A few years ago, on a very cold winter night, I got home from work shortly after midnight and as I pulled into the driveway I saw a little old woman standing on the sidewalk in front of my house. She was barefoot, in her nightgown, standing with her feet wide apart, her arms at her sides, and her head tilted. As I got closer, she continued to stare vacantly at me, but she didn’t move and said not a word.
I confess I was a little creeped out. She kind of looked like a zombie. I had no way of knowing if she’d freak out and hurt herself or me. So I gave her a wide berth and went inside and got my boyfriend. We both went back outside and he said, “Ma’am, can I help you?” She looked at him and said, “Nnnnn….” We looked at each other. He said, “It sure is cold out here. Are you cold, ma’am? Why don’t you come on in and get warm, and I’ll fix you a nice cup of tea.”
He took her by the hand and helped her up the steps. We sat her down and wrapped her in blankets. She looked to be in her 90’s. We asked her for her name, and she told us it was Linda Mae. She didn’t know her last name or her address. As my boyfriend fixed her some tea, I called 911.
She began to look frightened, so my boyfriend knelt down beside her. “Miss Linda Mae,” he said, “We just called someone who’s going to come out and make sure you’re okay, and try to help us find out where you live, okay? Everything’s going to be fine. You found a safe place to be. We’ll take care of everything.”
It must have been a slow night for first responders, because the next thing we knew there were two ambulances and a police car out front, and no fewer than 7 very large men came in and surrounded Linda Mae. I could tell she was scared half to death, so I told her all these nice men were here to make sure she was okay. They checked her pulse and blood pressure, among other things, and declared that she was in good health. But now what to do about getting her home? She still didn’t know her last name or address. No one had called in a missing person.
It was about one in the morning by now, and the ambulances left, leaving us with one police officer. He went outside, and we tried to make small talk with Linda Mae, but that’s hard to do with someone who has no past or future. We asked her if she liked the tea and if she was warm enough now, but then topics of conversation kind of dried up.
Finally the officer came back in and said they found her address. He had dispatch do a search for any past records of someone named Linda wandering off, and sure enough it had happened twice before. She lived about 4 blocks away. Another officer went by her house to verify that they were missing someone, and the residents were surprised. They hadn’t even been aware that she was gone. So we bundled her into the police car and said goodbye, knowing she wouldn’t remember us in the morning.
I often think of Miss Linda Mae. I worry about her. I know it must be hard to care for someone with such severe dementia, but given her history of wandering, you’d think they’d have rigged the doors so that a bell would ring or something. Instead they slept peacefully on while she wandered a semi-dangerous neighborhood, shoeless, coatless, late at night in the dead of winter. She could have gotten hypothermia, wandered into traffic or even worse, stumbled upon people who would not have had her best interests at heart. My boyfriend says that it was meant to be that we found her when we did.
But the strangest part about it was realizing that an encounter that touched us so profoundly was completely lost on this woman within hours. It had slipped from her mind like sand through an hour glass. We had no form or substance for her, like a wisps of smoke, quickly disbursed. I can only hope that she is well and that her last days are safe and free of fear.
It also makes me wonder if I’ve ever impacted someone else without realizing it. As is the nature of things like that, I suppose I’ll never know.
(Image credit: baby-boomer-depot.com)