A solitary figure stands on the sidewalk. She is looking my way, with her pink baseball cap sitting slightly a-kilter upon her head. A diminutive, elderly lady, her eyes light up as I walk closer. “Hello, is that you?” she asks with a slight German accent. I respond with a song. “I just met a girl named Maria, Maria, and suddenly that name will never be the same,” I belt out with all my mailman bravado. She puts her arm through my arm holding the mail, and starts humming, “Here comes the bride,” then stops herself by saying, “No, no that’s not right.”
She points to her house and says, “That’s my house, the one right there. That’s my house.” I answer, “Yes it is, Maria. That’s your house. And look, I have a letter for you today.” She looks at whatever mail I have for her quizzically. Dennis, her roommate and caregiver, comes out on the porch to tell me, “John, Maria has been waiting and looking all afternoon for you and your truck. Good to see you again.” I wave at Dennis, then wrap my one free arm around Maria to end our ritual with a great big bear hug. “See you tomorrow, my dear. Make sure you look for me.” Dennis comes down off the porch to make sure that she gets back in the house safely. Before she goes into the house I wave goodbye one last time, hoping it is not the last time.
This was not always my relationship with Maria. She was the lady who would be out in her garden and would always want to stop me for a chat. The conversations were hard for me to follow, and it being the last street on my route, I was invariably pressed for time. To be truthful, when I could, I would try to avoid her. No time for nut jobs today and it was always a relief if I was lucky enough to get by her house when she wasn’t in the front yard.
One day, Maria caught me on the sidewalk and Dennis followed close behind her. As she began to speak to me, Dennis handed me a business card. He said, “Read this, it will help explain.” On the front of the card it said “Alzheimer’s Foundation” and on the back it read, “Please excuse me and be patient with me. I am experiencing severe memory loss.” Dennis said, “I just wanted you to understand, John.” It was then that I sang out that riff from West Side Story for the first time. And I gave Maria the first of her many mailman bear hugs.
I now look forward to seeing her rather than trying to avoid her as I did for so many months. With winter herenow, our visits are few and far between. But spring will be coming soon, and I hope that with the budding of new blooms and the more temperate weather, that I can also look forward to more frequent visits with Maria. The effects of this disease sometimes can spread rapidly, and I hope that is not case for her. I am still practicing that song, trying to get it just right.
I last saw Maria and Dennis two days before Christmas. He handed me a card and when I opened it, it was simply inscribed, “Thank you for being so nice to Maria. She always looks forward to seeing you. Merry Christmas.” I thought to myself, “No, thank you, Maria, and thank you, Dennis, for you have given me a gift – the gift of understanding how lucky I am to have this job that allows me to meet special people like you two. You help me put my life in perspective.”
A famous man once said: You will take on the nature, the habits, and the power of thought of those with whom you associate in a spirit of sympathy and harmony. I like that, and for this New Year I hope that all of us find a sense of sympathy and harmony with those around us.
Photo: David Goldman/AP