I barely heard the soft knock on my front door that cold day. I had a toddler and two big dogs underfoot in the kitchen. The baby was throwing cereal from his highchair. My husband, Guy, had escaped to work early, and I was still in my pajamas. I stepped over the pile of wooden blocks on the floor, jostled the barking dogs aside and opened the door.
Outside, I found Edith Rikuris, my deaf, elderly neighbor. In the 12 years we’d lived next door to each other, she had never made eye contact with me or spoken to me through the tall, long-standing hedge of wild roses separating our houses. But on that day in January 2007, Edith stood on my doorstep and looked up at me. She appeared cold in a raincoat too thin for the season. Beneath her tea-length skirt she had on untied duck boots over sagging knee-high nylons. She exhaled into the cold air like she’d been holding her breath. She handed me a note with bare, shaky hands. The note said, “Mother is dead, can you please call the doctor.”
At the time, I knew only a few things about Edith from Guy and his parents, who had bought the house we now live in back in the 1960s. I knew that Edith was a biology professor retired from Gallaudet University. That she seemed to live in a turtle shell, not engaging with life on our tree-lined street in upper Northwest Washington. That she and her mother came to the United States from Estonia in 1947, not long after the end of World War II. That her father had been killed by Nazis.
Ever since moving into the house in the mid-’90s, I had helped Edith’s mother with neighborly tasks. Edith stayed out of sight most of the time.
But that cold day, she came into our kitchen. After I read the note, I grabbed the phone. My son Max, then 3 years old, offered Edith his muffin. I made her a cup of tea and dialed the doctor’s number while she sat down on a stool. I listened to a recorded message: “If you’re a doctor, press one; if you’re a patient, press two.” I shook my head, disconnected the call and dialed 911. The baby looked on with wide eyes. It wasn’t long before the police arrived with an officer who knew American Sign Language (ASL).
In the weeks, months and years that followed, Edith and I corresponded with handwritten notes through our mail slots. She had excellent penmanship and a deep reservoir of pretty notecards and pads of paper. Her communications were spare, limited to requests for phone calls and help with things that needed fixing in her house. I made calls and drove her to do errands here and there.
Edith came out of her shell a bit with my family. She joined us for holiday meals, always armed with a pen, paper and a hearty appetite. At the kids’ birthday parties in the summer, she’d eye the moon bounce and kiddie pools with humor and the skepticism of a scientist. She would chat with my friends through notes, giggle at the antics of family life and return home with plates of leftovers.
As the years passed, I grew more and more aware of the depth of Edith’s isolation. She had no family. She didn’t have a computer or a television. Her university connections seemed to have dried up. Neighbors who had met her within the safe confines of my yard might greet her at the bus stop on the corner only to have her turn away and stare at the sidewalk. Out in the world, she had her guard up.
I wondered how she filled the time. Once, I handed her a stack of magazines and her response in a note was, “Thank you, this will get me through the winter.”
The requests in her notes began to record a growing vulnerability. One or two lines about a phone call to the handyman were now full-page pleas for help about the flames coming out of her gas stove, the bank teller pressuring her for a large loan, and other emergencies.
While she could still pay her bills and get on the bus to do errands, she was like an orphaned child living alone. She left her house less and kept it locked tight. I shooed solicitors away from her front door and watched her comings and goings. Friends commented on the amount of time I spent helping Edith. Some remarked that she wasn’t my problem.
But it was hard for me to look the other way. The adults in my life had often done that when I was a child. Beloved pets died unnecessarily. I spent a winter sleeping in a house without heat, watched domestic abuse unfold, once spent a tearful Christmas Eve at a police station and weathered years of living with an alcoholic stepparent. Guy seemed to sense that helping Edith was also helping me. Instead of suggesting I stay out of it, he became my partner in looking after her.
Things got worse. In December 2013, Edith seemed unwell. Many days I’d find her on my front steps not with a note, but shivering, locked out in the cold, too weak to let herself in. Writing and delivering notes became harder for her. She labored with a pen. She might not notice if the top was on or if the pen missed the paper, and the notes sometimes were illegible or blank. Sometimes she simply scrawled “help.” It would take her 20 minutes to deliver such a “note.” I hadn’t yet realized that she had had at least one stroke and had become nearly blind from cataracts, in addition to being deaf.
I tried to find resources for elderly deaf people. I made phone calls to potential caregivers and residential nursing homes and delivered a stack of brochures (which I later saw in the trash). Her response was only ever, “I’ll think about it.” She never wanted me to call a doctor or take her to the emergency room.
One day in January 2014, I saw Edith from my kitchen window. She was in her back yard, clutching a note and trying to get to my door. She stumbled on a patch of ice in the uneven grass, fell, got up and headed back toward her house. I ran outside and found her tense, cold and bruised.
There were so many problems to ponder. Was she okay? Had she hit her head? How could she get to the store to buy food if she couldn’t even get to my door? What should I do? I was just the neighbor.
I was also working and taking care of my kids; simply keeping Edith safe and fed became all I could handle — forget researching care options. I got her groceries and shared meals. When I walked the dogs before bedtime, I’d make sure her door was locked. Neighbors helped with shopping and looking in on her when I was away. But we were in a crisis on a daily basis. My help was a finger in the dam.
There was more I wouldn’t find out until later. That she weighed less than 85 pounds and had been surviving on applesauce cups and granola bars. That she was disoriented a lot of the time, falling and walking into things. That her house was unclean. And that she was in pain. One late night that winter, I looked from the sidewalk into her living room. She sat in front of the window alone, wincing, eyes shut tight. Her thin arms were wrapped around her small body as she perched on the edge of a chair.
In March 2014, a friend suggested that I call Iona Senior Services in Tenleytown. I didn’t know what Iona was, but I called. During our first conversation, social worker Catherine Paitz threw me and Edith a rope. She promised help. Not long after, Iona social worker Randy Smith knocked at the door. He listened. He made a list of concerns to address, with her health and safety as the top priority. He started the process of what would be months of grueling medical appointments and never looked away. He promised that he wouldn’t let me fail as a caregiver.
But Edith was stubborn. It took a trip to the emergency room that May to make her truly safe. With Randy as our chaperon, instead of returning home, Edith entered a rehabilitation center in Silver Spring. In the following months, she regained 30 pounds. She got back her smile. With help from another Iona social worker, Carol Kaplun, Edith made it through two long-overdue cataract surgeries that saved her sight. In December 2014, we moved Edith to a safe, happy home in the Midwest where almost everyone communicates through ASL. Before Iona — a 40-year-old regional nonprofit that provides help for seniors and their families in the areas of care, counseling, health, advocacy and support — this had seemed impossible.
These days, she’s not alone. She’s busy with ice cream socials, three meals a day and friends. She says she’s happy. We talk (through an interpreter) once a month or so, and I visit when I can. Iona will help me manage her care for the rest of her life.
Six months after she moved in, on a visit to Edith in May, I saw her sunken cheeks had plumped. Her dark, fearful eyes had become bright. Her friend Wayne, wearing a tidy plaid shirt and suspenders, smiled when he dropped by Edith’s room to escort us to lunch. He held the door and, with a gentle touch to her shoulder, reminded her to slow down around the corners. And after we sat down, he pushed the hair out of her eyes so she could see the menu.
Kitson Jazynka is a freelance writer in Washington.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.