All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
— The Beatles
Parking was a bitch at the Clairemont Health and Wellness Center, but I managed to find a spot just as someone was pulling out. At the front desk my therapy dog Griffin and I were directed down a long hall where numerous elderly people in wheelchairs sat, some smiling at Griffin as we walked past. Turning left and heading down another long hall, employees at the nurse’s station halfway down smiled at us. At the end of the hall we peeked into a room on the right and saw a lady laying in the bed closest to the door, and I knew that was Eleanor. From her case form that I perused beforehand, I knew she was 65, but this woman looked closer to 82.
“Eleanor?” I gently approached the bed, Griff behind me.
“Yes, who’s there?” she sat up, startled. I had forgotten that our new patient was about 90% blind.
“I’m Kelly, from Vitas, and this is my therapy dog Griffin,” I cheerfully, yet slowly spoke to her. “Are you up for a visit?”
“Oh,” she brightened up, “yeah, sure! Where’s your dog?”
I patted the bed and Griffin jumped up and sidled up beside her. She laughed softly and stroked his bristly coat.
“Well, he’s getting all settled in,” I said, “would you mind if I got a chair and sat with you a bit?”
“That would be wonderful.”
And that’s how we began. For about four months, every Wednesday from 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. Griffin and I would make the short trip up Highway 163 to see Eleanor. Sometimes we would bring her a KFC meal or a combo meal from Jack-in-the-Box as, according to her, the food at the facility was quite bland and redundant.
She said she couldn’t see us very well, only being able to make out fuzzy details. She knew I had dark hair, and that Griffin was grey. Her teeth were just as bad as her eyesight; she could really only gnash away at the food we brought her, but the joy in her face could not be denied.
She had family, but no one came to see her. One sister, Maria — my contact person for Eleanor — lived in town, but was supposedly too obese to leave the house. Another sister wanted nothing to do with her; “She thinks I’m a low-life,“ Eleanor confided in me one day.
Eleanor had children that “lived too far away” to come and see their mother, although one son did make the trek down from the Bay Area at one point.
I brought her a pair of slippers from Goodwill, and she cherished them, saying it was so nice to receive a gift. She adored Griffin, and shared a few small bits of her chicken with him.
On one of our earlier visits Eleanor was sleeping when we arrived. I gently woke her, and as she groggily came to, I said, “I wasn’t sure if I should wake you.”
“Oh, please don’t ever not wake me when you come here,” she ordered, smiling. “I would be so mad!”
Our visits always ended with a hug, and a promise that we would see her the following week.
Eleanor was a bit feisty with the hospital staff, and she claimed that they could be quite short with her at times. She told me that one time she had said to a doctor, “You all just want me to die and get out of your hair,” to which the doctor allegedly replied, “Well, we all have to go sometime.”
It was a sad day when I paid my last visit to Eleanor. My manager at Vitas informed me that although she was still a patient at the facility, she had dropped out of the Vitas program, and, as a volunteer, I had to abide by the policies and only visit patients under Vitas care. I asked if I could still visit her, but he said no, that it was a liability issue. He told me that Griffin and I could pay her one more visit, to give our goodbyes.
The visit went as usual, but toward the end, I held Eleanor’s hand and gently gave her the news that this would be Griff’s and my last visit. I explained as best I could the reason why, and as I watched her face transition from bright to crestfallen, I could feel my heart growing heavier by the moment.
“You two are my only visitors,” she said, voice shaking, and tear-filled eyes gazing off in the distance.
“I know,” I choked up, my own tears starting to flow, “and I am so sorry. Our time with you has been so enjoyable. Please don’t be upset with me,” then lying, I added, “I know you’ll be okay here.”
Griffin gave Eleanor one last nuzzle before I directed him off of the bed. I gave her a warm hug and a kiss on her forehead. “We love you, Eleanor.”
My therapy dog and I walked down the long hallway, past the nurse’s station, then hung a right down another long hallway, past numerous people in wheelchairs, through the reception area and back out into the sunlight. Tears falling from under my sunglasses, I took a few deep breaths, then continued on to the parking lot. I opened my car door for Griffin to hop in, then I got in the driver’s seat and we pulled away.
Four months later I received a message on my cell phone from Maria that Eleanor had passed away.