I pulled my SUV into the garage as the chatty woman with a mop of white hair and a purse half the size of her body waited for me to reach into the back seat and snap open her walker. Ilse, whom I’d known for all of 20 minutes, stepped out of the car and into my life. Our unlikely friendship set off a series of equally unlikely events.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my then-husband and I decided to invite a guest to share the holiday — our families lived more than 450 miles away from where we lived in Dallas. I called the activities coordinator at a nearby senior center who suggested Ilse, a woman I imagined would be quiet, soft-spoken, serene. I was wrong.
Ilse was a stubborn, 78-year-old force of nature who was unlike any older person I had known. She enjoyed complimentary gambling junkets to Las Vegas and kept a local bookie on speed dial. She favored sequined T-shirts, her tiny, wire-haired mutt named Speckles, and spending time at the senior center. Describing this opinionated, 4-foot-4 woman as a firecracker, would be like referring to the Olympic torch as a disposable lighter.
Within minutes, Ilse plopped her oversize bag on the kitchen counter and with a wide, denture-filled smile, welcomed the glass of wine my husband offered. With Ilse, there was no pretense. By the end of the evening, we felt as if this quirky septuagenarian was an old friend. Two weeks later I invited her to lunch.
The more time I spent with Ilse, the more she became like a surrogate grandma, albeit a saucy one. She wasn’t afraid to share her opinion with others or to ask me when I was finally going to have children. “You’re not getting any younger,” she’d say.
As her personal Uber driver, minus the fee, I noticed the more favors I agreed to do, the more she asked of me. Six months after we met, desperate for backup, I called her only child, Ralph. He claimed he didn’t have time to help his mom. I questioned his vague, “I’m too busy” excuse, yet I kept my thoughts to myself and never contacted him again.
Ilse called one morning, I suspected to ask for a ride.
“He’s dying,” she said.
“Who?” I asked, assuming she was referring to Speckles.
“Ralph. He told me at dinner last night that he has leukemia.”
“I’m so sorry, Ilse,” I told her, wanting to rush to her apartment and spend time with her, but I had appointments all day.
A few months later, Ralph passed away. I drove Ilse to the funeral, and later to a friend’s house for the wake. She kept repeating, “I don’t know how I’ll live without him.”
After two days, I realized she was too distraught to be left alone and helped her hire a caregiver. A few friends wondered aloud whether Ilse was using me. I never felt that way. After knowing her for two years, I felt personally responsible for her safety and well-being. She was like family to me and I was the only one left in her tribe.
In fact, the year after I met her, Ilse handed me a copy of her will and turned to the page listing her executors. Reading each page was pointless. If she died, Ralph would be responsible for her estate and I was second in line, a role I knew I wouldn’t have to fulfill. When I came home, I slipped the document into a folder and dropped it in my file cabinet.
Each time I stopped by her apartment, Ilse seemed more disconnected than the time before. She was swallowing sleeping pills at night, yet I sensed by her confusion, she was also sneaking tablets throughout the day. I asked the caregiver to watch her more closely.
Late one afternoon, Ilse called from the emergency room to tell me she had tripped over her monstrous coffee table. Using the spare key she insisted I make months before, I searched her apartment for other trip hazards. The table had to go.
The next morning, Ilse called to ask about her table. She was angry and told me how upset she was I had given away a family heirloom. Less than a minute later, she hung up on me.
When Ilse called that evening to apologize, I told my husband to say I wasn’t home. I was still angry and hurt.
The following day, I returned her call, yet was unable to understand what she was saying. I drove her to the emergency room where the doctor confirmed she had suffered a mild stroke. During the next few days, I dropped by her apartment, but she was no longer the vibrant, obstinate Ilse I knew. She rarely spoke.
At the end of the week, almost a month after her son died, I received an early-morning call from her caregiver.
“Please come over now,” the woman said, her voice matter of fact.
“Is Ilse okay?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“No. She’s passed away. Please hurry!”
Minutes later, when I arrived at her apartment, I saw Ilse lying on the bed, motionless, her eyes closed. As I sat on the edge of her bed and held her frail hand, I was both stunned and scared, too shocked to cry.
The morning after her death, I pulled Ilse’s will out of my file cabinet to confirm she had appointed me, a woman she hardly knew at the time, as second in line to manage her estate. I read through a few pages and stopped at the next mention of my name. She had left me $50,000. I didn’t remember her saying anything to me about her bequest, and if she had, I would have insisted she donate the money to charity or give it to a friend she had known longer.
My spouse and I could have used the money, but I couldn’t rein in the guilt I felt at not spending more time with her, not doing more for her, and, especially, not taking her call when she tried to apologize. I knew I couldn’t spend what she had left me, on myself. Ilse was a friend I helped out of loyalty and respect, not out of the expectation of being paid.
Her attorney sent me a check and I opened an investment account in her honor. Over the next 20 years, Ilse’s gift grew and gave me the opportunity to disperse funds in her name to a cause she cared deeply about: children.
Various families and charities benefited from her donations, including a couple who had taken over the care of the wife’s six nieces and nephews. Other families received funds to send their grade-schoolers to summer camp, and through the local food bank’s “Food 4 Kids” program, her donation provided weekend backpacks filled with food for children who relied on daily school meals, to take home with them on Fridays.
Separately, Ilse left money to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, part of which was designated to create a waiting room for the parents of children in the neonatal intensive care unit. A plaque hangs in her honor.
A few days before my unconventional friend died, I heard her on the phone asking about “the odds.” I don’t know whether her last bet paid off — I didn’t ask her bookie when I met her at Ilse’s funeral. Yet the gamble I took years before when I placed a call to the senior center and met Ilse definitely made my life richer. I took a chance on humanity, and Ilse’s friendship was the jackpot.
Lisa Kanarek is an author, freelance writer, and writes the blog Forgot to Tell You. Lisa lives with her husband in Texas, where they are parents to a combined six sons.