Those who follow this site know it’s fairly common for me to post photos that I take while I’m landscaping. Some of the best shots, including the butterfly photo with this post, come from the yard of 95-year-old Mrs. Gilley. It hurts me to say that, in the eight years that I have been working for Mrs. Gilley, I have watched old slowly degrade both mentally and physically.
When I first met her, Mrs. Gilley was kind, intelligent, discerning, and completely unflappable. Even in her late 80s, barely a day went by I couldn’t see Mrs. Gilley in her floppy sun hat and floral work gloves tending to the various gardens plots in her expansive yard. However; as the years went on, I watched her begin to slip. It started when she was able to do less and less of her own gardening. It became more and more common for my grandparents, who live next door to her, to see her tumbling down the hill in her yard. Eventually, she couldn’t even stand up from her kitchen table without taking a fall. At the same time, I watched as she had greater difficultly remembering things, had trouble maintaining conversation, and even forgot what was going on around her.
Anyone who has had this happen to a loved one can tell you how much it hurts to watch this. It feels like watching the person you care about being slowly drained away until there is nothing left. I had actually seen it twice before; first with my step grandmother, then my paternal grandmother. Seeing it again was almost too much for me. As ashamed as I am to admit it, there were times I made up excuses not to have to go in and talk to her. I assumed she would be napping, tell myself that I had other work to do, or that she was visiting with family. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, I just couldn’t stand to watch as she broke down. I couldn’t see that again.
Yesterday though, one of her caretakers came out to get me after I had finished mowing her lawn. As I went into the house, I couldn’t escape the quiet dread that was creeping up in the back of my mind. It was almost as if I didn’t see her as she was now, if I didn’t acknowledge it, she could still be that lively person she always was, even if it was just how I remembered her.
The caretaker said that Mrs. Gilley wanted to thank me for all the work I had been doing. When the caretaker excused herself to get cleaned up, Mrs. Gilley and I were left alone. What followed were slow minutes of silence. My mind just kept flashing back to how powerless I was to help my grandmothers before, and how powerless I felt now. I tried to make small talk, ask her easy questions just to break the silence. She gave short answers before asking me about Karen. “Tell me about your fiancé,” she requested in a slow, labored voice. I told her that she had already met Karen on a few occasions before, that the wedding was next year (not the coming weekend, which she kept thinking it was), about what the two of us were doing for work, and about the children she babysits. Minutes after I had answered, she looked at me and said in the same tone as before, “Tell me about your fiancé.”
It looked as though she hadn’t been able to retain any of what I had just said. The realization only made me feel all the more hopeless. Instead, I tried to shift the conversation more toward what she had been doing. I tried to coax as much as I could from her about her family, and how she had been getting along with the caretakers. It was all I could think of to engage with her.
“You’re listening, but you aren’t talking,” Mrs. Gilley eventually scolded. My stomach dropped with guilt. I had no idea what to say. On some level, I had to actively remind myself that the person I cared about was still in there. Of course, that effort only made me feel worse, and it became more difficult to think of something to say. Then I remembered, I had taken photos of the butterflies in her garden earlier that day. I got up and took out my phone. I began flipping through the garden photos. “It’s beautiful!” she would exclaim every time I stopped on a particular photo. I slowly started to see a smile cross her face. As I went further through my digital photo album, I started to show her other wildlife photos, shots of Karen, the kids she babysits, and even my cat. She loved them all.
And just like that, even if it was just in a small way, Mrs. Gilley was back. Some of the light had returned to her eyes, and her voice had more enthusiasm than I had heard in months. She was even commenting on certain photos, and it let us actually converse more than we had in weeks. As I watched her smile, the conversation just became easier, more natural. Time flew by, and before I knew it, I needed to go meet Karen. After a quick hug, I left feeling like I had made real progress for the both of us.
Still, I can’t help but feel I’m being selfish somehow. Truth be told, I feel more than a little self gratifying in taking so much away after just sitting with her for 20 minutes, while Mrs. Gilley’s children do everything they can to take care of her and the caretakers are giving her round-the-clock attention. After all of that, my gesture feels like nothing.
Now that I’ve found a very real way to reach her, I plan on doing everything I can to make up for the time I lost. I started putting together little albums on my phone to show her the next time I go see her. I’d like to even go a step further and make her some nice prints of her garden if I could put together the money. At this point, that gesture is the least I can do. It’s a small contribution, but it’s as good a place as any to start. I still beat myself up about not being able to do more for my grandmother and step grandmother, but there’s a chance that I may be able to make up for some of that here. I just need to remember that no matter how far gone she may seem, I may still be able to help if I just find the right way to reach her.