Most of my posts end up with my admonitions or advice, but this one is about the death of a friend a year ago and how I realized that I sure wasn’t much of a friend to her. I work in an ordinary blue collar job in retail and contrary to many people thinking this sort of job is beneath them, I actually like working there and find it interesting to talk to so many different people every day. Many of my co-workers have worked their way up to being treasured friends. Some, like my friend, Renate, who passed away, last year on October 3rd, well, our road to becoming friends started with a huge roadblock; Renate did not like me one iota and she let me know this every day for months.
When I began working in this store I started in the fabrics and crafts department, which was like my dream assignment. There’s nothing better than being surrounded by fabric and craft stuff all day long. My mind would teem with “project” ideas with each new day in there and I have a fabric collection to almost rival my book collection. Of course, most of the customers in that department are regulars and you quickly get to know them and know what type of sewing or crafts they do. Often, many of them will bring in their projects to show us or pull out their phone to show us pictures, which was an added bonus. For a long time I ran that department and never wanted to move anywhere else in the store to work, but then from on high, I was asked repeatedly to move to the pharmacy and manage the over-the-counter pharmacy, which I absolutely hated. Instead of my interesting fabrics and crafts customers, brimming full of project ideas, now my life centered on customers wanting to share all their aches, pains and even head lice problems………. yes, it took great courage not to step back whenever a customer asked where the head lice stuff was located. The head lice customers were only rivaled by the customers wanting to share their bowel problem dilemmas with me. Eventually, my managers came and asked me to move to lawn and garden, a much bigger area to handle, but I leaped at that, because at least plants don’t talk about their problems.
Lawn and garden is where I met Renate and boy, I quickly realized that my pharmacy issues were nothing compared to Renate. Renate complained about everything in a heavily laced German accent, although she had moved to America in the early 1960s. A diplomat might call her disposition feisty, but a more honest accounting would be she complained incessantly and cussed like a sailor. She literally despised me and everything I told her, or anyone else in the department, to do, she offered up a blistering string of criticism and/or complaints. I never argued with her. Instead, I offered her my sunniest smile and would tell her, “I heard what you said Renate. I am not deaf, but we are doing what I said.” She would usually cuss under her breath, after telling me, “You don’t know nothing about lawn and garden!” or “You don’t know nothing about plants! And off she would storm.
One day I noticed a problem with my gerbera daisies and I knew that a few drops of Dawn dishwashing liquid in a spray bottle of water would fix that problem and I talked to the previous lawn and garden department manager and she said that was fine to spray them with that. I had gotten a small bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid and a spray bottle, when Renate spied me. She charged up to me and asked what I intended to do with that. As often happens, I was called away from my area and before I could say more than that I wanted to mix some Dawn with water and spray the gerbera daisies, Renate grabbed the Dawn and spray bottle out of my hands. I didn’t raise my voice, just asked her calmly if she knew how much Dawn to mix in a bottle of water. She angrily spouted, “I know what I’m doing!” and off she stormed. When I returned to my area about an hour later, Renate was cussing and fuming. The spray bottle was clogged up and as I approached my gerbera daisies, they were glimmering an eerie blue, with globs of Dawn smothering them, but even more alarming were the puddles of blue Dawn under my plant tables. All I thought was, “this is going to be one holy hell of a mess to clean up!”, but watching Renate standing there trying to spray almost straight Dawn dishwashing liquid out of that spray bottle had me laughing hysterically.
The guys in my department helped clean up that mess and we disposed of those gerbara daisies. I learned my lesson on retail plants – if there’s something wrong with them – dispose of them quickly. When I could stop laughing, I pulled Renate aside and we talked and I told her that from now on we were going to communicate. I told her that her blustery German ways don’t intimidate me in the least, because I’m PA Dutch and they’re bossy Germans too. I related that I am used to Germans bossing me around, because there are plenty of them in my family, to include my late mother, who made my drill sergeants look mellow. Then I told her that I have been gardening since I could walk and I do know a good bit about plants. She seemed to mull that over for a bit, but from that day forward she treated me like her daughter and she became my most ardent champion. And I learned to overlook a lot of her cussing and complaining and better yet learned to like her. Often among gardeners you find people who love plants more than people and Renate struck me as one of those. She particularly loved pansies and when the pansies arrived in the Fall, her face would light up, as she would delicately turn a bloom upward and say, “See, just look in the middle, they’re smiling at you!” While I love flowers, my nature must be much less poetic, because I sure never could see a smile in a pansy.
Time passed and I moved to another position and I saw Renate more in passing, but I still would try to find some time to chat with her. She always told me how much she missed me and then she’d want to show me the flowers on the patio. I had noticed that the last year she seemed to complain about pain often and some days she would walk very slow, but she did show up for work everyday. Then late last summer I heard she was out sick and I saw her a few times in the store, buying groceries or picking up medicine. She seemed like her same feisty self, with her complaints still heavily peppered with expletives.
One day another lawn and garden worker approached me and told me I needed to do something, because she didn’t know what to do. She had picked up some groceries for Renate and taken them over to her house. This worker told me how ill Renate was and how ill her husband was too and she said the house was not fit for them to live in. Dilemmas, dilemmas, because while I respect people’s right to privacy, at some point there’s a line where making sure elderly people are safe seems to warrant intervening. A lifetime of distrust for government, propelled me to decide first to try and visit Renate and see for myself if the situation was as dire as described. When I called her house, her husband told me she was at the emergency room and he didn’t know when she would be home. I called later that afternoon and no one answered. Several other calls went unanswered and then I contacted the lady who had told me about this situation. She informed me Renate had been admitted to a hospital in a nearby city. To add to the tragedy, Renate’s young neighbors had taken her husband to the hospital to visit and his lung collapsed while visiting, so he also was in the hospital.
I phoned Renate for a couple days and chatted, until I could find time to visit her in the hospital. The hospital gown practically swallowed her up, but she still roared with her usual force. She began by telling me how glad she was that I came to see her and then she looked at me and said, “Ain’t that some shit! They told me I’ve got lung cancer and it’s spread to my liver. I’ve got less than a week to live.” We talked and her main worry was about her husband and what would happen to him.
Many people from work went to visit her, which cheered her a great deal, but within a few days she got transferred to a hospice facility. The day she passed away, I walked out on the patio and pansies had just arrived. I bought a container and transplanted them into a smiley mug and it seemed like my lucky day with the gifting fairy smiling upon me, because I found a lovely card with pansies on it too. This hospice facility has the most caring, wonderful staff imaginable and mere words can’t do justice. Renate’s face lit up when she saw the pansies and sure enough, she said,”Look, they’re smiling at you!” She seemed to have shrunk even more and she struggled to draw each breath. Her room felt like an ice box and I inquired if she was cold or wanted the covers pulled up. I felt her bare arms and they were cold, but she told me it was easier to breathe with it cold. Her hair was matted from lying on pillows for days, so I asked a staff member for a comb or brush to fix her hair. She could lift her head and I combed out her hair and she told me it felt much better. She held my hand for hours and we talked here and there. At one point, she opened her eyes and she told me, “I’m ready to die.” When I finally left, I knew she might not be with us another day and I cried as I drove home. She passed away during the night.
Other people, like the young couple who lived next door to her, had tried to help her for a long time and this dilemma of elderly people needing assistance, but resisting help certainly is not a unique problem. The lady at work who took her groceries took her food numerous times. I’ve thought many times in the past year, I sure should have done more to help her. Combing her hair and taking her some pansies as she lay dying seems pretty paltry. Renate, who ofttimes was described as “that rude old German woman”, but whose face turned soft and dreamy as she gazed upon her beloved pansies. Yes, I hope I will look closer, do more for my friends and see the pansies smiling at me.