It was sad, really. She has no one. Maybe it was a conscience choice a long time ago. Maybe it was a forced decision that she didn’t want. Either way, the results are the same.
She lives alone in a nice neighborhood that we’ve driven through a thousand times. Her hedges are rarely trimmed and there are plants growing in the gutters. The yard is always green, but the grass always looks like it’s half grown, half mowed, somehow suspended in animation just enough to give the yard sort of a kept, but not maintained look.
She has a big sprawling house that is dark and uninviting, almost like where a horror movie could be filmed. In the four plus years of driving through that neighborhood, I’ve never once seen anyone outside, and the garage door is always closed. Occasionally, but not very often, there may be a light on at night somewhere in the house, but it would only be one, if any.
We were driving home through that neighborhood coming home from a symphony at 10:30 PM at night. Janet, my wife, told me we had just passed an old woman sitting in the grass by a mailbox waving for help. I turned around and there she sat. I left the car running with the headlights on to light the area as we checked on her.
She thanked us for stopping and said she’d walked outside her house to check her mail about twenty minutes earlier, but lost her balance and fell down. She had tried and tried to get up, but just couldn’t. She said she’d been sick and hadn’t eaten much during the week. Janet asked if she had food. She had eaten crackers and half a Twinkie that day, but couldn’t hold it down, and added that she was craving bananas. She claimed she was fine, just weak.
Frankly, she was frightful sight. She had long, mostly gray, frizzy hair that literally stuck out on end in every direction. Her hair was like on cartoons when someone is electrocuted and their hair sticks straight out. She looked like she had been held captive and hadn’t groomed for a long time.
She had three sores on her forehead, one about the size of a quarter, and wore an old, loose fitting night gown that went down past her knees. She wore nothing else either over, or under the gown, except a pair of elastic house shoes, and one of those was on the grass beside her. It was hard to tell how old she was. She could have been anywhere from 45 to 70 years old.
She smelled bad. Really, really bad. Not just a whiff of bad breath bad, but a constant, demanding, not going away stench bad. There’s no telling how long it’s been since her last bath, but guessing from the reeking odor, it’s been weeks, maybe months.
Janet asked if she had family we could call. She had a distant relative in town, but immediately began saying she didn’t want to call anyone. Even with her appearance and smell, she was very pleasant in conversation. She even spoke with a certain elegance, refinement, and kindness in both her words and tone of voice.
She’s nobody’s fool. In fact, I’m guessing she’s quite intelligent, but whatever the reason, whatever the cause, she is a hermit.
She’s lived in the same house for over 30 years and said her parents, who apparently passed away long ago, once lived there too. She knew everyone’s name in her neighborhood but only knew one personally, and that was extremely limited. I asked about calling an ambulance to check her since she’s been sick. She pleaded not to call anyone saying they would come, take her away and commit her back to the hospital. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t talking about Medical Center Hospital.
She said if she could get to her feet she would be fine. With her permission, I got behind her to try to lift her to her feet while Janet steadied her from the front. She was dead weight. About halfway up she began to cry out saying something wasn’t right with her leg. We let here down and I suggested an ambulance again. She pleaded not to, almost in a panic, and started trying to crawl up the walkway to her house. She moved a few inches, literally, before she fell over on her side in slow motion. She tried twice more, but only got a few feet.
I slipped away to call an ambulance while Janet talked to her. Thirty plus feet away I could still smell her, but realized it was now my clothes that reeked of odor from trying to help her up. When I told her an ambulance was on the way, she was almost distraught saying, “Oh no! How much is it going to cost?! Will it be a hundred dollars?”
I told her it would probably be free through the County. She said in her neighborhood, referring to the nice houses around her, everyone gets charged.
The ambulance, along with a firetruck, showed up a few minutes later. They put on latex gloves and talked to her a minute. A couple of the guys helped lift her to her feet and slowly they all walked inside.
The wallpaper in the foyer was, at one time, really nice and stylish, ritzy actually, with shiny silver embossed throughout a pattern of leaves. The smell, as bad as it was outside, was twice as bad inside!
There was little furniture and the walls past the foyer had not been painted in a long, long time. There were deep, dirty smudges on the door frames where she puts her hands to balance herself as she walks through her house. The carpet was dirty and stained.
The living room was once a very classy place! The old, dirty pleated drapes had magnificent curved scallops in the valance and the drapes spanned the length of the room. Even with the age, filth and smell, the window treatments were elegant and refined. No doubt they cost a great deal back in the day, and certainly weren’t what middle class people could buy.
The paramedics got her seated in her chair. She refused any medical evaluation and assured the paramedics she would be fine. She was oriented in person, place and time, and was of no immediate threat to either herself or others, so they had to go. She did ask if they would bill her, and they assured her there was no charge, for which she thanked them profusely.
We left and drove the rest of the way home. The stench lingered in the car and immediately the clothes went into the washing machine.
The next day Janet went by to check on her and took her bananas she said she was craving. The woman just happened to be pulling out of her garage in a very old, but functional car. She was still wearing the same long night gown and house shoes, nothing else, as she had the night before. She graciously thanked Janet, and went on to where ever it was she was going to do whatever it was she was doing.
What makes someone become so isolated? And even isolated, what causes someone to totally neglect personal hygiene? Who knows? Maybe she experienced a series of painful events that shut her down emotionally. Maybe it’s a form of mental illness. Maybe she’s so afraid of the things “out there” that she has appointed herself as the warden of her own prison locked away inside her house. I don’t know.
She knows what’s going on with her neighbors. From the sanctuary of her own house she spies and studies everyone around her, yet all the while remains invisible behind her pulled curtains and closed doors.
She told us about recent events and big gatherings at neighbor’s houses, and how many cars were there, and what time they left. She peeks at the world through the peep hole of her glass windows, as if she was the only one free and the rest of the world is trapped in a giant zoo.
I wonder how many other people hide, isolated like her, locked away in their own world, only coming out when forced to interact with those of us who live in the zoo. I’m not sure if it’s intriguing, frightening or tragic, but somewhere behind the peep holes, peeking through the closed blinds, they are there.
Maybe we’ll get the chance to visit with her again sometime, when it’s dark, and no one else sees her, and she sits in the grass waving for help. Maybe, maybe.