“When’s Jimmy gonna be home?” She asked.
“I don’t know. When did he leave?”
“I don’t remember…”
“What hours does he usually work?”
“It’s all over the place.”
“I know how that goes.”
“You know Jimmy?”
“No, I don’t know Jimmy.”
“I want Jimmy home.” She seemed scared. And because I felt like I couldn’t leave her until Jimmy came home, I myself became just as anxious for Jimmy to finally get his ass home.
“What’s your name?”
“Mrs. Massey, do you have his number, maybe we can give him a call?”
“I don’t know it.”
It was pretty quick into our conversation that it was apparent she was developing some form of cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s, dementia, something was skewing her reality, and I even wondered if Jimmy really did live there with her, if their cohabitation was just a shell of a memory that kept looping.
“Can you help me to the store? My cousin works there, Jimmy might have stopped by to see her.”
I agreed to help. We had to make a quick pit stop in the laundry room so I wouldn’t irk another tenant by leaving my wet clothes to occupy the unused washer. I walked her down the street, following her directions, to where, as she said, her cousin owned and operated a little convenience store and Jimmy was always stopping by there to get snacks. She initially told me it was two blocks, but after two blocks, we were still coming across only apartment buildings, and she said it was only a few more blocks. We walked for maybe twenty minutes, and still hadn’t come across her cousin’s store. I asked for the name of the store, but she stumbled over it; the name wouldn’t quite come to her tongue. The more we walked the further her confusion progressed.
She thought maybe she was turned around; we had probably gone in the wrong direction. So we turned around and walked north for twenty minutes, then another ten, before she thought we should head west, so we walked in several loops. I asked someone walking by us if they knew where there was a corner store, but they only knew of the 7-11 and another little liquor store on Bryn Mawr. Mrs. Massey didn’t think that was it, but I suggested we walk by there, maybe it was the store we were looking for after all.
When we walked along Bryn Mawr, first passing the 7-11, then passing a little grocery store, followed by the liquor store, she shook her head at each. I felt a rush of hope as we came across an actual corner store at Bryn Mawr and Broadway and a smile came upon my face as I saw her eyes light up for a split second. Finally we found the store and she’d be reunited with possibly Jimmy, her cousin at the very least, and she’d be in the hands of kin! But her eyes just as quickly clouded over.
“No this isn’t it. Dammit, where’d it go?”
We stood there, defeated, the corner store a haunting mirage perhaps far in the past, perhaps flickering from a faint memory of a different town altogether.
Despite her age and condition, she had pep in her step and could keep up with a brisk walk long into the night. We’d covered plenty of ground, for long enough, and no place resonated with recognition as the corner store her cousin owned, where Jimmy would sometimes stop in for snacks.
I suggested we return to the apartment. Maybe Jimmy was home. I was also getting a little anxious about my clothes in the dryer being handled and dumped on the lint-covered top by an impatient tenant.
Throughout our walk, she continued to ask, “you know Jimmy, right?” And I continued to have to reassure her I did not, in fact, know Jimmy. As we headed back to the apartment, her inquiries about my familiarity with Jimmy began to lose the word “right,” even the question mark at the end. It sounded more and more like a statement, “you know Jimmy.” You Know Jimmy. Her confidence in my pre-existing acquaintance with Jimmy felt more and more like a slip away from reality, taking me with her, propelling me further from my intended night of finishing up my much-needed-to-get-done laundry, relaxing in a warm tub, and getting to bed early. I felt the frustration rise up in me and at her next utterance of You Know Jimmy, I snapped. “No! No I do not know Jimmy! I’ve told you this. How many more times do I have to tell you this?”
“Oh, I thought you knew Jimmy.”
She was quiet the rest of the way home. My outburst may have driven the real answer to her question about whether I knew Jimmy deep into the most lucid region of her brain. I felt something rotten deep in my gut, a heavy guilt for yelling at an old lady with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to apologize to her, but I also wasn’t sure if she even remembered me getting snippy.
We rode the elevator up to 5 and she opened up her apartment and called out to Jimmy. I could see a glimpse of her unit as she held the door open. It was sterile. The walls were undecorated. There was a twin bed at the far end, covered in what I could tell were plastic sheets by the way they reflected the hallway light. A sleeping bag lay rolled out on the floor next to it, beneath it a pile of white blankets, perhaps for extra padding. There was a Jimmy after all, a saint, at his mother’s side as much as he could be, except when he had to work.
Jimmy wasn’t home yet.
The elevator had descended while we looked for and called out to Jimmy in her unit. The elevator returned with the gentleman who lived in the unit right next to her. He was in his early 50s possibly, a good mix between muscle and chub, a big bushy beard to frame his smile.
“Hello Mrs. Massey!”
The gentleman filled me in that she indeed had Alzheimer’s and lived with her son, Jimmy, who was working the night shift at a hotel and wouldn’t be home until later. He said this sometimes happens, she gets scared and starts to wander, looking for Jimmy. He thanked me for helping; he’d help her from here until Jimmy got home.
I was off the hook, both relieved and sickened by how quick I was ready to be free of that duty. I tried to take my bath but only soaked in the shame of knowing that despite helping her around, my mind had been screaming the whole time of how much I did not want to be helping, how I just wanted to be done with my laundry and in the warm tub that now only seemed to be slopping over with remorse.
I wished I was wired with more patience, more empathy, more of an instinct to nurture. I wished the lukewarm water would rinse me of the opposite.
A few days later I was walking down the street and a different old lady called out to me, “here boy, come help me, here boy!” She spoke with a thick, eastern European accent. She was short and stocky. She waddled, her hips uneven, her ankles swollen to the thickness of her upper leg. Walking looked painful. She needed help getting to the grocery. I was running late to work, but my guilt from the other night was still lingering. I needed to swallow a tardy and help this lady get to the store.
I walked her toward Jewel at a snail’s pace because each step seemed to jostle the fluid that swelled her feet, igniting a nerve pain I hope to never experience. But she wanted me to extend the favor, to help her around the store once we got there, to help her home after, and for a couple of quarters a piece, help her open canned goods and transfer them into small Tupperware containers. She kept naming off this endless list of goods; beans, peaches, tomatoes, spaghetti, olives, corn, peas, soups, artichokes, squash! 50 cents! 50 cents! 50 cents! And she barked these out as commands, like I was a young kid desperate to earn a little money for candy. I tried telling her I didn’t have the time, I could help her to store, but I’d have to be off to work, but she sort of growled and continued to lay out her demands, the conditions of the transaction. Help me open can of corn, 50 cents! I could see the time ticking away as I repeated these tasks, barely weighed down by the coins being tossed at me, the mixture of mundanity and intimidation dissolving my own sharpness of memory.
I finally got her to Jewel and once again I was feeling the impulse to dump her off into someone else’s helping hands. I was momentarily blinded to my simmering self-disgust, maybe it was my imagination reflecting bright light off those 50 cent pieces she kept barking about. I called over a clerk and asked him to her find the things she had on her list. Then I was off to work, sure I hadn’t even come close to clearing my karma, life lesson further delayed in the queue, but I’d promise to display my goodwill another day. I had to hustle to catch an approaching train. The doors closed behind me and as I caught my breath, I wondered how far that lady would get with her shopping list, whether the clerk had already delegated responsibility for her on someone else. I tried to picture a member of my own family struggling to complete simple errands. Would they come up against the same cycle? I went on to think of myself in my later years; unable to get around on my own, not wanting to be an inconvenience, but not having any other choice.