She Makes Do On Faith Widow Alone In Trailer Skimps On Medicine, Does Without Heat To Pay For Other Necessities

December 02, 1990|By Gary Gately

Faith comes cheap. Somehow, Henrietta still finds lots of it here in the darkness. She's sitting behind drawn shades under one of a handful of portraits of Christ that adorn the walls of her mobile home, clutching her rosary and shaking her head in disbelief.

Never would she have expected it to end this way: at 72, alone, seemingly abandoned, deciding on the small fraction of the $300 worth of prescriptions doctors say she needs each month.

The eyes recessed behind the big glasses in her roundish face well with tears. The 4-foot-11 woman, whose face seems overwhelmed by a silver bun of hair, speaks in raspy spurts.

"Let me tell you this," she says. "A lot of mornings, I just don't want to get up out of that bed. I'd just as leave lie there and die.

"But I say, 'No, a lot of people have it worse than I do.' So I get up and get my coffee and get my drugs and pray."

And pray and pray and pray some more.

When she finishes talking to God, she talks to "Honey," her husband of a half-century, Nelson, a big, strapping man who worked as a security guard and a mortician.

"Honey's the only one I talk to a lot of days, him and Jesus," she says.

"Honey" died of a heart attack two years ago.

A proper burial was essential, so she sold the stove to pay for it.

For Henrietta, the choices haven't been much easier since.

She does her best to stretch the $700 a month in Social Security and pension money to pay for lot rent, groceries, heat, medicine, health insurance, the telephone, doctor bills and car insurance for the faded gray Ford Escort she hardly drives anymore.

In another life, one that seems distant as an abandoned dream, she worked as a bookkeeper for Montgomery Ward and as a nurse who cared for the retarded and elderly people in a nursing home.

Last winter, she relied on those skills when the money ran out.

The former nurse second-guessed the doctors and decided which medicines she could afford.

Then, a bit of simple bookkeeping dictated that she would have to forgo the heat.

So she hung red curtains on top of the Venetian blinds and prayed for warm fronts.

At night, she shivered while listening to the recorded words of the Bible on her portable cassette.

She got pneumonia.

When she got out of the hospital, she realized she would need another place to live, a warm place where she could talk to living people, instead of only God and her dead husband.

Besides, several heart attacks, bypass surgery, a hernia and arthritis had sapped her strength. She could no longer care for the "handyman's special" her husband had practically rebuilt inside.

And she had no one left to help her.

Her son died in a car accident 14 years ago. Her daughter, in ailing health herself, lives out of state and never visits. She has no other living relatives in the area.

Henrietta asked county officials about getting into subsidized senior housing. The response: She'd have to wait, three or four years.

"Forget it," she replied, "I'll be dead by that time."

That left her with one other alternative, a nursing home, and she decided she already had seen enough of nursing homes for a lifetime.

"I'd rather take a bottle of sleeping pills," she says. "And go to sleep and forget it before I'd go in one of those places."

*

She gets up in the darkness of this cramped little room where fake plants hang from the ceiling. Worn furniture and the boxes holding her husband's life's possessions leave only narrow passageways.

She points to a wooden door somebody broke in a few months ago about 4 a.m.

Henrietta heard the crash, and jumped out of bed, her dead husband's shotgun in hand.

Whoever broke the door from its hinges never got in: She uses the other door, and had piled boxes and furniture in front of the one the would-be robber broke open.

She tells the story matter-of-factly.

You listen to her story, and you look at this tiny old woman who worked her whole life and did her best. She reached old age only to find herself utterly alone when she is most in need.

Something seems terribly, terribly wrong.

"You tell me, tell me, how am I supposed to make it? What am I supposed to do? Me and Honey, we worked hard our whole lives. Now, what do I have?

How am I supposed to live?"

She has asked the questions over and over.

She's written to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and county officials.

She asks why she can't get a decent place to live. She asks how the state could figure she made too much to keep the pharmacy assistance card that allowed her to buy prescriptions for $1.50 apiece.

Nobody answers her.

"I wish," she says, "I wish I could go to Washington. I'd really tell 'em a mouthful about the elderly people, and I'd probably get locked up doing it."

Henrietta laughs -- at last -- when she says that.

But the laughter fades fast.

Her eyes well with tears, the tears of the forgotten, and she stammers.

"I just don't think it's fair, that's all. The elderly don't mean a thing to anybody," she says.

"The sooner you lie down and die, the better they would feel. I just don't think they care. You get older, they forget about you."

But Honey, Honey and God, that's a different story. They'll never forget her.

She knows that.

Tonight, she'll talk to them one more time, and listen to the Book of Jeremiah.

And the voice will soothe her.

"If I didn't have my Bible to listen to at night," she says, "I tell you, I'd be real lonesome."

Fortunately, for Henrietta, faith comes cheap.

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