Key to a Locked Door
A few weeks ago, when a companion from a local volunteer agency dropped our ninety-year old neighbor, Shirley, back home after running errands, she realized she had forgotten her key. I knew this only because she buzzed our unit number on the callbox outside of our condominium complex, and my husband answered from his cell phone at work (his cell phone is hooked up to the callbox). He buzzed her in then called me on my cell phone (we don’t have a land line) to let me know Shirley was in the lobby. Why am I telling you all of this? Be patient, I’ll get there.
Fortunately, I was home, where Shirley’s spare key hung on the rack by the kitchen. I ran down the three flights of stairs – no Shirley. I ran back up the three flights, now out of breath because I’m out of shape. I found her pushing her walker toward our door, which is directly across from her unit. “Silly me,” she said, blushing. Her voice was tired but clear.
“No worries,” I said. After I unlocked her door, I stayed for a while to talk with her and her companion, an unassuming woman with soft features and a subdued voice. I joked with Shirley: “What are we going to do with you?” She laughed, slipped back a few feet, but grabbed the doorframe to balance herself.
Then her companion spoke up: “Now, Shirley, you really should hide an extra key somewhere so this doesn’t happen again.” Shirley nodded, her pencil-thin lips pressed so tight together the red lipstick she wore looked like a single stripe spread across her face. “When I come back next week, I expect that you’ll have another key made,” the companion said. This time, Shirley looked at me, her Caribbean blue eyes shiny and round, like pinballs.
When her companion left, Shirley let out a huge sigh. “Why does she have to be so patronizing?” she asked. I bit my lip, nodded in agreement. She’s mentioned that word before – patronizing. She said it when a different companion used to visit her each week to take her places like the grocery store and pharmacy. “She’s a nice girl,” Shirley would say, “But she’s too nosey. She wants to make sure I have the right dress to wear to my grandson’s wedding. It’s patronizing.” She said it again when I asked her how her physical therapy sessions were going: “They’re helping me with my walking, but they always want to know what kinds of things I do at home. It’s patronizing.” I gave her one of those looks that says, “I don’t get it.” Certainly, they were just looking out for her.
As I stood in her hallway, my hand on the doorknob, I didn’t know what to say about her companion, so I said, “For some reason, as people age, we tend to treat them like children.” I hope I don’t do that, and certainly know better than to treat Shirley like a child. Of course, since we’re good friends, she would tell me, right? Though she’s ninety and a bit off balance when it comes to walking, her mind is far from off balance: before I left, she folded her arms across her chest, held her head up high, like Maggie Smith from Downton Abby, and said, “Just to bug her, I think I won’t get another key.”