Meals on Wheels is a fantastic organization serving countless communities in states across the country. It's premise is simple: provide hot meals to senior citizens and shut-ins who are unable to afford and/or prepare the meals for themselves. During the time that Trixie and I were involved with our nursing home visits, organized through the SPCA of Central Florida, an urgent call came through from the Meals on Wheels people.
Apparently, there was a growing concern that many of their clients were not consuming the delivered meals themselves. They were going hungry because they were feeding their rations to their own pets instead. They couldn't afford dog or cat food, so they were giving what they had to their precious companions. The organization asked if there was anything the SPCA could do to help them.
I'll always be so proud of how quickly and efficiently the president of the SPCA of Central Florida, Barbara Wetzler, responded. Within just a few weeks, she had convinced Tupperware to donate dozens of large containers, sent out word that dog and cat food donations were being accepted, got a list of names of clients and their mapped-out locations, and rounded up a core of volunteers to make the deliveries. There is a special place in heaven for Barbara Wetzler!
When word was sent out about the need for delivery people, I signed up without hesitation. I'm always looking for ways to honor the memory of my sweet Grandma Simmons, and I knew she'd love the idea of taking care of senior citizens' pets this way. At the orientation, the rules were pretty cut and dried: each driver would receive three names with a corresponding map. On the day of your delivery, you simply dropped by the SPCA, dropped off your empty bins, picked up new, filled ones, and set out. They asked you to call each client in advance each month, as many would be hesitant to answer the door if they didn't already know you were coming by. They also advised letting the phone ring several times, old bones take a little longer getting out of chairs and walking to the phone!
I was eager to get started and set out as soon as I left orientation. My first two deliveries were very similar. The clients greeted me, let me pat their dog or cat's head from my place on their front stoop, then waved a cheery "good-bye" and quickly shut the door. My last stop was at a tiny house in a poor neighborhood. It looked like it might have been a nice, family community at one point, but that time had long passed. Now the surrounding houses were in disrepair and in great need of new roofs and paint jobs. The house on my list had a decent sized yard surrounded by an ugly chain link fence. I glanced down at the name on my list: "Phyllis -- cat." I grabbed the bin of cat food and lifted the latch on the gate, then proceeded up the front steps and knocked on Phyllis' door.
After several minutes, I heard the deadbolt turn and watched as the door moved inward. There in the doorway stood a tiny woman with long, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a house dress identical to my Grandma's, and large, thick coke bottle-lensed glasses. Tight around her neck was the type of apparatus found on patients that have undergone a tracheotomy. She smiled and placed a finger over the front hole to speak in a breathy voice, "You must be Joan! You look just like I knew you would when I heard your voice on the phone! Come on in!"
Phyllis led me to her neat, cozy kitchen, sporting wooden cupboards with black hinges and knobs. She told me to just set the cat food under the sink and have a seat with her at the table. On her table sat a large tray containing several prescription bottles. In the course of our conversation that first day, she told me about her many ailments: the tracheotomy, diabetes for which she gave herself daily injections, poor eyesight and hearing (her phone had one of those blinking light attachments that alerted her when a call was coming in), severe arthritis, and some brushes with cancer. It was funny, though, how her "malady listing" didn't come across at all like complaining. Phyllis seemed to accept the fact that her body was wearing down, but was also truly fascinated with the modern medical procedures being employed to keep her going. I found myself recalling all of the Alzheimer's patients Trixie and I had visited at the nursing home. Many of them, despite their severe mental limitations, were otherwise physically healthy as horses. Phyllis was exactly the opposite. Her poor body was breaking down, but her mind remained sharp as a tack. She remembered exact dates when telling stories, often beginning, "In June of 1962...no, excuse me, it was JULY of 1963..."
Phyllis became my favorite delivery stop. I'd always save hers for last because I knew she'd expect me to come in and "sit a spell." When I was picking up her cat food, I decided I wanted to bring my new friend a treat as well. I knew with all of her diet restrictions that a food item was out. Then I was at the Hallmark store and spotted a small stuffed animal cat. I had seen similar ones on the shelf of her living room, so I decided maybe she'd like another.
I entered her kitchen as always that day, placed the cat food bin under her sink, then handed her the gift bag. "Just a silly little nothing for you," I told her. She unwrapped the tissue and held the little cat up close to her weak eyes. She turned to me, gave me a huge smile, and hugged it to her face, cradling it like a doll. I became addicted to that smile. I couldn't get enough of it. So, every month I arrived with a new gift, usually of the stuffed variety. That beautiful, sweet smile was my payment, and she always gave it generously.
I should've realized that I was over-doing it with the gift giving, however, because I soon learned that Phyllis felt the need to reciprocate. I arrived one day to find a large cardboard box sitting at my place on her kitchen table. "Have a seat," she instructed me. She explained that she'd been going through some things and came across this box of her Christmas decorations. She said she wasn't going to be putting them out anymore, and she'd like for me to have them (she'd been noticing my holiday sweaters!). I told her I'd be happy to help her adorn her home with the decorations if she'd like, she didn't need to get rid of them. She waved my suggestion away with a wrinkled hand and reached in to pull out her first treasure. It was a six inch soft plastic reindeer. At least that's what I think it was. The paint was very faded and the tip of it's tail was broken off. There was a hole on the underside of it's belly where you could place a small light bulb to illuminate it, but that was long gone. She turned it around in her hand and looked at it with dreamy eyes, then placed it on the table. Then she reached in the box and pulled out the next item, a plastic, faded snowman. She brought out item after worthless item, unwrapping each from it's paper towel, placing it on her table with the delicacy usually reserved for Faberge eggs. She never offered a story to go with any one object. She just smiled while she silently held each of them up to her face, then set it back down again.
When all the items had been unwrapped, she turned to me and asked, "Well, what do you think? Would you like them?" I told her that I really thought she should hang on to them. "Nonsense!" she quipped, "I'm too old to be messing with them anymore. If you don't take them, I'll just donate them to the poor." I told Phyllis I would take them, thanked her for her generosity, and promptly placed them in my attic when I got home.
Phyllis' health continued to deteriorate. I arrived one month and she greeted me at the door, clearly distracted about something. After a little prodding, I got her to tell me. She had been losing so much weight that her doctor had surgically inserted a feeding tube into her stomach. She now "fed" herself twice a day with a bag provided by the hospital, and was no longer a candidate for Meals on Wheels. She was terrified that this also meant she would no longer be receiving cat food. I grabbed my friend's sweet, leather hand and told her that as LONG as she needed it, I would be bringing her cat food.
The next month I dialed Phyllis' number to tell her I'd be by that day. The phone rang and rang. No answer. "Probably just at one of her doctor appointments," I told myself, trying not to think about the alternative. When no one answered later that day, I knew I had to do something. I found the number of her social worker, Mary, who had been providing her general care and rides to the doctor's. She confirmed my worst fears, Phyllis had died. Mary told me that she'd arrived at Phyllis' home one morning and found her still in her bed, no sign of struggle. Phyllis had died peacefully in her sleep.
When someone like Phyllis passes away, someone who had no family and so many physical ailments, we tend to feel relief that they're no longer in pain and now hopefully reunited with their loved ones in the hereafter. But truthfully, I missed my friend and her beautiful smile.
I was packing up the house in Orlando last year in preparation for the big move to Pennsylvania when I came across that box of Phyllis' decorations. Such silly, worthless trinkets, but so dear to one. I wished I had prodded her more about the stories behind each of those pieces. We were in the process of some major downsizing for the move, and I knew I couldn't take the box with me, but I also didn't have the heart to throw them away. I decided to honor Phyllis' second wish and take them to "The Poor." I don't know if Goodwill would find any use for a box of faded Christmas trinkets, but I'd like to think that someone found them as beautiful and special as Phyllis did, and have them displayed on their table this Christmas.
As I write this, I look around my living room at my own decorations. As much as I cherish them and the Christmas memories they invoke, none of my felt santas or folk art angels posses any monetary value, that's for sure. I'm sure someday, after I'm gone, my worthless treasures will all be boxed up and taken to Goodwill. I just hope "The Poor" truly appreciates the intense awesomeness of a fabric moose wearing a "noel" sweater, or a snowman wearing a stocking cap on snow skis!!
Merry Christmas, sweet Phyllis.