I visited with Alice twice this December. I had no idea those visits were to be our last.
The first time, I brought along my four year old. Alice was prepared. She hid chocolate snowmen around her apartment for my daughter to find. She entertained with stories – one about Three Billy Goats Gruff, and another that she started and then exclaimed “Oh darn, I’ve forgotten how this one goes, so we’ll have to do something else!” Alice then gave us bells to use while marching and singing Jingle Bells. Alice didn’t march this time, but she did sing along. And she laughed and clapped. She later said she couldn’t believe how much my daughter had grown.
The next time, a week later, I stopped by to drop off a holiday gift. (The week before I had said I wanted to buy her a sweater. She relented, eventually, agreeing that she loves sweaters, and asking for purple.) Alice ushered me into her apartment and handed me a box. It was full of practical things – tape, car cleaner, band-aids – all 3M products that she found handy. A perfect Alice gift. We chatted for a while. Like usual, Alice asked about the book, about my grandfather, and about teaching. Then she always listened intently and followed up with fantastic questions; a first-rate conversationalist. But there was more: Alice always gave me the feeling that she was my biggest fan.
That day Alice told me that, with great relief, she finally sold her condo. She laughed as she recounted a funny story, about how, at the downtown closing, she wasn’t able to get up the stairs, where the new owner sat, so the lawyers ran up and down the stairs, with endless papers for her to sign. At the end of the closing, the new owner, an elder in her own right (but not 94 like Alice), descended the stairs and presented Alice with a wrapped gift. Alice was terribly moved by her thoughtfulness.
Both of our December visits we were constantly interrupted by nurses coming into Alice’s apartment to administer eye-drops. She knew each of their names, greeted them warmly, and always introduced me. She disliked the incursions on her privacy, but you’d never know it. She told me she chose this place because “they don’t look down on you; they treat you like a human being.” She herself lived by that mantra. (For more, listen to Alice’s AARP interview.)
On my way out, I walked Alice to the dining room. Alice made a request: “Would you bring that picture of me that looked so good in the book? I think that would be nice for my obituary. I’m getting things in order, and I would love to have a few pictures.” I promised to drop it by. I didn’t think anything of it. This was a typical Alice move – always organized; always one step ahead.
“We can’t forget the hug, can we?” were always Alice’s last words when we parted.
(See my previous blog about Alice and her strong belief in the power of hugs.)
Today I heard that Alice passed away of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve, just two weeks after my last visit. Her lifelong friend, Betty, also passed away that night, across town. An unbelievable coincidence.
To say that this was an unanticipated loss would be an understatement. None of the people in her life can believe it. Over the phone and email, we all recount stories like “just last week she was…” Sure, we all knew she was 94. But we all thought she was immortal. Or perhaps we anticipated some sort of decline before death. But not with Alice. We should have known.
Alice was the woman who, at 90, had a “whole system for self-care,” a plan that included a hired driver who would take her and Betty out for groceries and picnics. At 91 she fully orchestrated her move into assisted living, a precautionary move due to increased blindness. Decades before, Alice managed libraries and helped to open the first home for old women in Albany. At 94 and legally blind, Alice felt she still had work to do, adopting lonely souls who wanted to be listened to. That said, she never missed an opportunity to share laughs over an order of grilled cheese on cinnamon raisin bread at the Luncheonette.
Alice spent a lifetime taking care of others, and taking care of business. She prepared herself for the end, but did not wish for it. At 94, Alice was near the end of her “to do” list. Somehow, the powers that be helped her to finalize things as smoothly as possible. I imagine she would approve.
Still. A life without Alice? Without her supportive questions, her steadfast friendship, her affirming hugs?
Dear Alice, how we will miss you! But, perhaps just as you had planned, we are caring for each other now, and will continue to do so.
Hugs and more hugs,