Anne, the first of my elder students to arrive, nearly tumbles into my apartment asking for ice. The ugly lump on her temple is accented by her crushed eyeglasses, sitting askew on her face. “I was looking the other direction,” she says, mad at herself, “and tumbled straight down on that one step outside.” The landlords painted it bright yellow, but she wasn’t paying attention. That’s the thing you learn working with elders: pay attention. The wrong moment of distraction can change or end your life. “At least,” she says, “I didn’t break this.” She hands me an exquisite jar of blueberry and cherry jam.
I took off the Autumn semester from teaching fitness to elders after 10 years without a break. But we all miss each other, so I invited eight of my 60 students over – those who have stayed in touch over this break. I wanted them to come for tea and cake but in fact, anything later than lunch would dump them into winter darkness on the way home and none of them drives in the dark. So it was dice dice dice for my chicken salad, my potato salad, my egg salad, and my cuke salad. That’s it. They got my whole repertoire all at once.
We’ve had days of weather anxiety in the run-up, with snow last night and slush and rain this morning. I convinced them to come.
I give Anne a bag of frozen tater tots to press on her wound and settle her into my one comfortable chair. I’m glad to have her there as it is a delicate old rocker, and she is petite. Guests have broken it in the past and it’s a bitch to get fixed.
The other seven women, most in their 80s or 90s, arrive unscathed in two more vehicles. I sit them in a motley circle of chairs and couches, storing their walkers and canes and bags nearby. It involves moving all the furniture in my crowded living room, assisting them in getting to and sitting down in a seat, and then returning the furniture, only to have to move something else when it comes to the next guest. I serve them. They like the food, go back for seconds. After everyone has eaten, they take turns nodding off. They are revived by the dessert our baker, Doreen, has brought: three kinds of cookies.
The first carload sets off: the driver must drive in daylight. It’s a not a matter of choice. Two minutes after they head down my hall, one returns to knock on the door. Why isn’t my elevator responding? I check it out. Dead. I call down to the office. A wire has become disengaged but we have to wait for the guy to come from New Hampshire to fix it. Our building’s original single elevator was installed in the 70s and most technicians are too young to know anything about that generation of elevator mechanisms. There’s only one guy who knows it, having been specifically mentored by a retired elevator fixer who was a specialist in this old technology. But the mechanic lives in New Hampshire. There will be a wait.
Those women decide to descend the seven stories to the ground and I return to tell the news to the others, most of them with a serious complaint. One is on her first outing since being in the hospital. She is very shaky on her walker, unable to stand on her own for even one second. Yolanda walks with a much-needed cane due to stenosis of the spine. Another is over 90 and recovering from a broken hip – she doesn’t venture out of the house at all without another person. Doreen has pneumonia she has been unable to shake, and is very weak.
What to do? Yolanda, a leader, says, “If we take it slow and stop to rest, we can all make it.” The one with the walker is always game – she’s ready to try. She of the mending hip is reluctant and Doreen just nods – speaking causes her to cough. “Anyone who wants to wait for the elevator to be fixed, is welcome to stay here and I’ll drive her home later.” They live in a town about 45 minutes away.
Everyone bites the bullet. We stand at the top of the stairs. I carry the walker and bags and descend backwards and sidewards first in line. Behind me is the woman who can’t really stand. She holds onto the banister with both hands, although her body is facing forward. The twisting can’t be comfortable and making her legs take those steps – she probably hasn’t done a lot of steps for many years – is double work for her. What a trooper. The reluctant woman transforms herself into a cheerleader. “Only six flights to go!” she says playfully to the others. In the back, Doreen wheezes but persists.
What a drama. Someone should be filming us – it is a disaster movie just awaiting some romantic tension. I think about the elderly disabled couple who live down the hall from me on the 7th floor. What would I do if there were a fire or other emergency? How could I possibly help them?
We stop and take in the view every landing or two and the ground is coming up fast to meet us. In the lobby, where my students collapse onto couches for a breather, the landlord greets them with an apology saying that I am his favorite tenant. This isn’t the first time he’s said that to me – but I imagine he is very practiced at it with many others.
Once outside we see it is snowing and I help Yolanda, the driver, to get the others into her vehicle, a task that easily takes a quarter of an hour. Everyone insists they’ve had a great time and wave as they go. I turn around towards the building, as I perch on the one step that took down my friend Anne. I remember that I am facing seven floors of steps. I hate going uphill, hate it. But I think of my stalwart students and ascend without complaint. Who, I wonder, were the architects who built a nine-floor high-rise with one elevator and what were they thinking?