It was early evening. Dim light reflected off the grey walls of the housing project. It was beginning to turn cold. I had no jacket. I wanted to go home- to not be here as the darkness approached. The day had been wearying. I was not up to being pleasant and caring. I glanced at the intake form while negotiating the curved entrance to section B. “Netty Bellamy. 93 years old. High Blood Pressure. Hard of Hearing.” Sigh. I park, head to a door only to find it is the wrong one. Its not 321B, its 231B. I wonder sometimes if I am becoming dyslexic, because that seems to happen more and more. Back in the car, drive around the corner, park. Correct number this time. Maybe she won’t be home. I knock, loudly, because she is hard of hearing, and there is no doorbell. I wait the everlasting minute or two. BANG-BANG-BANG go my callused knuckles. A voice from within…
“It’s your NURSE!”
“Ok, Baby. I’m comin’.”
The door opens.
A short stooped woman in a quilted pink robe, with a green print kerchief wrapping her curlers, and thick coke-bottle glasses asks me to step inside. I pass from concrete to concrete. There is an indoor-outdoor rug in the middle of the room, along with an old flowered couch and a sturdy coffee table covered with assorted dingy looking items. A basket hangs from the corner near the window, piled with plastic bananas, apples, grapes, their enduring ripe beauty layered with a coat of dust. The sheer green drapes filter the dusk, and there is a light on in the ornately wallpapered kitchen. I have seen cluttered houses, and though this one contains its share of essential items such as china pug dogs, and pastel crocheted doilies, it doesn’t feel cramped or dirty.
She moves her hands around, down my arm until she finds my hand which she takes between both of her small gnarled ones. “Are you my nuhs, or my maid?” It is uncanny to hear a voice that squeaky at such incredible volume. She is close to deaf and very nearly blind. She wants to know my name. This seems to satisfy her need to protect herself. Then she asks “Is you white?” She stands hands forward, no malice in the question, just purely interest. Wondering if this will change the entire course of the visit, I say yes, quietly, then at progressively increased levels of volume until she nods and says “I loves all people. White and black.” She locks the door behind her, fumbling a bit. She wants to know what we need to do. At my answers, she comments “Oh, yes, Honey. Thank you, Honey.” We move together, and although we are both pretending that I am leading her, we definitely do it her way. Shuffling sideways as close together as possible, she guides me to the couch. We are seated side by side in its dusty depths, she as upright as her frame can manage, and I as close to the edge of the seat as I can get.
She is still holding my hand. I am loath to draw it away, but I do have to get some medical history. It will be slow going. The things I need to find out from her are not the interesting things she wants to tell me. I want to talk about when she was diagnosed with Diabetes, how long has she been on Lisinopril, how much can she actually see. She wants to talk about her church, her role as a deaconess, her grandchildren, and how good God has been to her. We try to do both at once.
I watch her scan the coffee table with her fingers, searching for her medicines. Somewhere between the church bulletins and a tissue box stuffed with her important documents, she finds them, stored in an old shoebox. She picks each one up and holds it impossibly close to her eyes. No good. “Honey, which is this one?” All her comments are bursting with life. You can hear it squeaking out of her. Words come out of her as if she is overflowing with joy. Even her “What was that, honey? I can’t hear too good.” is enthusiastic and full of intent. If it must be said, than it must be said as ecstatically as possible. She interjects in the middle of sentences, after the end and before I begin. Everyone once in a while, the serious, sedate side comes out- “Yes, I did smoke. But everyone did, we didn’t know there was nothin’ wrong with it! But I did not drink. Never have, never will.”
She is delightful, adorable. She squeaks on about all the people who love her, how blessed she is, and how she misses her husband, when all at once she is sobbing. “OHH-oh-oh!” She is rocking back and forth, crying as if her heart will break. I try to console her. “Ms. Bellamy, I’m so sorry…it’s so hard…” She doesn’t hear me through the wailing. She can’t see me either, so I try to jot down a few medicines and doses while she is drying her eyes. Her head bobs up. “The Lord knows, and it won’t be long before I see him again.”
She smells of sour rags and menthol, but somehow the old-woman smell is not repulsive. It’s the smell of a woman who has lived a pure life. She is grabbing for my hand again. “Baby, I’s been through a lot in my life. They’s been many troubles, but Jesus, He see me through…” and before I can register what is happening, she is singing at the top of her tremendous voice “HALLELUIAH! OOOOOOHHHHH, JEEEEESUS! OOOOOOOOOOH JEEESUS! You been SOOOOOOO GOOOD! HALLELUIAH JESUS…OOOOOH JESUS!” She sings so loud and starts so suddenly that I jump. She explains “Sometime I just get so filled with the Spirit, and it just come out of … OOOOOOH PRAISE YOU JESUS!” Soon my astonishment is swallowed up in giggles. I feel am not alone. The angels on the shelf seem to be laughing, and the black Jesus in the picture on the wall looks like he wants to come out of his frame, take her in his arms, and laugh and sing in delight of her. What a party! She slaps me on the knee as she finishes. “That’s how I got to be a deaconess. I just get so full of the Lord HAAALELUIAH!” She breaks out in another ear-splitting note.
I am caught in a smiling gape. This child-woman is so unpredictable. I have no idea what might come next, but whatever it is, it will be at full force. She holds nothing back, believes in no restraint of feeling. She lives her highs and lows like a cowboy rides a bucking bronco, holding on and shouting about the thrill of it all! I am fascinated. She is 93 years old. She lives alone. She gives off no sense of rejection or disappointment. She loves life. I know it’s true. She’s told me “Life is good.” I’m sure all her neighbors know it. I’m almost positive everyone on the West side knows it, as loud as she is.
It is time to sign the papers and go. Darkness is becoming evident. She wants me to leave before the sun is down, “You know, they’s some bad people out there. But I love ‘em!” So I ask her if she will sign for me. She says: “You put da paper and put da pen, and I’ll write. Now, Put da N, put da N!” So I put the N. “N-E-T-T-Y. Netty. Now, put da D, put da D!” She is saying this like she is cheering for the high school football team. “D. OK, now put da B, put da B! B-E-L-L-A-M-Y, Bellamy. Netty D. Bellamy, that’s me, hee, hee!”
In this moment in eternity, I can hear a squeaky “Halleluiah!” and the roar of the angels rejoicing, and I don’t have to listen too closely. You can hear Netty D. from here.
Note: In all these stories, names have been changed to preserve patient privacy.