A dinner party Saturday evening with some of our best and oldest friends, and as you can imagine, a necessary and worthwhile challenge for me. These are friends who have been by our side since we first moved to this small town from Texas, who have been teaching colleagues, late night dinner party companions, who have seen my slides and multiple climbs back up the monkey bars, who have seen me throw myself off from the top perch into the dirt—and who now get to see me try again, this time, with some sobriety and hope and honesty.I told Christopher, “No easy meal, nothing I can skate by on--no pureed squash and hummus on toast points; no mashed bananas delicately drizzled with chocolate syrup. Let’s test out my recovery muscles. Lamb Bolognese and fresh pasta and I’ll make dessert.”
His eyebrows shot up. Skepticism? Honest to goodness supportive surprise? “You’re sure?”
I’d been leafing through Bon Appetite and spied a recipe for a Pumpkin Pie with a Gingersnap and Pecan Crust finished off with a Fresh Cranberry Glaze. Heavy cream was involved—my biceps flexed at the idea.
“I can do this,” I said. “I need to do this. Besides, I need to see my friends. It’s been too long since we were all together.” The fallout of an Eating Disorder—isolation, the obvious tendency to stay away from any gathering involving group dining. ED likes to conjure up this exaggerated cinematic picture: I have devolved, am in a group of Neanderthals, ravenously gathered around the bloodied carcass of some poor wooly mammoth, tearing at it with bare hands and jagged teeth, passing around the bone-in-ribeye in a moment of congenial fellowship, raucously sharing some wild barley moonshine.Of course, Saturday evening was the exact opposite. Friendship, fellowship, food lingered over, savored. ED was virtually silent, mostly because I was able to talk to one of my friends, B., at the start of the evening about my fears, about the progress I’ve made over the past several months, got it off my chest, before getting it into the gullet so to speak.
And then, as we were finishing up the Lamb Bolognese, scrumptious, unctuous, delicious, and yes, I kept telling myself, nutritious (anymore “ous” words out there my ECT brain can summon up without the help of a Thesaurus or my Husband’s dictionary-brain?), my husband, who sat in view of our front door, suddenly said, “There’s someone at our door!”My whole body tensed. I don’t know why. It was late-ish. We live on a busy street, frequently populated by stumbling drunks. For some reason, my anxiety-fueled brain imagined some meth-fueled, gun-toting home invader (too many episodes of Criminal Minds and Dexter?) about to break in, and I thought about my kids screaming like banshees in the attic and my only defensive weapons were a stainless steel dinner knife and an Italian pottery dinner plate I could fling like a Frisbee. Panic and complete immobility took over.
But Christopher, genuine descendant of Vikings, stood up and strode over. “Can I help you?” he said, through the storm door. The rest of the men from the table followed him: a professorial posse-at-PhD’ed arms. And then they were all outside on the porch talking to the stranger in the night.Soon we all followed because it turned out this invader was in fact a confused old woman dressed in a housecoat, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, with one slipper on, the other foot naked.
“I don’t know where I am,” she said. “I was following someone, and then I just kept walking.”“What’s your name?” S. asked.
“Henrietta,” she answered.“Do you know where you live?” Christopher asked.
She shrugged. “My house overlooks Spencer hospital.”Spencer hospital has not been Spencer hospital for years. It is several blocks away and now part of the city hospital.
“Do you know where your other slipper is?” K. asked.She shrugged again, smiled flirtatiously. “I had it on when I left the house, but it was light then,” and waggled her bare foot. Her toes looked cold, the nails long, untrimmed. It had been dark for hours.
S. ran to his car across the street and came back with one of his slippers, a cozy, suede fleece boat which he gently put on her foot. Why he had slippers in his car? A small miracle even if they were 10 sizes too big. But the slipper looked sweet on her small foot, and sad, too, a sign of how lost and helpless she was, wandering alone in the dark and cold, without any memory of how to get home, even though home could only be a few mere blocks away.We invited her inside and sat her down on one of the dining room chairs we pulled into the hallway. She gazed around, into the dining room, at the table lit up with candles, at the dinner plates, and the platter of pasta quickly growing cold, at the collection of empty wine bottles. Note: my green water goblet filled with sparkling water. Double note: I had ABSOLUTELY NO urges to drink AT ALL. None. Nada. Though I did smoke a few cigarettes to quell food anxiety.
“Why are you all here?” she asked.B. smiled and knelt down by her side. “We’re having a dinner party. We’re all good friends and we haven’t seen each other in a long time so we wanted to get together.”
Henrietta smiled wide. “That’s nice. It seems like I came to the right house.”Christopher asked her if she knew her address or if she knew the telephone number of any of her friends.
She shrugged again.Could she describe her house?
“Brick. No, White. Wood. I live upstairs.”Christopher decided to drive down the street to see if the nursing home, brick and across the street from the hospital might be missing her.
While he was gone, we chatted with Henrietta. She was lively, sparkled with wit. “Never married, thank god,” she said. “Never needed that trouble.” She was 84, and worked most of her life as an “inspector, inspecting things.” Her sister, older by a year, had recently died, and she had a brother, but didn’t know where he lived. Every day, she walked to McDonald’s for breakfast—the staff knew her by name and knew exactly what she wanted: Egg McMuffin, black coffee.I offered her a brownie I had made for the kids.
“Oh! A Brownie,” she said, “I’d love one! God led me here, that’s for sure!”Henrietta, though snaggle-toothed, was beautiful—her white hair was pulled up in a 1920’s style bun, loose along the sides; her skin was smooth, few wrinkles—I wanted to ask about her skin-care regime—did she use the $135 La Mer that had been recently recommended to me?; her blue eyes lit upon everything around her.
And yet, my heart was breaking, too. She’d carried with her an envelope with $35. For what? In the other hand, television remote control pamphlets. And she kept talking about following someone to somewhere—which we’d managed to work out was probably someone on a television program she’d been watching. She lived alone—entirely alone—and had no friends, no family, no one looking after her. And she’d been wandering the streets in her housecoat and blanket, one slipper, one bare foot—no fairy godmother or prince charming to complete her fairytale. Lost and alone, except for us.But she kept repeating that God had led her to us.
Thank god—or the goddess--that all the lights in our house were blazing, that she could probably see us all gathered around our dining room table from the street. Friendship and fellowship could draw her in from the cold to the warmth of my home and our help.
B. whispered to me, “We could drive her to McDonald’s and then ask her to show us her route home. Since she walks it every day, she knows that route by heart….”Logical, yes, but horrifically disquieting. This was where loneliness and the loss of memory lead? Being driven around by a group of strangers in the dark of a cold November evening along the only route wedged into memory—the path from McDonald’s to home? Egg McMuffin and coffee back to the empty, silent apartment somewhere a few blocks away where no one waits for your return?
Christopher opened the front door, shook his head. “No one at Hillside Home knows Henrietta.” He turned to her. “Your sister was Catherine?’How the heck did he know that?
While B. was chatting with Henrietta about the gratifying contentment of a life lived sans husband or children, Christopher told us he had called the local funeral home to inquire about Henrietta’s recently deceased sister. We knew her last name, so it was only a matter of the funeral home checking records to find the sister’s name—maybe, on the off chance they had an address for Henrietta on file. Catherine. They knew that much, but nothing about Henrietta.But why was anyone at the funeral home at nine o’clock on a Saturday night unless, of course, there was a wake? And going by the usual obituaries in our town paper, likely for someone not unlike Henrietta—though those obituaries were usually packed full of descendants—children and grandchildren, and often great-grandchildren, the ties that bind lives together, that announce to the world that we have mattered and to whom.
Christopher said he had called the police; it was what Hillside Home staff advised. They’d have her address on record, would be able to get her home more quickly than our hapless detective work.So we waited with Henrietta, whose cheerful dismissal of her own forgetfulness was beginning to turn into self-recriminating anger.
“I am so stupid,” she kept muttering. “I should never have left my house. What was I thinking? How could I have wound up here? How could I have gotten so far away from home? Why don’t I know how to get back? How could I forget how to get back home?”
What I wanted to say, but didn’t, couldn’t find the right moment, was, “Oh, it’s so easy to forget how to get around. I just got through a round of ECT, and I’ve been getting lost while driving around from Big Lots to Giant Eagle. So don’t feel bad.” But I also didn’t want to sound flip, didn’t want to minimize her pain, her suffering. Alzheimer’s and the brain cells which have shriveled and dried up vs. Chosen Zaps of Electricity meant to fire up the black and blue parts of my brain. And then of course, perhaps she didn’t even know to know that she was in a state of acute deterioration—self-directed irony would truly be a cruel joke.The police arrived, young, friendly, gentlemen, who, as it turned out, had escorted Henrietta home from a similar adventure earlier that week. “We’ll be back with your slipper,” they said. “We found her lost slipper just up the block but wanted to make sure it was a match before taking it.”
And then she was gone. For future reference, the policemen gave us her address: 999 Grove Street. Literally, one block away. One block, but it might as well have been a trek to Nepal.I saw Dr. B. this morning and told him this story. “Does it remind you of anyone else who lost a slipper?”
I stared at him blank-faced.“C’mon,” he said. “Iconic fairytale?”
“Oh, yeah. Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming. I don’t think Henrietta had either of those waiting for her,” I said.“But she kept telling you that God led her to your house,” Dr. B. said.
“I try to stay away from the Disney fairytales and all that fairy godmother stuff. Thankfully, Sophia never bought into the princess crap either.”“But that lost slipper. Doesn’t that remind you of anyone else?”
“Me? You mean me? I’m certainly not waiting on any Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming to fix things.”He laughed, knowing that my feminist hackles were raised.
“Okay. But aren’t you also lost and trying to find your way home? What else can you take from the story of Henrietta? How did she get home?”“Please don’t say that God got her there.”
“No, but you did. She found her way to your house, and with a group effort—the help of you and her friends, the warmth of your house, your friend’s slipper, you all took care of her—you helped to get her home. You didn’t let her panic, you eased her fears, and you managed to help her get home.”“O yeah, I didn’t tell you, when the police came back with my friend’s slipper, they said they couldn’t stay to chat because they had to go and break up a fight.”
Diversion, deflection, irony. Thou shalt not appear soft or sentimental.“But it’s also a sign of where you could wind up if you keep listening to IT. Lost, alone, without anyone, wandering in the cold, following some false figure, some voice lying to you, leading you out into the dark, without your slipper, no way to get back home,” Dr. B. said, his gaze holding mine, his voice steady, clear, truthful, not lying. This is exactly why I took the risk and decided to come back to him. His voice can help lead me back to truth and sanity.
I sit here now, writing this, on the edge of the pool watching my daughter at swim practice, swimming her countless laps, diving with strength and ferocity off the blocks. We’ve just come back from a bathroom break where I helped her peel her wet suit back up her body.“Momma,” she said, “I need to tell you something. When I was just swimming, I was trying to see how long I could hold my breath under water. I was trying to see what it would be like to drown. But I couldn’t. Every time, I just kept popping back up to the surface. I needed to breathe, no matter what.”
I arranged her straps back into place, kissed the top of her swim cap. “It’s almost impossible to drown yourself,” I said. “Your body has instincts. It will fight to breathe, to live. It wants you to stay alive.”It’s why Henrietta arrived on my front porch. It’s why I arrived back on Dr. B’s couch. It’s why I chose the complicated, challenging meal. It’s why I chose friendship and fellowship. It’s why I found out from my nutritionist today that I have gained two pounds this week through deliberate, self-willed effort. I will no longer try to drown myself, will not let myself sink, but will swim.