He reminded me of Dennis Rodman, sans tat art, sporting a sparkly studded gray square earring that covered his earlobe. And he worked a toothpick in his mouth like any good gum chewer works his gum.
“So, how ya likin’ this weather?” the dark-skinned driver asked me as I took a big step up to slide into the front seat of his medic-van.
“Oh, just great,” I replied.
“Man, I love this weather. This cold and kinda rainy, gray. I can’t stand the heat, any kind. Ya see, I have asthma and this weather don’t bother me one bit.”
This was my first time volunteering as a companion to a senior for a doctor’s appointment.
He backed Jeanne, already double-strapped in her wheelchair, onto the lift of the van, grasping the handlebars and pulling hard while standing behind her. The Dennis Rodman look-alike methodically hooked Jeanne and her wheelchair securely inside the van. The look on Jeanne’s face mirrored mine—an uncertainty of what was ahead.
We departed Bethany Terrace, a skilled nursing and rehab center where Jeanne, a little person, has been a resident for most of her sixty-five years but I’ve only known her for one of her thirty-five years she has been a resident.
I was concerned from the moment we left Jeanne’s place, fearing things might not go well and I wouldn’t know what to do. I had never met a little person before, let alone one who was bound to a wheelchair.
Jeanne’s face looked as if she was in a state of suspension with her eyes fixed and her brow furrowed.
“Has he been busy?” Jeanne yelled in her froggy undertone.
“Jeanne wants to know if you have been busy,” I repeated to the driver.
“Ooooh, yeah. Sometimes I don’t get a break even. I started today at six in the mornin’. And I’ll work ten, sometimes twelve hours a day. Just three of us left after a big layoff around the first of the year. But I survived.”
“Mr. Richman says he’s been very busy,” I yelled back to Jeanne, competing with the loud bang and clang of metal van parts as we accelerated, bouncing and hitting bumps.
“That’s ‘Marchman,’ see, ‘Marchman,’” he clarified, turning his right shoulder and straightening his name badge on the navy coat fabric.
“Oh, so sorry, Mr. Marchman. I read you wrong.”
“No worries. Not a problem. I won’t hold it against you. So you don’t like this weather, huh?”
“No, uh, no, but the April showers are supposed to bring the May flowers.”
“Oh, so that’s it, it’s those flowers you really like.” I tried to let the vision of flowers sooth my jumpy nerves.
I looked at Mr. Marchman. I wondered how he could carry a conversation while negotiating a toothpick between his teeth.
Jeanne and I remained silent, staring ahead as he approached the doctor’s building— and then drove passed it. He made a jarring U-turn to correct the error, and I looked over my shoulder to see if Jeanne was dizzy because of the sudden roller-coaster turn.
We pulled up to the glass doors. While Mr. Marchman reversed the strapping-and- buckling order, I peered into the lobby to look for the doctor’s name on the board. Fear shot through me. What if the name wasn’t there because we were in the wrong building and he had left?
I held the door while the driver wheeled Jeanne into the lobby. As quickly as he stopped, just inside the doorway, he was gone. I saw stairs, but no elevator. A sign directed you to the elevators— and the doctor’s office—in the back of the building. We were in the wrong place, even the wrong building. A flush of heat traveled my body. I had to answer my own question.
“We have to go back outside, Jeanne, for just a little ride to the doctor’s office building. It’s in the back of this one.” Did she look concerned, if not fearful, as I did? “This is an adventure, Jeanne. We are on an adventure. Don’t you think?” This wasn’t really a question but a statement that things would be just fine—for her and me, that I was soliciting.
I wheeled Jeanne down the sidewalk, taking caution but using speed to get into a building and away from the wind and cold spitting rain, until we hit a deep crack in the cement. Stuck. I pushed her wheelchair, once, twice, three times, and the thrust of each movement placed little Jeanne’s top half to tip too far forward. So I lifted from the front, once, twice, three times. We made it over to the other side. I smiled in relief to see the office building had sliding doors.
I settled knowing I could refocus on my responsibilities to carry an envelope of paperwork, fill out medical forms, and hand the tidy packet over to the nice lady at the reception desk.
We were called to a room.
And then we waited for the opthamologist.
“She left the door open,” Jeanne said.
“Yes, she did. Is that okay? Did you want me to close it?”
“No, no. I don’t like closed doors.”
“I know what you mean. With a closed door, I always think the doctor or anyone else out there will forget me. I need them to see me and know someone is waiting in here. I don’t like to be forgotten.”
“Me too. That’s exactly it,” Jeanne said with a hardy laugh.
The quiet time elicited deep breathing and reflection on my fears of something bad happening, being stuck, not able to help Jeanne and to understand her because of her soft-spoken words. Calmness elicited time with my new friend. I didn’t allow my worries to draw like curtains, blocking out the wisdom and grace I was experiencing during my afternoon with Jeanne.
At end of our appointment, I asked the receptionist to call for a pickup.
“They said that’ll be about ninety-minutes till they can get you,” the front desk lady reported when I returned from parking Jeanne in the reception room.
“Ninety-minutes?” I repeated. My face flushed with panic.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
I walked back to Jeanne’s parked chair.
“Um, ninety-minutes,” I whispered to soften the news.
“What?” Jeanne asked, “We have to wait that long?”
Our ninety-minute wait for a driver turned into two hours, then three, then just a half hour more. The wait provided ample time to learn how to understand Jeanne. As we talked, I studied her facial expressions, her eyes and lips to read her words. She was soft-spoken and needed to clear her throat often. The distresses of the afternoon never appeared to alter the flush in her apple cheeks and warm smile. I read Jeanne in many ways. She has been through adversity I could not have imagined. Her will to survive keeps her going and so does her sense of humor.
“Can you slide my foot back on the footrest, please?”
She grimaced as I repositioned her feet in heavy black shoes anchored by leg braces.
“You’ve been in that seat for so long, you must be stiff. Are you hurting at all? I’m sorry you are so uncomfortable.” I felt embarrassed that I could get up, walk around, and shift in my seat which might have made Jeanne feel worse. I stayed seated, near her, while anticipating any need she may have.
“I don’t have much choice. What else am I gonna do?” she said with a burst of laughter.
“Good point. Smart, Jeanne, you’re a smart one.” Laughing with Jeanne diminished our worries, for a few moments.
The longer we waited, the antsier Jeanne became sitting in her chair, a classic old model: wooden armrests, bits of rust on the break bars, worn gray tape on the footrest. The small padded seat and back could barely contain her.
The doctor’s office was clearing out. “They’re gonna kick us out of here,” Jeanne said awakening from a brief nap.
We moved to the lobby and waited. We knew he was coming. We just didn’t know when.
When Mr. Marchman came back for us, I saw he was still working that toothpick. I wondered if it was the same one from midday.
“I’m the only one out here today. I got no break, no break today, whatsoever.”
I looked at Jeanne and smiled a cheesy grin. She laughed, changing her grumpy expression to relief. We were on our way home.
Pulling up to the front door of Bethany Terrace never felt so welcoming.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have such a great sense of humor through all of this,” she said.
“What else were we gonna do? We didn’t have much choice,” I said, laughing, recalling similar moments earlier in the day.
Wheeling Jeanne from a van to a doctor’s building, in and out of an exam room, handling paperwork and communicating instructions was the plan for the afternoon. I took comfort in knowing the expectations. But I was not prepared for how a wrong building, a break in the cement and a character-building three-and-a-half-hour wait could create such fear and anxiety for me. When focused on myself through all of this, my attention turned to Jeanne. I recognized how uncomfortable she was, enduring hours in one position, jostling in an old, creaky structure where its stability came into question when it faced sidewalk cracks, turns and redirection.
Our world is not exclusive to those like ourselves but inclusive with those who work twelve or more hours a day with no break, with people dependent on those who work the long hours to get them to and from places, whose mobility depends on a chair with four wheels, who needs a companion just to get to an appointment.
Life is a series of unplanned events. No matter how we plan, unexpected happenings challenge our emotions and cause shifts in our perspectives where we acknowledge empathy and compassion, and make the connection, one human being with another.