When we moved into our house some 16 years ago, Alice lived across the street. She was already old—about 70—but vigorous and active. She spent hours in her yard, gardening, trimming, and mowing. She kept the home she’d lived in for forty years tidy. Alice took summer trips to Cannon Beach each year, renting a house and enjoying the salt air. Friendly and warm, Alice could always be counted on for a chat over the fence.
It wasn’t long before my first child was born. Here in the suburbs, women have babies and care for them all by themselves in their own houses, without grandmothers or aunts or cousins. Being home alone with an infant is terrifying and exhausting, and truth be told, it’s boring. God is it boring. You spend your days alternately sitting in a rocker with a small, voracious being sucking on you, and performing the relentless tasks of housewifery: laundry, dishes, scrubbing this, vacuuming that, again and again and again. All day. Every day. All at once, it seems, you’ve gone from being a young person with an interesting, challenging job, infinite possibilities, and nearly unlimited freedom and autonomy to a young mother with a narrowly constricted life from which there is no turning back, and even though your love for that baby fills you body and soul, the tedium can squash you flat.
I was so lonely I once took the baby and all of her gear to the grocery store, even though I didn’t need anything, just so I could chat with the cashier for 30 seconds while I checked out. I often went outside to talk with Alice. She was unfailingly kind and encouraging. One day she told me this: “The other day I saw you on your front porch with the baby. You were holding her hand out in the rain and talking to her, and I thought, ‘she’s telling the baby about rain.’ I think that’s wonderful.”
I about cried.
At your job you get lots of feedback. Your boss praises your effort. Your coworkers tease you. You are seen and known. There’s very little validation in infant care and even less in housewifery. Your husband never comes home from his interesting, challenging job and says, “Wow, honey, you got all the stains out of that onesie!” The baby never says, “Hey, thanks, Mom. I’m thriving! You da bomb!” Indeed, the moment that critter pops out you become invisible. Anyone who has ever confessed to being a full-time mom at a social event can attest to the instant disinterest that results. The person you’ve just met will sidle off to talk to somebody else. So it meant a lot to me, a ridiculously lot, that Alice saw me and that she said I had done well.
Over the years she helped me out in many ways. She babysat my kids. She fed my pets when we went out of town. She sewed beautiful quilts for each of my daughters. They still cherish them.
Fast forward to the present. Alice is 86 now. Her health is failing and her memory is fading.
A few days ago she came to my door in a panic. Her car wouldn’t start and she needed to get to the vet’s office to pick up medicine for her dog. He would have seizures without it, she told me. I drove her to the office. The woman at the desk seemed confused—the dog’s chart did not indicate any current meds. Finally the vet tech came out to talk to us. She squatted down and spoke gently to Alice, so I could tell this had happened before.
“The doctor discontinued that medication,” she said. “We last filled the prescription in April, and it was a month’s supply. You must have run out a long time ago.”
Alice insisted she’d been giving the dog a pill every day, that she’d just run out, that he would have seizures. I had not realized until that moment how far she had declined. Again, I about cried.
When we got back to our street, Alice couldn’t figure out how to get into her house and she began to cry. She usually goes through the garage, but the garage door opener was in her car and we were in my car. I told her I’d seen her keys, that they were in her purse, that she could go in the front door. “I’m just so stupid,” she said, over and over.
Alice’s daughter lives a ferryboat ride away. I called her that day. She cried too. She told me she’s tried to talk Alice into moving in with her or into an assisted care facility. But Alice won’t go.
Alice has been over twice today, asking for help with minor issues. She shouldn’t be living by herself. What is there to do? I help her with whatever she needs. I try to be cheerful. She always says “I owe you one,” but she doesn’t. I am only repaying her kindness.