By Christel Preuss
A stock photo of a woman who is not Christel or her neighbor Fran!
She was our next door neighbor, when my husband and I and our three young children moved into our house, back in 1991. At the time I was 35 and she seemed “old”; she had just retired the year before, and was 63. Her husband, Amos, was also retired and played horseshoes out in their back yard. For many summers, I heard the clang of horseshoes hitting against the metal post or the thuds of misses as he practiced. Amos grew tomatoes next to our garage, and some years came over to pick raspberries from our patch when there was an overabundance. Occasionally she’d send over a batch of cookies or brownies that were extra, after her family had come for a visit. I knew she belonged to St Dennis church, made cards on her computer, and quilted.
The years went by and my husband left. My children grew up and also left. We continued being neighborly, but never really close.
Then in 2009 Amos died. And a year later she sold her house and moved to a senior apartment complex about two miles away. During the following year I saw her once or twice at a local restaurant with family members.
The next year in 2011, I called her at the beginning of the New Year to say hi and catch up. I began to learn more about her six children, three who lived nearby and the other three spread across the U.S. She also told me more about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We continued this “New Year’s check-in” call for several years.
Then in the summer of 2016, I called her on a lark, after my own mother had died, and for the first time, I asked if I could visit. She said sure. When I got to her apartment, it turned out she was getting ready to move again, this time into an assisted living facility nearby. Her eyesight was failing and she was needing extra help. She seemed resigned to this new move as she told me, “Christel, it is what it is.”
Two weeks later, after her move, I visited again.
She seemed to appreciate my company and encouraged me to come again, if I had the time…
And so it began. First, I visited on different days but then settled on Sunday afternoons from three to five. The routine of regular visits seemed to be reassuring to her and fit my schedule as well. So I came every week, like clockwork.
The first year, I learned she loved to read, but couldn’t navigate Audio CD books anymore. I contacted the ACCESS program who introduced me to the “Talking Books” organization for the visually impaired. I asked her if she wanted to sign up, and she agreed. This gave her access to a simple machine and lots and lots of books. It was a lifesaver for an avid reader! We continued to talk about our families and I began to feel like I knew hers more. We began walking the hallway to get in more exercise. I would lead the way and she would follow with her walker. She did her best to follow my directions, “Go left, right, no left, forward.” She could still see shadows of movement then.
The second year, we began watching the Packers and the Brewers. I’m not an avid fan, but I began to know the statistics and rooted for the teams. Occasionally, I brought in dinner from “Dairyland,” a favorite restaurant of hers. She enjoyed the Reuben sandwich with fries and chicken rice soup. It was nice. As the year went on, she began skipping the hallway walk saying she was tired and not up to it. I had to accept, that it is what it is.
The third year, I began recording and transcribing stories she’d been telling me about growing up in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. She also began saving Oreo snack packs she’d received from the facility to share with me. Then we began working crossword puzzles…I would read the clues and number of boxes as well as any letters known already. She was quite good at them and we both felt like we’d accomplished something when we solved one. We weren’t walking the hallway anymore and she stopped being able to stand up unassisted.
Then one May Sunday in 2019, she wasn’t there. Her room was unchanged, but she was gone. I talked to an aide, but she couldn’t tell me anything (upholding facility privacy issues). Then I thought to use her phone’s speed dial to reach her daughter. I learned she was at St. Mary’s hospital so I headed there.
As I walked into her room on the Cardiovascular floor, she was sitting in the Lazy Boy chair in the corner. I said my usual greeting, “Hi Fran, it’s me Christel.” Her face broke out into a big smile and she seemed to breathe out a sigh of relief. And so we began our visit. I learned how she had gotten to the hospital the evening before by ambulance, and everything else that had occurred since. She was waiting for test results and seemed alright, yet I was worried.
Two days later she was transferred to Hospice. I visited her that same evening and we talked about how things were going now. Some of her family from far away were coming and she was looking forward to seeing them. She even said she might be there for weeks, who knew. Before I left, we talked about our friendship, and she said how much it meant to her and how appreciative she was of my visits. I assured her I valued our relationship too.
Two days later I returned to find Fran sleeping. Her breathing was labored and she wasn’t awake. I took out the transcripts of the stories she had told me, and while holding her hand read them back to her—hoping she would find comfort in them as she slumbered.
She was gone the next day, May 31, 2019.
At first, Sunday afternoons were difficult—I missed our routine, her updates about her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, her interest in my life and family, the crossword puzzles, the Oreos.
Seven months have passed, and I still miss Fran, a neighbor who became a dear friend. As I think back on her life and our relationship I realize they have taught me some lessons: to keep active; to stay open to new experiences; and to never underestimate the power of showing up. Because in the end, it is what it is.
© 2020 Christel Preuss
Christel Preuss lives in Madison, Wisconsin and dabbles with words now and then.