Getting Involved

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Mark takes care of old ladies.  Not by nursing them or cooking for them, as much as befriending them. He helps them cope with increasing loneliness and deal with bills, appointments, repairs, and service agencies. He enters into their lives and finds great rewards there.

After 25 years of AIDS, Mark still looks like an athlete.  He is 6’ 3”, Midwestern, with long flaxen hair and blue eyes, and he moves with grace and strength.  But looks can deceive.  “I wear out fast,” he says. “I’m only good for about two hours at a time. I haven’t been able to work a regular job for 15 years.”

Those work experiences were in the past when he befriended Bertha, his 82 year old landlady. At the time, his AIDS was very bad, and there were no effective treatments. His CD4 (T-cells, the white blood cells that HIV attacks) count was extremely low. On one test, the count was 1. Normal is 500 – 1500. “We joked that it was a very tough little cell,” he remembers.

His friends had helped him move into the apartment because it was a comfortable place to die. With their help, he got the place fixed up as nice as it could be, with a little garden and sun coming in whenever the fog permitted.

Then he started to notice his landlady. Bertha was Mark’s physical opposite. Five feet tall in shoes, she spoke with a Russian accent, walked slowly, and forgot things. She lived downstairs in Mark’s two-unit building and owned the property, but she still thought she lived in poverty.  Her house was usually cold.  “She never turned on her heater,” says Mark. “Most times, it wouldn’t have mattered if she had, because she usually forgot to pay the bills.”

“I wasn’t feeling strong at the time,” he remembers, “but she needed help. Nobody else was going to do it.  And I liked her. I started going down there to see what she needed and give her someone to talk to.”

“Her house was dark. It was full of little figurines, angels, and carved animals, laid out on doilies, lit by only a few lamps and windows with drawn curtains.  Being in her place was like stepping into another world, or another century.  I was completely in her universe, on her time. I could forget my problems, forget my pain, and just focus on her. She would tell me all these stories about her life in Russia.”

Bertha’s family lived in Southern California and rarely visited. When Mark got a little stronger, he started taking her shopping and to the park, helped her pay her bills and arranged for a housekeeper to come in once a week. “I got to know her nephew, who was the closest family member.  He was suspicious of me at first, but relieved that someone was looking out for his aunt.”

Mark stayed active in other community work, too.  He liked to organize garage sales for nonprofits. “Once my friend Jill and I had a sale in front of the building for the local Greens,” he remembers. “I looked in on Bertha, and she was shivering in the cold, with the heat turned off.  I brought her a beige jacket someone had donated and wrapped it around her.”

“Two weeks later, she called me over and gave me this big package. ‘I think your friend might like it,’ she said.  It was a full-length mink coat. I told her, ‘I can’t take this.’ ‘Well, it’s too heavy for me,’ she said.  “The one you gave me is better. Your friend can wear this one.” Jill was thrilled. When she wore the mink, her face lit up.  She had never had anything so luxurious in her life.

Bertha died a few years later. Mark has had two other such friends since then.  Leona was an AIDS volunteer writing a book about the men she served. “They’re almost all dead now,” Mark says. “I think I’m one of the three people in the book who are still here.” Leona’s down-to-Earth sweetness comforted Mark.  “One time, a guy we knew had just died, and his family was coming to see his apartment.  We found this massive stash of gay porn and we were racing out to the car with it so they wouldn’t see it.  Leona was coming over and asked why we were in such a hurry. We told her the situation, and she just smiled and said, ‘It happens all the time.’”

The following year, Leona developed brain cancer.  Mark started helping her because, “She had done so much for people. She didn’t have anyone else, and she was soothing to be around.”  He was able to help her get her book published, while she was still well enough to enjoy it.  “We organized a big party for her, and the room was full of cool people, creative types. That was really a great evening.”

He met his current charge, June, at an AIDS support group her son, Jim attended.  They were all living in a small town north of San Francisco at the time, and Jim was doing poorly.  June took care of him and helped keep the group going. She brought in snacks, cheered people up.

After Jim died, June started to slow down. She had come west for him and had few friends in the area. She couldn’t drive, and in California, outside of San Francisco, that is a big handicap.

When she developed congestive heart failure and some memory problems, Mark stepped in to help. He sees her a couple of times a week, which involves driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to take her shopping or to appointments.

“It’s good for me to get out of the City,” he says. “It works for both of us. Like, she needs blood work every week, and a nurse could come to her apartment to do it. But she loves to get out to the clinic and socialize with people, so I take her when I can.”

About his older friends, he says, “I’m pretty sure Bertha would have died two years sooner without help, and June would have been gone by now, too. But it’s not charity. You have to remember, when I started with Bertha, I thought I was dying. Helping good people made me feel I was still useful. It still does. I’m glad to have known them. They keep things interesting and show me sides of life I wouldn’t see otherwise.”

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6 Responses to Getting Involved

  1. DJ Woolley says:

    This is well cool – something I will probably end up doing in future. So many times while I’m on the bus I end up in conversations with elders, particularly women, who are fascinating. Spending time in conversation with them usually seems more desirable than whatever I’m on my way to do. There are so many elders alone who still have much to offer, but are ignored and forgotten. So much wisdom and experience (not to mention quality companionship) going to waste. Bravo Mark! And you David, for sharing this story.

  2. There, but for the grace of God, go you or I. Do help. Most real rewards don’t have a monetary value.

  3. Mary Nordseth says:

    As a senior I have found some camaradie among’st my set; also a young woman who wanted to know ‘all about me’. But when we disembarked the bus, she called me ‘honey’ and I had to straighten her out: My name is Mary, I said, gently. Heaven forbid I should discourage her from reaching out and sharing with another human being — something that separates us from the animals: the need to connect emotionally with another.. From time to time I too speak to bus passengers, especially if we are seated nearby. I also listen to others who seem to be just then touching base with one another. It’s quite miraculous that we don’t have to go through a whole day without speaking one word to another person (which I have done). I always admired a friend who could bond instantly with deli workers or shop keepers, without patronizing and or compromising either of them. Speech is a very good thing for it helps me understand my motivation in reaching out to others, maybe they need it, maybe I need it. I’m just learning to appreciate the value and the gift of speech. To me, ‘small talk’ is an art. Thanks, David.

  4. David, I am so glad to have found out about your blog! It’s a wonderful inspiration and I have bookmarked it so I can keep up with your posts.
    Thank you!

  5. Dan Brook says:

    It’s so often true that we get more than we give when we help others and transcend ourselves and what we think are our personal needs.

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