It is October 2012, and the air inside the apartment on N Street is hot, hotter than it should be for a fall morning in Washington. On the front door is a taped note in scrawled script: “Knock hard. Hard of hearing.” Inside, in a flowery pink nightgown and flowered headband, Hilda Reynolds, 89, is sleeping. She rises at the calling of her visitors.
Hilda lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment off 14th Street NW, the corridor that most symbolizes the District’s dramatic urban renaissance. For 46 years, she has lived in the neighborhood. For 22, she has lived at the James, a public housing complex for low-income seniors run by the city. Elderly men in motorized wheelchairs dot the entrance, smoking and chatting. Ninety percent of the James’s residents are single; almost all are African American. Up the street, restaurants reflect the youth and globalism of the neighborhood’s new inhabitants: Le Diplomate, Estadio, Barcelona.
“When you’re old and poor, you gotta face it with both shoulders,” Hilda announces, grinning and rising in bed, welcoming and good-natured as usual with visitors. “You gotta brace yourself.”
Hilda has never been to Barcelona, the restaurant or the city, but has lived instead within a distinct three-block radius for nearly half a century: over to the Washington Plaza Hotel for employment; across to National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle for inspiration; N Street, for sleep.
She pulls herself up to her bedside table, toward the Restless Legs Cream perched atop her frayed Bible. Since her stroke last year, her left leg is limp. She begins each day with the cream and her Bible, a magnifying glass pressed firmly against its pages to read it. Floor fans blow hot air across the bedroom.
Over the portable toilet beside her bed, a TV blasts “Jeopardy!”
“Who is Voltaire?” a contestant asks brightly. A “ding!” of approval, and Alex Trebek offers a rousing congratulations to the contestant.
It is Saturday morning, and Ayanka, the Medicaid nursing assistant from Togo who is tasked with Hilda’s weekends — her medications, her meals, her bathing, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. — hasn’t arrived. The stench of the portable toilet embarrasses Hilda.
“Sit here, dear, or there,” she says, pointing to the empty twin bed beside her own.
I am here because I am curious what sustains a woman at nearly 90, alone in a room, day after indistinguishable day, after friends and loved ones have died, and the world beneath the window — where you once bore witness to Washington’s race riots, where you walked to a job you adored as a hotel telephone operator — becomes unrecognizable.
Even more: What is the source of her infectious joy? Her radiance, humor, warm ability to connect: How are they fueled when the ingredients that brought joy — work, other people — are gone?
We Are Family is an outreach organization that connects volunteers to senior citizens living alone. A donation from the rock band Good Charlotte led Mark Andersen — a Montana native who came to the District to work on a Senate campaign for Max Baucus, but whose life took “a sharp left turn” into the city’s punk rock world and its long link to social activism — to found the organization in 2004. While he was volunteering with seniors at St. Aloysius Catholic Church on North Capitol Street in the late ’80s, the work “grabbed a hold” of him and evolved into a staff position at Emmaus Services for the Aging.
Saturday mornings, volunteers assemble in a church basement in Shaw, where Andersen dispenses addresses of lonely seniors on slips of paper. They fan out in teams of two or three, to Shaw, Petworth, North Capitol Street, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. In 2014, the group reached 600 seniors, with nearly 7,000 bags of groceries.
On this day four years ago, I’m paired with a high school junior from St. Albans School in need of community service credits and a man in his 30s on probation. I have visited Hilda previously, and other seniors. One was a hoarder whose cats had taken full run of her apartment. Another had a palpable despair as we departed, asking if we had more time.
How many seniors are out there like this, alone behind doors? In 2000, the D.C. Office on Aging estimated 10,000. Today, Andersen believes it’s tens of thousands. I return to Hilda’s apartment because she has a mysterious optimism amid near total isolation.
A bag of Cheetos is tucked beside Hilda in her bed. At lunch other days, Ayanka brings a hot dog from a 7-Eleven or a small box of fried chicken. For this 89-year-old, it is something other than nutrition that is sustaining her.
Congregants have just filed through from National City Christian, the church on the corner that Hilda visited for three decades. Because she is unable to walk easily since her stroke, or to go outside without her scooter, communion comes in. Volunteers also come, I’m convinced, because she tells stories that are an oral history of the past century, so rare to hear in the Internet age.
We settle in on the bed, and she closes her eyes and sings a hymn, her hand clenched over her heart.
“I been with you all through life’s journey, all life’s journey. ... And I’m going with you all the rest of the way. Wherever you lead me, I will follow,” Hilda sings.
“That means you’re with God, that’s what that means,” she says, opening her eyes to us, laughing. A cough escapes. “Sweet Jesus, I can’t hold a tune like I used to! Me and my sister used to sing so pretty, all the time.”
Hilda’s sister Jemelia lived on the floor above for 22 years, before she died of diabetes. Weekends, the two would jump into Hilda’s green car and head out to the racetrack in West Virginia, where Hilda had luck with betting. “I’m the only one left now,” she says wistfully. “But I’m not complaining, dear God. Thank you, thank you, for this long, long life.”
Continually, there is this gratitude, not for any condition or thing, but at simply being alive.
She adjusts the thin plastic tubes that bring oxygen from the tank at the floor into her nose. A wrong-answer buzzer from “Jeopardy!” honks from the TV. “I have it on to keep me company,” Hilda offers, apologetically. “Half the time, I don’t know what it’s saying.”
We Are Family encourages volunteers to ask seniors about photographs on their walls to draw back memories of family and connection.
There are photographs of Frank Sinatra with Hilda’s son, Johnny. Movie stills: Johnny and Robert De Niro in a boxing ring. De Niro is playing Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”; Johnny is playing Sugar Ray Robinson. Johnny and Frank Sinatra in a still from “Contract on Cherry Street,” by Columbia Pictures. “To Mother ...” the dedication reads.
Johnny Barnes is 71, lives in New York and has the physique still of a boxer. To Hilda, he is “Buddy,” and she describes him as, simply, “my heart.” She turns her face to the ceiling, as if to God, and says, “Buddy, please call me.” Then howls a laugh at her own powers. He calls several times a day. She counts.
I ask Hilda if she has ever considered a nursing home, for more community, more activities.
“Oh dear God, I wouldn’t last a month!” she says. “It would kill me. That makes my feathers flap, dear. Please never say that again in my presence.” She mocks outrage but turns dour. “I would die of loneliness. I need to be with my familiarness,” she says, and abruptly changes the subject.
Her memory returns to her sister. “And dance, oh my God. I was poison with the jitterbug!” She simulates the move as best she can reclined in bed, shimmying her shoulders and shaking the leg that was not stroke-stricken.
For seniors without access to quality long-term care, is it better to be surrounded by “familiarness,” as Hilda calls her apartment — or to live in a nursing home, surrounded by others, but others who are not familiar? Who is more lonely?
Hilda Reynolds was born Sept. 5, 1923, in Roanoke, to a father who worked in the rail yards and a mother who was one of the town’s leading midwives. The youngest of 12, she recalls a mother who would disappear in the night to deliver hundreds of babies in the rural back ways of the Jim Crow South.
Those were the “antique days,” as she calls them, when she and her sisters would bathe in a river, and her mother’s black “Doctor’s Book” held natural remedies. It pains her that the book is now lost, along with the cough syrups and pneumonia salves passed down from African traditions.
I find myself calling her “Ms. Reynolds,” as “Hilda” seems too informal for a woman who spent her girlhood in 1930s segregated schools, then segregated housing. Not weighty enough for a woman who participated in the life of Washington for 50 years: who worked and marched in the city, who was shaped by it and who shaped it herself. Even as its change, particularly its violence, frightens her now.
“You’re supposed to help somebody, not harm them. That’s what the Bible says. What is wrong with the people now?” she implores. We are silent.
In the antique days, there was dancing. A natural, she taught her friends the latest crazes, the mashed potato, the camel walk. “The Reynolds Sisters” entertained the church pews in hula skirts and bobby socks. The same humor and joie de vivre Hilda greets visitors with now seems rooted in an imagination trained to look for the bright side after repeated setbacks, to continually brace herself, beginning at 6, when her father died and her mother struggled to raise 12 children.
The nursing assistant arrives, apologizing for her lateness.
She is not the usual Saturday aide, and Hilda is not pleased. Medicaid provides two nurses for home care: one for weekdays, one for weekends. She has been without a nurse now for 17 hours.
(“You can’t get 24 hours of care in your own apartment, if you can’t pay for it,” Andersen explained. “The evening hours alone were particularly hard for Ms. Reynolds mentally and emotionally, and in terms of pain management.”)
I have met two of the nurses, both from Africa. When Hilda is having trouble breathing, she turns ornery with them. “They cannot speak English,” she says. “I mean, how am I supposed to get the right medications, when they don’t speak English? It’s Medicaid fraud.”
Other days, there’s an affection between Hilda and her aides, even dancing. Ayanka calls her “grandmama.”
Hilda zeroes in on a story she has told me before. She tells it over and again, I believe, because it’s a memory that haunts her most: a job building bombs on an assembly line in a 1940s Delaware defense plant. She was a young mother, 19, married because she was pregnant, and quickly divorced. She was inspired and proud to serve her country during “that terrible World War II,” and the checks came twice a month.
“The gunpowder made our hands and the whites of our eyes yellow,” she recalls. “There was red nail polish on the part of the bomb where we were supposed to load the gunpowder. I would say to my girlfriend next to me on the line, ‘We’re going to hell for this!’ I mean, who in their right mind, who is with God, kills people?”
She has prayed for forgiveness.
It’s a few days after Christmas 2013, and a holiday card from George and Laura Bush arrives. “Ms. Reynolds,” I ask, “how do you know the Bushes?”
“I have no idea,” she laughs. “I was involved in a lot of causes. The Lord teaches us not to judge. Even Republicans.”
Another photograph, this one with Hillary Clinton, lines her bedroom dresser beside a vase of plastic purple flowers. At the far end of the small stage in the photograph, Hilda sits on a panel, legs crossed, speaking animatedly. Clinton is in a chair opposite, young-looking, perhaps in her 40s, listening. Hilda describes it as a panel discussion at the old women’s hospital on whether to operate immediately once breast cancer is discovered. “I was always working,” Hilda says, “joining in this or that.” On her 80th birthday, Bill and Hillary Clinton sent a birthday card, which she can’t find now.
“What do you miss most, Ms. Reynolds?”
“Work, and the racetrack. If I could go to work every day, I would! I just loved to work. But since I can’t, I gotta take my mind off myself. I can’t get back to where I was ... but I have to accept it, and I do.
“I’m a very religious woman, you know,” she continues. “Whatever you think in your mind, it becomes. You understand? Like, ‘I’m going to be pleasant today,’ and you make your mind to be that. It’s very powerful. You gotta be strong to face life.”
The March on Washington comes to her mind. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and that voice of his, the endless people on the Mall, rallying and singing. Then watching from her window as riots burned through her neighborhood in 1968 when King was assassinated. She had moved in 1967 from New York City, where she had worked as a housecoat seamstress. The District provided the opportunity to train as a telephone operator, offering a better future for her and Johnny.
The following year 800 fires blazed at the heart of the city’s black community and Hilda’s. “You couldn’t go out on the porch. You just could wait,” she said.
Another march, in her mind: up 15th Street for higher union wages at the Ambassador Hotel. The shining, modern hotel of the District, developed by a young Morris Cafritz, and featuring the first indoor hotel pool in the city. They got the higher wages.
Up Constitution Avenue for another cause. What was that march for? She can’t recall. Something about a million men.
It is Hilda’s 90th birthday, and her apartment is filled with balloons, neighbors and relatives in from Delaware, New York and Capitol Hill. The living room is packed. Stevie Wonder is playing on a radio. Hilda is “dancing” in her recliner chair. A “HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY!” sign in silver lamé hangs above the plastic slipcovered couch. Whole Foods Market has donated a chicken platter and a vanilla cake, and Johnny is down from New York. When a slice of cake is passed to Hilda, she closes her eyes and prays above it.
Two weeks earlier, Hilda had worried whether people would show up. She felt old, she said, “400 years old. I saw myself in the mirror this morning, dear, and I look like Death sucking a pickle!” She said something very New Age for a Baptist: “What you believe, you create. You become what you believe, you understand? I’ve seen it through experience.”
On Hilda’s 92nd birthday, there is no party. Whole Foods sent a cake, but the week before she had been in the hospital, then transferred to hospice care. She’d had another stroke, followed by a heart attack. The Restless Legs Cream has been replaced by a bottle of oxycodone.
Johnny is down from New York. We sit in chairs beside her bed as she recounts being “committed” to a hospice facility in Arlington, and that the ones who loved her on this earth had turned on her, abandoned her when she was helpless.
“Nobody abandoned you, Mother,” Johnny tries to assure her. “They wanted to give you the best care.”
Hilda doesn’t hear any of it. A fierceness has her, a paranoia: Family members had stolen her checkbook, stolen her money, signed things against her will.
The in-patient care at the hospice facility was intended for two weeks of observation, upon leaving George Washington University Hospital, Mark Andersen explained. The team at GW had determined she was not competent to make her own medical decisions alone, and Andersen, whom Hilda had named her power of attorney, agreed. He had known her for 25 years and was responsible for first linking her to social workers and nursing care when her health declined sharply in 2001.
“Certain folks, by accident or design, you just draw close to,” he said. “And they become symbolic of the spirit of the organization, the soul of the work.”
The emotional toll of being in hospice was hugely upsetting for her, and Andersen acknowledged it may have been a miscalculation to admit her there, even though the care was vastly superior.
“She wanted to live on her own terms, or not. She was an absolute fighter. In the hospice, we had a big group meeting. Six or eight of us, medical professionals, social workers. None of us thought it was a good idea for her to be home. ... In the end, we relented. It was her decision to make.”
She is in her familiarness, and with Johnny. At home without medical care beyond prescription painkillers.
After an hour, she calms. She realizes it was her birthday. She asks to be hugged. She asks to see the photo I took of her on her 92nd birthday.
“Oh my God, I look so old. Hang in there, Hilda! You’re a tough customer. There’s still life in you yet,” she says to the bedroom walls.
Again, gratitude for living, even when so much of living was now boxing in the ring with dying.
She closes her eyes, grows more serious and recites her favorite psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the
paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art
with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
The last time I saw Hilda Reynolds alive, a few weeks after her 92nd birthday, she was in a pink nightgown, and she raised her left leg, then her right, and kissed both knees.
“Don’t play out, Hilda!” she said to herself with a laugh.
The Redskins were playing on the TV, and Pope Francis would be arriving in Washington on Tuesday. She planned to watch him. Two years earlier I had brought her a plastic box of rosary beads from Rome with the pope’s picture on it. It was a tacky little box, but she had said many times that she thought the pope embodied the heart of Christianity.
Hilda was eating Cheetos in her bed and sipping from a plastic bottle of Coke. Ayanka was in the kitchen. It was familiar. The football game took her mind to her first boyfriend who played quarterback for her high school football team. A young man who died in World War II.
“Go, Redskins, Go!” she shouted at the TV. This woman of Washington, who remembers how the team galvanized the city in the ’80s, when the District became the murder capital of the country, and when 14th Street was renowned for prostitutes, rather than James Beard-awarded chefs.
The Redskins running back skirted two tackles and ran down the sideline for a touchdown in the early afternoon autumn sunlight at FedEx Field.
The band kicked up the team’s victory song when he reached the end zone.
Was this the end zone, now, for Ms. Reynolds? In the end, was there joy at simply being alive? Was there dancing in the end zone? There was.
“Kill ’em, Redskins! Kill ’em!” Hilda Reynolds shouted in a full voice, loud as a megaphone.
Hilda Reynolds, Sept. 5, 1923-Sept. 25, 2015.
Alexandra Moe, a Washington freelance writer, works for a media technology company and can be found at alexandrajmoe.com. To comment on this story, email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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