In the early 1990s, I worked for a law office and provided geriatric care management for several of the firm’s clients. We offered family law services, trust, and estate planning, and handled dependency cases. Half of the work was legal in nature, and the other half was good old-fashioned social work.
One summer I was called to a small nursing home to meet a new client. Her name was Lidia and she was a firecracker! My job was to visit her twice a week, bring her anything she requested from her mobile home a few miles away, and sit and listen to her stories.
She was sweet and appreciative of my visits. We formed a quick bond and laughed together often as she told me her favorite memories from high school and college. She was a bit of a prankster back in the day and she seemed to love the shock on my face when she told me how she switched out twenty frogs and replaced them with worms for the dissecting project in her chemistry class. She told me she could not fathom sacrificing so many reptiles, “Worms seemed so much more dispensable at the time,” and apparently worms were very easy to gather from her grandfather’s garden.
I did not know it then, but Lidia became my own personal “Tuesdays with Morrie”. I was in my early twenties and I learned many lessons about living and loving through compassion, the power of someone else’s narrative, and how important the act of listening is for both the storyteller and the audience.
A few weeks into our new friendship and Lidia asked me to go to her tiny home and find the linen closet. I needed to look behind the stack of white towels and bring the gold and black jewelry box back to her. It was the kind that has a fake front latch and lock and when I opened it, it played a classical tune. I wish I could remember which song, but back then, I was an amateur at archiving such details.
I was asked to get some other items too, a favorite coffee mug, a silky pink robe, matching slippers, and her favorite pillow. As I looked for these objects and began to make a stack, I started noticing that Lidia had stashed packages of toilet paper and paper towels in every conceivable space. Almost every cabinet and closet I opened had piles of paper products squirreled away. It was like I was in that Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles. The rolls of TP seemed to be multiplying every time I opened her cupboard. (If you are rusty on your Sci-Fi memories, here is a link to that episode https://www.startrek.com/database_article/trouble-with-tribbles-the)
My friendship with Lidia ended a few months after I started visiting her. The cancer had already moved in and claimed its territory long before our first acquaintance. I remember thinking Lidia was so brave and courageous. She never complained of pain or loneliness, and always greeted me with a smile and a joke. Lidia somehow made her diagnosis take a backseat, and other subjects rose up to take the spotlight in its place.
When Lidia passed away, I received a matter-of-fact phone call from the head nurse and was asked to pack up her belongings quickly and move her out within 24 hours, there was another person waiting in line for her room. The funeral home gathered her remains and I stacked up the trinkets and keepsakes into a few boxes I scored from a local liquor store. I’ll never forget the sense of abandonment, and the empty feeling of being around someone else’s belongings when you know they will not return. Being among the stuff that remains is almost as crushing as the thought of your favorite human being who has moved on.
Next, I had to go to Lidia’s house and get it ready to list on the real estate market, so the law firm could settle her estate. Her home sold quickly but the new owners wanted the entire residence cleaned out before they moved in. They had no interest in Lidia’s private reserve of paper products and her immense collection of canned goods. Our local food pantry received a surprise donation that day, and the law firm did not have to buy toilet tissue for several years.
I have often wondered what made Lidia buy and stockpile all that toilet paper. She had lived during the depression era so I attributed it to that, but maybe she was preparing for something bigger, maybe she had a crystal ball, but was a few decades off in her calculations.
The genius of Lidia’s prep work and her hilarious stories appear to me from time to time, and especially now during the pandemic. Her behavior and chronicles resonate with my unpredictable and isolating existence. At the grocery store, when I approach another fail in the paper goods aisle, I wish I had a stash like Lidia’s to access.
Lidia’s musical jewelry box was filled with costume jewelry. I was directed to donate most of it to a thrift store connected to a nearby charity. Lidia’s attorney must have seen the sorrow in my eyes as I lifted the box of trinkets into my car. “Keep something”, he said, “Pick an item that can stand-in as her legacy.” Providing protection and comfort during a time when her stories would have fixed so much, Lidia’s legacy is a red crystal ring that masquerades as a valuable ruby. I wear that ring now when I venture into the supermarket searching for my tribbles.