Friday, June 25, 2010

Getting Miss Minnie's Mail

Flickr photo by creativity + Timothy K Hamilton, creative commons
Before I even opened her chain link gate, I could see a wheel chair pulled up to her screen door. A wheel chair? Miss Minnie started using a walker a couple of years ago, and in the last few months she'd moved slower with it, gripping it hard with her liver spotted hands. She was in a wheel chair now? I heard the buzz of flies. They were darting around the bag of garbage she had left on her porch, where I would have to stand.

I braced myself and walked on.
"Hey there, Miss Minnie. It's Becky, with Meals on Wheels," I said, and she reached up from her chair to click open the lock.
"Hey," she said, her voice sounding weaker than usual. "You weren't here last time. Somebody else came."
"Yes ma'am. My family went to the beach."
"Oh, that's nice."

I opened the door. She always keeps the lights off when it got hot, and today it was nearly 100 degrees. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I tried not to shudder at the sight of her. Three years ago this woman was big boned and vigorous, but today she seems to have shrunk. What happened since I saw her last? Her shirt was misbuttoned, one droopy breast almost hanging out, not that that was anything new. But now there were little red scabs all over her face. I looked down at the bugs scattering across her floor, then to the piles of things on her bed. There were bugs on the sheets too. Were the scabs from bug bites?

This makes me angry. I'd talked with the social worker two times already, trying to convince her that no, the filth wasn't her own fault, that THE WOMAN CAN'T SEE. She had promised me she'd try to get her some help. Now she's worse off than before.

"How are you doing today?"
"Oh, I'm here. That's good enough, I guess."
"I brought your mail," I said. "Maybe somebody's sent you a check!"
That's our long running joke, that maybe one day there will be a check in her stack of bills.
Miss Minnie laughs. "Do you think you'd have time to help me read these too?" she asks, reaching for some mail on her bed.
"Sure," I make myself say, remembering that the last time I did this, bugs were feeding on the glue on the envelopes.
Do I really have to do this?
I remember when Meals on Wheels was just plain fun, when I could show up like meal Santa, knocking on doors, dropping off meals, and chatting with people.
I consider saying, I'm sorry, Miss Minnie. I can't today.
But she has no one else.

"Why don't you come on in," she says, backing up her wheelchair a foot, until it bumps against her bed.
"That's okay," I say, staying in the doorway. "I don't want to crowd you." I feel ashamed, but I don't want to go in her house any farther. It smells today, and I keep imagining mice or rats.

"Can you read these first?" she says, handing me a stack of mail from her bed. A bug scatters across the envelope and falls to the floor.
"Oh Miss Minnie, your bugs are bad today."
"Are they?" she says, embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I told me niece, but she's been busy..."
"We need to get you some help," I say. I tap each piece of mail against the door, to knock off any bugs before I open it. We go through her pile and I tell her what's junk mail and what's not. I read all the bills, how much, for what, and when they're due.
I realize I'm rushing. I just want to get out of there. Please don't ask me to write checks today. I'm ashamed of myself, but I still want to leave.

"Looks like you got a package," I say, holding up a puffy envelope.
"Oh, yeah. That's probably my gun."
"A gun?"
"Yeah." Miss Minnie laughs, enjoying my shock. "It's one of those tester things. For my diabetes."
We laugh as I pull at the envelope. I say that I thought she meant a real gun, and she says, oh no, but she's thought about buying one with all the break-ins lately. I tell her that she'd better not do that, that somebody would only use it against her.
Finally I manage to rip the package open. "Well, let's see what you've got here," I say, reaching in. Wrapped in Saran wrap is a box of toothpaste, a new toothbrush and a travel package of Kleenex. I hand it to her and tell her what it is.
"There's a card," I say, and read it to her: For Minnie, We're thinking of you and hope you're doing well. We love you. Love, Your Church Family

We look at each other for a moment, neither knowing what to say.
Well," she says as I hand her the card, "isn't that helpful."
She looks up at me and we laugh a little.
I look down at her, sitting in the wheel chair, scabs all over her face, bugs crawling over both our shoes, a chamber pot by her bedside, the lights out. I see her cradling the toothpaste and toothbrush and Kleenex in her lap, laughing her weak little laugh.

I want to cry.

And I want to shake someone.
I want to shake myself, that even now, I want so badly to run out of there, get in my car, and zoom back to my clean, bug free life, to a hot shower and antibacterial soap. I want to shake myself for standing in her doorway, flicking at bugs, when I should find a bucket and start scrubbing her floor.

I want to shake that social worker for telling me she'd help and not following through. For it being so hard for me to convince her that it's not Miss Minnie's own fault, when the woman has stood in her house and seen it for herself.

I want to shake her niece, who knows full well that she's the only one Miss Minnie has in the whole wide world, yet she lets her live that way.

And I want to shake her church, a mere half mile away, for staying in the air conditioning and mailing out toothpaste, when she lives in such a desperate state.

I think of Jesus, healing the lepers, putting mud on blind eyes, touching and touching and touching again, and I'm sad that I fall so short.

God, help me. Help me put away my inner people pleaser and fight for this woman. Help me know what to do.
And in the future, when I'm tempted to just say have a good day or mail toothpaste, help me look for places I can get down on the floor and scrub. Thank you for challenging me to put my actions where my mouth is.

And what about you, friends? Have you encountered places where it's difficult to serve, where it's hard to put your actions where your mouth/heart is?
And what do you think about the responsibility of the church? When family fails to act, is it the church's job to step in, or is that asking us to be something we're not?

Have a great weekend, y'all!
Love, Becky


Alise said...

What a beautiful, heart-breaking story. My mom worked at a nursing home when I was growing up. It was a clean, great place, but even there, with a loving, caring staff, there were still smells and sights that were disturbing to a young woman. I think God really used that time to develop compassion in my life.

I do think that the Body of Christ has an obligation to be Jesus to those who are lonely and hurting. But saying that and doing it can be two very different things. Thanks for the great reminder!

Jeri said...

It's good Miss Becky. Keep up the work. Sometimes our hands are God's hands.

Emily said...

Your story made me cry. Those moments when you know you fall short of all the standards you think you hold dear -- and for me, those moments when my children are there and I know I need to show them by my actions the right thing to do--those are the most difficult times to admit my failings. Compassion is so important -- and in action, so difficult in the midst of our busy lives.

Thank you for the reminder, Becky.

Susan said...

I have a bit of a lump in my throat also. It's hard to know what to do sometimes. I want to be a caring person, but have been told many times "you can't help everybody". You know that you are making a difference in Miss Minnie's life, but it is frustrating that you cannot do more. At the very least we can keep praying for guidance and wisdom and them try to act accordingly. Take care. xoxo Susan

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful yet heartbreaking blog entry. You are doing good work. And I am sure Miss Minnie just longs for your company despite the bugs, and heat. Most people just want time with others- to be thought of. And you give her that. And for that you should be proud! Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work through Him.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Becky (have we been friends long enough for me to call you that? :)),

I know your blog well enough now to know that I will never be disappointed by stopping by. This is a sad but precious story.

It's so hard. I have had similar situations, and then become resentful when helping someone in need took over the needs of my own family. I had to learn to say No more often and to make sure I was taking care of my own emotional reserves. But what to do?

I think when we are moms busy with our families, it might not be the time for us to be going overboard with others. I think you blessed her through your presence. Perhaps the most you can do from here is pray and make another call to the social worker. Maybe you're not to do the work of scrubbing her floor, but continuing to be an advocate for what God is calling you to do -- through your writing, and whatever other means that allow you to help without depleting yourself.

Wishing you peace as you discern the next step. Thanks so much for bringing the story of this woman to light. That's a blessing in and of itself and I hope it spurs some action somehow.

Blessings in your weekend!


Amy Sullivan said...

I loved this. I really felt I was there with you at Miss Minnie's house. I could see everything, bugs and all. It is so funny that we (or you and my mom I should say), just wrote about MOW. There are many times I feel as if I fall short. I want to be someone who has the courage to make real changes and not just someone who sends toothpaste and a card.

Barb said...

Hi Becky,

Oh my, that got my heart. God has Blessed you with the words to move people. If anyone can make a difference, you can.
Beautiful and heart wrenching.
I wanted to thank you for all your prayer too. It made a difference.

xoxo and hugs,

Laura said...

You know what I think? I think we should be what we SAY we are -- Christ followers. We should do what He would do.

A beautiful, poignant post. Thanks for your honesty. May its message come back to me at the moment I need it most, friend.

Graceful said...

Oh my gosh, Rebecca -- this is such a powerful, honest, heart-breaking story. Try not to be so hard on yourself -- it's normal to want to run away from a situation like that. We want to hide our eyes from pain and suffering. And you are doing so much good for Miss Minnie, just standing there talking to her, giving her some company, sorting through her mail.

It's funny, I just today signed up with your church to begin participating in the Meals on Wheels program. I hesitated, not knowing whether our family could take on another thing to do, with all the kids activities, and school and work and all that. This post tells me I made the right decision.

But I have to admit, I'm awfully scared of what I may see. Your strength gives me courage.

Graceful said...

Sorry -- meant to say "our church" not "your church!" Oops. That was a funny typo!

Jenny said...

Big gulp. This grips me too. Conviction. God is most definitely working in you and through you and I will pray for the strength and wisdom in dealing with this heartbreaking situation. I saw something like this but as a home health aide working with a Christ centered home health agency there was ready help and resources. Keep us updated as things unfold.

Ann Kroeker said...

Am I going to sit in my air conditioning and send off a package of toothpaste, or am I going to scrub a bug-invested house for a woman with no one...


Okay, so I'm sitting at my nice laptop wondering, "What do I do?"

I'm chewing on this and will be for some time, because you've given me Minnie's story...your story...our story.

Jojo said...

This is a story we all need to read and be reminded of the Miss Minnies that live all across the U.S. You are a blessing in her life and thank goodness for volunteer advocates like you who take a little time out to help make a difference where you can.

Laura said...

Oh, Becky. You are an angel for giving this dear woman some dignity and love. Yes, the church should help. But it seems we always fail where we are needed most. Why? It breaks my heart.

Kat said...

OH this just breaks my heart. It just is so sad how difficult life is for some people. Just so hard.

Is there a way you could contact someone at her church and see if they could ask for volunteers to come (maybe just once a week??) to clean up. Our church bulliten often has requests similar to this.

Oh please God, help us to help those that can not help themselves.

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

Wow, that was really emotional. Thank you for sharing it.

And thank god Miss Minnie has you, someone to love her, to do for her, to fight for her.

Anonymous said...

Need is everywhere we look. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, draining, and we get burned out.

I've found that it is often rewarding to ask for help in helping others, though. Sometimes when I feel like I can't hold my finger in the dam one more minute, I ask someone to help me, and often they're glad to help if they know there's a need and know what to do.

So I echo Kat's suggestion. If someone at the church cares enough to send soap and toothpaste, maybe there are people who would be willing to help come in and clean, do laundry and hire an exterminator, if they knew that these specific things were needed?

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

I am so sad for her. My pastor just committed our church to build 3 houses a year for Habitat for Humanity in our area--they are SO behind in serving that population. I'm glad my church gets in the trenches, but your story reminds me that I have to roll up my sleeves and dig deeper yet.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Thanks so much for your encouragement, y'all. I'm still working at trying to navigate social services for Miss Minnie--and walk the line between getting her help and preserving her dignity and privacy. It's a hard line to manage.

I seriously considered calling the church, but I've decided to hold off for a while, partly for Miss Minnie's privacy, (she doesn't want anyone contacted,) but mostly because the problem is so big. I didn't fully describe the degree of mess/piles of garbage and clothes and trash in Miss Minnie's house. It needs to be fumigated, probably several times to kill all the bugs, and then teams of people need to go in and fill up several dumpsters.

But the real problem, the problem that cleanings and weekly visits would not be enough to solve, is that Miss Minnie is no longer physically able to take care of herself. She needs daily care, and she doesn't want to admit it or allow it.

I'm still working, going through my list of agencies, making contacts. I'll let you know how it goes!
Thanks for your prayers for her and support!

Ronnie said...

I read your post. I read your comment after everyone else.
You are on track. There are a lot of agencies/groups that can help. Just have to make the right connection. Minnie's family needs a wake up call too. Orkin man is in her future. City Sanitation maybe. Keep us posted. You are a good woman. Don't doubt it.

Fete et Fleur said...

This is heart wrenching. I hope something can be done for this poor sweet woman. Her church body should definitely be doing more for her.


Angie Muresan said...

This is so heart-wrenching, Becky. I am so sorry for Miss Minnie, and for countless others who fall through. And thank you for reminding us to be more aware.