Denver, CO — What do you say when a 90-year old woman tells you she will give you her bras? They just don’t fit any more. When you get old, your breasts become pendulous. They were expensive. Thirty-eight dollars!
I already had accepted a sandwich and half of a spaghetti squash. Not wanting to be uncouth, I mention that I don’t know if we are the same size. She does have impeccable taste – I know, I do her laundry.
“Well, try them! You know, your body just changes as you get older. I don’t even think a man would even want to be with me!” She throws her hands up and looks down at her body.
“Of course they would!” I tell her as I wrap cellophane around my leftover sandwich, thinking that after a certain age, I certainly will not be wearing a bra. “You’re a catch and you have great taste. Just keep the lights off if you’re worried.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” she says. We sipped our instant coffee diluted with sugar-free hazelnut creamer.
“Well, it’s part of life,” I tell her, steering the conversation away from the bras and toward a topic I am more comfortable with – sex and sexually-transmitted infections, otherwise known as STIs, previously known as STDs (sexually-transmitted diseases), and long ago known as VD or venereal disease.
I tell her about “Sex, Drugs and Rocking Chairs”, a talk our public health director used to give at the senior centers. He always gave one talk to the women and another to the men in separate classrooms. The chairs always filled up, mostly out of curiosity. How often after middle school does someone split up the boys from the girls?
“You know,” she said, obviously not interested in my public health diatribe. “It’s really sad that people have to worry about that kind of stuff. I mean, I had a very active life and, nothing! Really! But I guess people’s attitude is different now. It’s like they don’t even know how great it can be. Sex can be exquisite!”
I smile and she insists.
This is the woman who is so shy when we meet nice men in the grocery store, holding open the display door to get apple fritters. And yet, she blurted, F***, it’s beautiful out! in the parking lot because the sun on the snow was so lovely this afternoon. She expresses what she wants and I do too. It’s a skill we learned together when I gypped her out of $2.55 by accident.
It started with a phone call after I started working for her. She called to tell me that she was very upset. I had charged her too much for gas and it couldn’t have been 17 miles to Michaels and back. Somehow I stifled my defensiveness and told her I was glad she called. The only way we could work together was if she told me the truth. Then I googled the route we took, found out that it was actually less miles and showed up at her house with the $2.55. She didn’t want it to be a big deal; I told her it wasn’t. We agreed to tell each other when something bothered us.
Today was one of the days when I had to say what I thought. I found out as I gathered her laundry that she was taking Benadryl for a runny nose. She insisted she didn’t have allergies. I reminded her that our bodies process drugs differently as we age and Benadryl can make people woozy and prone to falling. Benadryl is on the Beers Criteria List of medications that may be inappropriate for use as we age, based on available research. I forgot that just because something is evidence-based doesn’t mean you can change a person’s mind.
“You don’t have to worry,” she assured me. “I’m very used to it. But whatever is causing this runny nose is very tough. Yesterday, one didn’t work so I took two more.”
My inner social worker almost collapsed and broke her hip. I gathered myself while changing the paper for her bird who tries to bite me.
“Maybe we could ask the pharmacist if there’s something else you could take,” was all I said.
At the grocery, she accustomed herself to the new lurch of a grocery scooter. It’s a toss-up whether this is safer than the chance of her tripping while pushing a cart. As we made our way back to the pharmacy, I silently hoped that someone in a white coat could talk her into a different medication. She wouldn’t tell the pharmacist how old she was, nor did she even try to be sneaky when she slipped a 100-tablet bottle of Benadryl into her cart along with the newly-recommended Zyrtec.
Back at her dining room table, talking about bras, she grabs a tissue to wipe her nose. The Benadryl she took three hours ago isn’t working.
“Because you don’t have allergies!” I tell her. “Benadryl is an antihistamine. You need a decongestant.”
“Naw, I’m going to take another Benadryl here in a bit,” and she tears open the box to the bottle. “I’ve been taking this for years. I swear, it doesn’t make me drowsy.”
“Then it’s not working!” I tell her.
“Well, you do have a point,” she says, leading me to think I’ve won the argument. “But I know my body and it is the only thing that works for me.”
Then I tell her very clearly (because I can tell her anything) that I am worried about her taking the Benadryl. I offer to run back down to the grocery to pick up a decongestant.
“Look, you don’t have to worry,” she insists. “I’ve taken this for years.”
“Well, I am worried. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Now don’t forget the spaghetti squash this time. And, thanks so much.”
“You’re welcome.” Then I close the door to her apartment gently and walk down the hallway, spaghetti squash in hand. Smiling, I get into my car, realizing that I made it out without the bras.
Pendulous breasts. Now, there is an image for ya. That careful give and take that you describe is remarkable. It is dignified and nuanced and respectful; you are unique in your ability to enter into these relationships with people – to remain open to be challenged and changed and present.
Pendulous…it’s a word that I will not forget. Thank you for your words there — especially the reminder about being present for the give-and-take.