A chance COVID encounter, unexpected friendship, sudden expected grief
On the day the Mayor of San Francisco issued a Shelter in Place order, I had been working twelve-hour days and I hadn’t had a day off in almost a month. Now I would have time off indefinitely because of the order and the fact I was simultaneously let go from my job.
At the time many people still thought COVID-19 was just another flu we could all survive. The truth was no one knew how the pandemic would develop in the United States. It wasn’t a matter of if the virus would hit, it was a matter of when. The Governor of California would declare a statewide shelter in place just a few days later.
I was relieved to have some time off to spend with my family but I also felt anxious and helpless. Mostly I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to ride BART for a while, since public transportation is a breeding ground for germs. This also meant that I wouldn’t be able to fly to Southern California to see my mom, as I had planned on doing once my job contract had ended. My mom has diabetes and heart issues. She also had a stroke about a year ago, from which she never fully recovered. I was glad to know that at least my stepdad was taking care of her and that she wasn’t going to try to leave the house since she had lost interest in most things, even her desire to watch television.
I immediately thought of my neighbor who lived alone. I didn’t know her name but I knew she was an older adult. I had never formally met her, just said “hi” in passing. My father, who lives with us, had made her acquaintance and informed us that she was divorced and lived alone. They had agreed to exchange numbers, but I’m not sure if they ever did. I had often thought about baking her something and introducing myself, but what if she had dietary restrictions? That would be awkward. It had already been a year that I was living next door to her.
I can’t bake her something now because of Coronavirus. Maybe I’ll bake her something for Christmas!
I’m sure she won’t be able to leave her house right now. This is a good time to finally introduce myself.
I had seen people stop by periodically as if to check on her so I assumed she had good support in her life. I put on my fleece jacket and my shoes, did a quick check in the mirror and walked out the front door, through the gate and up her tiny driveway before I had some trouble opening her gate.
Ooh orchids! How did she keep them alive? I’ve killed all the ones I had. I wonder if they are fake. Nope not fake. That’s amazing. I’ll have to ask her.
I stood there for a few seconds admiring the delicate and fussy flower growing so strongly on the front porch, wondering how it had survived the winter.
Should I knock? No, ring the doorbell. No wait, what if she doesn’t hear it? Wait, what if I knock and I startle her?
I pushed the button. Ding dong. Then I knocked for good measure. I hope she doesn’t think I’m a solicitor. After a few seconds she opened the door.
“Hi, I’m Natashia. I live right next door,” I said standing far enough from her that she wouldn’t feel uneasy about catching anything from me, “I think you’ve talked to my dad before.”
“Oh yes I remember talking to your dad. I’m Bea. Bea Pixa.” She stated as if she was announcing her name at a beauty pageant.
“I wanted to come by and ask you if there’s anything you need help with. If you need anyone to go to the store for you or anything at all, we are here to help.”
I could see that her eyes were tearing up and with a quiver in her voice she apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m feeling a little bit emotional today. This is all so scary. I don’t know if you know my situation, but I have Stage IV cancer.”
I didn’t yet know the details of her situation. She didn’t look ill. She stood there at her front door looking delicate but also strong. She seemed to have energy although she moved and spoke slowly. Her eyes were bright blue and her perfectly coiffed, white hair flowed past her shoulders. Her face was small and dainty. If she had butterfly wings on her back she could have been a fairy. I didn’t want to ask her too many questions so as not to be invasive, but I knew Stage IV of any illness is the most severe stage one can get to.
“Oh I wish I could give you a hug,” and I really wanted to.
There I was standing in front of a complete stranger but connected to her feelings of fear and perhaps grief. I wanted to cry too. I imagined how terrifying it must be to have a terminal illness and then be caught in an impending pandemic. I assumed that whatever time she thought she had left was suddenly cut short with the increased risk of catching COVID. I had gone to her home to feel less helpless about the situation but found myself feeling more impotent than before. I wanted to comfort her but I couldn’t touch her. I wanted to go inside her house and chat or offer to cook for her, but I couldn’t do that either.
“Well let’s exchange phone numbers so that I can call you on the phone to check on you and you can call me for whatever you need.”
She invited me into the house, but it felt wrong to go in now that I knew she was so vulnerable. I stepped in but not too far. I didn’t follow her. I waited at the entrance. I watched as she went downstairs to the kitchen and looked for something to write with. She handed me a pen and a paper to write down my number and I took down her number in my phone. I quickly went back outside and reminded her that I would be home and she should not hesitate to call me for anything at all.
The next day she called me. I was happy to know that Bea was not shy about calling. It meant I wouldn’t have to accost her to ask me for help. I’ve learned to be careful about donating my time and energy. I rarely say yes when I mean maybe, because I believe in being whole hearted when practicing altruism. So when I offered to help Bea, I didn’t do it just because I felt a moral responsibility, I did it because I deeply cared. After all we shared a townhouse wall.
She asked if I could take something to the post office for her. I wondered if she knew she could put it in her own mailbox for the mail person, but this was no time for splitting hairs. I figured she wanted to be sure her mail was on its way to its destination as soon as possible. I wanted her to know that no favor was too small. When I went to pick up her envelope she explained to me that she was in the process of making arrangements in preparation for her death. She needed to mail some documents to the people who were helping her with her paperwork. I couldn’t find anything to say in response, I just nodded and listened.
“It’s such a strange thing to have to do” she said, “but I am grateful to have found these individuals who are willing to help me during this strange time.”
A few days later she called me to ask if my husband and I could sign as witnesses to documents she was going to submit. “I’m just wrapping up something and I can be there in about half an hour is that okay?”
“Well I expect to live at least that long,” she said. I laughed and it felt good to learn that she had a sense of humor.
When I met with her to sign the papers she explained that what we were signing was an advanced directive document from an organization called Five Wishes. “It’s a wonderful organization and it’s a good way to open up the conversation about these things that are hard to talk about.”
How do you provide comfort to someone who is preparing for the end of her life? I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to know death is upon you and have to make decisions regarding your dying wishes. She asked me and my husband if we had children. I shared with her that we had been struggling. I felt it was only fair to share something deeply personal with her since she had been so open and candid with me. She discussed some alternative therapies she had been using that she felt could also help me.
Later that night she sent me an email.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and it took the coronavirus to show me that I am living next door to a group of angels. I cannot thank you enough for your offer of help, and your husband’s (Abdullah’s) willingness to sign a document and run to a mailbox for me. I hope I will be able to repay the kindness when the crisis is over — and if, God willing, I am still around to do so.
Here is the information about some of what we talked about: You might want to start by checking out the BioCharger on the internet. The BioCharger has programs for many conditions, and I’m positive there’s one for infertility. Also, do check the internet for other “alternative” options.
I have been dramatically helped by it, and I would be happy to tell you about my experiences.
I am a very good resource, generally, for alternative sources, and would be happy to tell you about my non-medical trip to the world of non-traditional healing.
Wishing you luck with your challenges,
A few days later she called us again to sign something else, and then I got deployed as a Disaster Service Worker to assist with COVID related crises in San Francisco. I called her before starting my assignment to check in with her. When she asked me how I was doing, I shared with her how anxious I was to be deployed to the hospital because I didn’t know what I was walking into and I was worried about infecting my father who is 74. She encouraged me to take care of myself and my family.
“You will find another job, ” she assured me, “just stay home.”
It felt good to talk to another female who was older and wiser and had a vast perspective on life. I could no longer have these conversations with my own mother. Her cognition had declined greatly since her stroke. Where she was once a fountain of wisdom and inspiring words, she could barely remember the name of my nephew, her grandson. Our conversations were often limited to how she was doing, what she had to eat that day, and whether or not she showered. Most of the time she has no idea what she has eaten during the day. She can’t remember what I do for work. She knows I have a husband and she asks about him but she never remembers his name or even the words corresponding to “husband” in either English or Spanish. What’s worse is I can’t even be with my mom, I sometimes worry that if she doesn’t see me she will forget me. So I constantly call her on the phone only to be met with her voicemail greeting after one ring. I can’t leave her a message because her mailbox is full. I can’t text her or message her on any social media because she has no interest in operating her phone at all. Every once in a while she will call me and say “I think you called me but I wasn’t able to call you back.” I feel delighted when she musters up the strength to dial my number because it means she is having a good day. It means she still remembers who I am. It means she’s still alive.
One day I asked her if she ever talks to her friends. “Nooo. Noooot really,” she said, stretching out her voice as if she was trying to remember who her friends were and if she even had any.
“Oh why not?” I was genuinely curious why she had lost interest in socializing.
“Oh you know, I just haven’t really had time.” Still sounding unsure about who her friends are.
“Mom, you literally do nothing ALL day. You don’t even watch TV! What do you mean you don’t have time?” I said in a joking way to which we both laughed.
Nowadays when mom laughs I feel as if I am lit up on the inside. The fog clears and I feel light. She’s still in there. Sure, she has trouble finding her words. She forgets what she ate for breakfast. She’s often ornery from what my step-dad reports, but she still has a sense of humor. She’s still in there!
I called to check in with Bea mid-April. I could hear in her voice that she was no longer feeling as spirited as she was before, but she still gave me a delighted “Oh hi Natashia!” when she answered the phone. She asked me how my dad was doing and when I told her he was getting restless staying at home, she mentioned that the senior center in a nearby town was much better than the one in our current town, and that they probably had an online program.
“That’s great! I’ll look into it. I’m sure that would be a great place for him to make some friends.”
“Well I bet all the women will be after him,” there was that little bit of spark again. We both laughed. I still wonder if she was interested in my father.
“Is there anything you need? Do you need me to go to the grocery store?” I asked.
“Well are you familiar with Trader Joe’s?” Did I know Trader Joe’s?! Does a fish know how to swim?
“Are you kidding? Trader Joe’s is my favorite. I know it like the back of my hand.”
“Because I have a very specific diet,” she said. “Everything needs to be organic. No flour. No sugar.” she emphasized.
“My caretaker doesn’t seem to get it. She cooks very American, as American as you can get. I also have diabetes and the other day she used a sauce that had sugar. I really can’t be eating sugar.” I wasn’t clear what Bea meant by “very American” but I envisioned her being spoon fed meatloaf laden with flour as a binding agent, and topped with ketchup processed with high fructose corn syrup, a side of non-organic buttery mashed potatoes, topped with heavy gravy. I thought of my mom and what she had been eating. She had to depend on my step-dad to make all her meals, and he’s not a big fan of vegetables. I worried that my mom was eating too many starches, but I also understood that it must be hard to care for her. His best right now meant making beans and rice or whatever creation he could make involving corn tortillas.
“Oh, well I’m happy to help you. I’m so familiar with Trader Joe’s that I often make recipes using only Trader Joe’s ingredients and share them online! That’s how familiar I am. I know exactly what spaghetti sauce to get that is sugar free. I know exactly which bacon has no sugar. I have no problem getting your groceries. I’m used to looking at labels anyway. My grandmother had diabetes so I have been reading labels since I was a kid. My mom also has diabetes so I get it.” I was excited that what she needed was something I enjoyed doing. I imagined that maybe if I did a good enough job, she would recommend me to all her senior friends and I could start a business as Trader Joe’s personal shopping guru, and then I’d really be living the dream.
“Alright, well I don’t think I need anything right away. I can hold out for a few more days.” she said.
“Does Friday work for you? I have to work tomorrow and Friday, but I can go Friday after I get off work. I’ll come home, take a shower to wash off the hospital and then go to the store,” I assured her.
“That sounds great. How much do you need me to give you? I’d like to pay you for your time.”
“Oh no, really, it’s my pleasure to do this for you. I have to go to the store for myself anyway.” I started to cringe with awkwardness and at the same time knew I needed the extra money. Every time I worked at the hospital I feared for my dad, and I knew people were already having issues with applying for unemployment benefits.
She insisted “How much do you think you make in a week?”
“Well I make about twenty five dollars an hour.” I figured an hour is about how long it would take me to go to the store. That seemed fair.
“Would $500 do it?” She wouldn’t let it go.
“Oh no Bea, that’s really too much. I can’t. It doesn’t feel right. I really just wanted to help make things easier for you.” I was dumbfounded.
“Well.. would it help? I really don’t want you to go to work anymore. You should stay home and be with your family.”
“Well yeah, of course it would help, but..”
“Then it’s done. It’s decided. $500.”
“Okay. Thank you.” I fell silent. I quickly steered the conversation back to the groceries. Letting her know I would call her before Friday to see what she was out of by then. She agreed and we said goodbye. I hoped she would just forget. I knew I would have a hard time even asking her to reimburse me for the groceries I would be buying her.
When I got home from my hospital assignment the following afternoon. My dad told me that Bea’s caretaker had stopped by with something for me. Oh good It must be the grocery list.
My dad handed me a greeting card in a purple envelope. The front of the card was covered in what seemed to be a close up of violet flowers. I opened the card. There was the check for $500 glaring at me. Dammit Bea. I haven’t even gone to the store. Well I’m just not going to cash it. I don’t have to cash it right away. I need to talk to her about this again. At least make sure this is what she really wants to do.
I put the check aside and read the card:
Thank you for all your kindness. Hope the check covers some of the rough spots.
P.S. Fill in your complete name. Everything I need is in another room. Sorry.
Sorry?! She’s sorry? Why would she apologize? Everything is another room? She must not be doing well at all. It sounds like she is bedridden. Oh, poor Bea.
She also sent her grocery list:
Oh I like that, that’s cute! Sounds so much fancier than grape or cherry tomatoes.
Olive oil (from Spain or Greece)
Interesting. I wonder why Spain or Greece? I think I heard they have better olives. Hmm sounds like she has a refined palate. I like her more and more. Wait. Is that it? This seems like enough for just an omelette.
It seemed as if she was giving me random things to buy to help me feel like I was helping her.
I called Bea several times that day but her phone was busy, making my anxious feelings grow larger and larger. I felt a warmth in my chest at the thought of her thinking I was worth giving that money for such a small favor. When I finally got her on the phone she greeted me with as much excitement as she could manage.
“Oh hi Natashia!”
“Hi Bea, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day. How are you feeling?”
She described her caretaker being wonderful. She told me about how she was able to have a bath that day. She expressed how grateful she was to have someone be there with her. I let her know how glad I was she had company and didn’t have to be alone.
“I got your card and the check. I wanted to say thank you, and I’ll just be the one to go to the grocery store for you from now on.”
“Oh no, this is separate from that. This has nothing to do with getting groceries.” she clarified
“But why?.. Why would you do that?” still not clear about why someone would be so generous.
“Because I want to. And I can.”
Perhaps she had a lot of money and she knew she wasn’t going to get a chance to spend it. Perhaps $500 seemed a lot to me but was nothing to her. Perhaps she was more grateful than I knew and gift giving was her love language. She didn’t have any children, which meant no grandchildren and maybe, in the little time we knew one another, she came to see me that way. I didn’t continue to ask. I accepted her answer. I was also working on feeling deserving of blessings. I thanked her and quickly shifted to the grocery list confirming the type of eggs and butter she wanted, making sure if there was a specific brand she needed. I let her know about what time I planned to stop by with the groceries and she told me where I could leave them if there was no one to answer the door.
About ten days went by and I still hadn’t cashed the check. Bea hadn’t called me and I think I was trying to avoid calling her for fear of her asking if I had tried to deposit the check. I needed to call her and see how she’s doing. Her caretaker answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked to speak with Bea.
“Well she’s sleeping now, but you know she’s declining right? She’s been unresponsive for several days.”
“How long?” I really believed she would survive the quarantine.
“I’d say for about ten days.” Shit I should have called her sooner I knew it. I suck. “Yeah. I’d say she’s going to go pretty soon. Probably by tomorrow.” She thought for a few seconds. “Yeah… I think it’s going to happen tomorrow.”
How someone could know the exact time someone is going to pass I have no idea. Maybe it’s something caretakers of older adults know how to do, but I thought it was really weird.
“Well I’d like to see her, or say goodbye, or whatever. How can I do that?”
The caretaker informed me she would talk to Bea’s executor and find out if I could stop by. I guess if Bea was about to expire precisely the next day as the caretaker so oddly predicted, then it wouldn’t matter if I got within six feet of her. I decided she probably wasn’t going to need her $500 anymore and I should probably deposit it before it was too late. This wasn’t the first time someone offered me money that I wasn’t sure I deserved. Only last time I never cashed it.
The executor called me later that afternoon and said that Bea had spoken highly of me, which made me smile given we barely knew each other. She told me I could come into Bea’s home for a few minutes to pay my respects as long as I wore a mask and didn’t touch her directly on the skin. We speculated how a memorial could be put together with people not being able to gather at this time. She shared about how Bea was a journalist for a very prestigious local newspaper and that “she knew everyone who was anyone” I imagined a young, sassy Bea wearing a sparkling gala dress, clinking champagne glasses with high society people, laughing and tossing her hair, having intellectual conversations with a mix of clever jokes. I bet she was a hell of a journalist.
I instantly regretted not calling Bea everyday since our introduction. I thought of all the questions I would now love to ask her but would never have the opportunity to. I think I felt uneasy about the whole check situation. I also didn’t know how to have a conversation with someone who was getting ready for their life to come to an end. What I realize now is, instead of me comforting Bea, it was she who was really comforting me. Bea wanted to show me that small gestures do make a huge difference. I thought of my mom again, and how our conversations will never be the same as they used to be. Most of the time she doesn’t want to talk to anyone and rarely answers her phone, but when we do talk, even if there isn’t much depth, it matters. Whatever time I have to connect with my mom now is going to make a difference when she’s no longer here.
I went next door to visit Bea one last time, the executor led me to the bedroom where she lay in her hospital bed. I scanned the room for pictures of young Bea, or Bea with her ex-husband, or anything that would give me a better glimpse of this fascinating woman. I noticed a huge painting facing the bed, of two human-like pigs standing upright. One was dressed as a bride, and the other was clearly the groom. They were standing in a portrait style pose. I had so many questions about the painting and I was sure there was a great story behind it. I told myself that Bea was probably just as quirky as I was, and if only for a short time I had befriended a kindred spirit. I thanked Bea for her generosity. I wanted to hug her, but because of social distancing, I just rubbed her arm over the blanket. I told her how happy I was that we had met and how I wished I had knocked on her door sooner. I was glad that she seemed to be peaceful and not in pain. She lay there breathing loudly, almost snoring, but still as dainty as when she was standing in her doorway the day we officially met. Bea passed away the following evening, just as the caretaker had predicted.
When I got home I called my mom and as usual, the call went straight to voicemail. I called my stepdad and he sighed. I could almost hear him shaking his head. He handed the phone to my mom.
“Hi mami! I’m so glad you were available.”
“Oh hi mi amor. How are you?” She called me “mi amor” that’s always a good sign.
“I’m good mami. What have you eaten today?”
“Ummmm…I don’t know…I think…. I know I ate something.” she giggled.
“Oh good mami. I’m glad that you were able to eat something. I miss you.”
“I miss you too mi amorcito.”