Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Phyllis' Christmas Treasures

REPOST ALERT!!!  I wrote this last December when no one was reading my blog except my siblings and a few close friends.  I thought I'd bring it back and see what you think.  Hope you like it...


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.

22 comments:

BigSis said...

Such a sweet story. I'm glad you shared it (again.) I have a Grandfather and two Great Aunts in nursing homes about 2 hours away and every time I visit they tell me how much they wish I could stay. To visit someone just because you are a good person is such a wonderful thing to do. I hope you are justly rewarded for your kindness!

Red Shoes said...

Oh man... I think I got something in my eyes. I found some ornaments the other day at an antique store in Monroe, LA... 'vintage' (used)... some of them 'spoke' to me... and came home with me. I am sure these meant something to someone once... just the way that a reindeer ornament once used to speak to me. I hope that wherever it is, it is loved...

A wonderful story... God Bless you and Phyllis...

~shoes~

A Vintage Chic said...

What a sweet memory, Joan...so glad you did post it again, as I hadn't "met" you yet last Christmas...Such a lovely experience for both you and Phyllis. It doesn't take much to touch a life, does it?

Thank you for all you share, my friend...and Merry Christmas!

Julie

Shady Del Knight said...

Joanie, you and I both have a habit of defying the rules of blogging by writing long posts, but this is a wonderful story that I hope everybody will take time to read no matter how busy they are. It is heartwarming, uplifting and filled with life lessons. Sadly, the holidays bring out the worst in some people. They run off with the Salvation Army's donation pot or they sell their children's presents to get money to buy crack. Your timely story is an example of people at their best, infused with the altruistic spirit of the holidays all year round. Breakthroughs and miracles happen when people put aside their own problems for a while and work together to help those who are much worse off - those in desperate need. It certainly is true that most elderly people would rather die than to let their pets go hungry. You and other caring individuals found a solution and took massive action to carry out your plan. You personally went the extra mile for that frail old woman by giving a gift even more precious than food or money or the plush animals that you bought her. You gave that woman your time. You listened to her. Her smile told you how much she appreciated you for it. Joan, you are part of the solution! It's wonderful to have people like you in this world. By the way, I find it interesting that you were practically my neighbor here in Central Florida before moving to my old hometown in Central Pennsylvania.

Eva Gallant said...

What a lovely story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Sylvia K said...

Such a beautiful story, Joan, and I am having a bit of a problem seeing my computer screen right now. Thank you for sharing, thank you for seeing the beauty in Phyllis and for adding so much to the last days of her life. There is no greater gift than that -- to both of your for that matter. Wishing you a very Merry, Joyous Christmas filled with love and laughter.

Sylvia

jel said...

that was a very good post !

thanks for reposting it!


MERRY CHRISTMAS :)

Pastor Sharon said...

Beautiful story! I love stories like this!!! It's all about our hearts reaching out to see the need behind the need.

Phyllis needed to have a purpose and you filled it! And she filled a space just the same in your heart.

Now, dear I have to go wipe this mascara off my cheeks. I sit here with tears thinking of all the seniors I work to take care of everyday.

Merry Christmas!

ReformingGeek said...

Ah,sweet Phyllis. Good for you for being a part of her life.

Joanie M said...

What a lovely story!!! You certainly made that sweet old lady happy with your visits! Thank you for sharing it with us.

Linda Myers said...

Great story - thanks for the repost.

Looking for Blue Sky said...

Another lovely story, I really enjoyed reading it :) And that message about people feeding Meals on Wheels to their pets is one to remember, thank you xx

Cheeseboy said...

Beautiful. Phillis was lucky to have you at the end. I'm sure you gave her hope.

Mumsy said...

It's me Mumsy...I lost my other blog and made a new one. I am now following you again...hope you have a wonderful Christmas sweet friend. Hugs

Kellyansapansa said...

Sheesh - you're not supposed to make people cry at Christmas time! This is a truly beautiful story and reminds me yet again of how amazing you are. Not only do you give selflessly to your community, but you have such a beautiful knack for telling stories which make us all stop and think. I hope you and Alan had a wonderful Christmas and may 2011 bring you nothing but wonderful things! xx

Toyin O. said...

Lovely story, thanks for sharing.

Smudgeblurr said...

Lovely story - beautifully told. Thanks for reposting!

THE OLD GEEZER said...

Hi Joan :-)

Happy New Year from Southern California. No snow here but a lot of rain storms and mud slides!

I hope you and your family had a Wonderful Christmas Celebration.

God Bless You, ~Ron

Mumsy said...

What a wonderful post...I am a bit teary eyed, but I love this story. Hugs

christopher said...

Wonderful post. Real, sincere and down to earth.

Mia said...

Why don't older people have enough food? Something is terribly wrong with such a system.

Shan said...

I don't even know what to say that I haven't said before about your writing. It's beautiful, poignant and so much like you.

Post a Comment

Wow! You're going to comment? Congrats, you are now, officially, one of the COOL people!! (And, thanks!)