Shorn Lambs

April 09, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Sometimes when life seems almost impossible to bear, something mercifully intervenes. A religious person, I suppose, would know how to explain that. Someone else might just call it good luck. In any case, when it happens it's cause for thanks.

A month ago, writing about age and the inexorable passage of time, I referred to some problems faced by two elderly friends. Each had had a sudden failure of health that forced unwelcome changes in the way they lived their lives.

Their subsequent experiences were the sort most of us dread, and sharp reminders of the rapid ticking of the universal clock. But in each case, when they were at their most vulnerable, something happened to ease the impact upon them of these calamities. It was as though God were in fact, as the proverb says, tempering the wind to the shorn lamb.

One friend was a West Virginian, one of many who came down from the mountains during World War II because there were jobs to be had nearer the coast. After the war ended he stayed in Maryland. He drove trucks, worked on farms, had a child and grandchildren.

He had a steady energy that enabled him to put in long hours without complaint, and he worked on part-time into his 80s.

When he wasn't working he was, well, working -- tinkering with his cars, digging in his garden, feeding his chickens. He was not the sort to sit quietly on the porch, but he'd made provision for doing so one day. A year ago he went back to West Virginia and bought his father's old house, on top of a mountain. His father had lived there into his 90s and when he got old, too, he said, he'd probably retire there.

But it wasn't to be. This past winter something in his brain just gave way. He was no longer himself. He raged against it, fought it, but it was clear that he wouldn't get to West Virginia. After a short time it became clear, too, that he couldn't stay at home either. His family reluctantly accepted the harsh reality, and he went into a nursing home.

It was a nice enough nursing home, as those institutions go, and after he'd been there a few days my father and I went to see him. It almost broke my heart. He knew who we were, which was a surprise, and he was desperately unhappy, which wasn't. ''Did you fellas come to take me home?'' he asked. ''I've got to get out of here. I've a lot of things to do.''

We couldn't do that, of course, and so we said goodbye and promised to come back soon. What a place for this strong, proud, self-sufficient man to end up, I thought. And when the next morning I learned that he'd died in his sleep, I felt an enormous release. He'd been given what he must have been praying for, those last days. He'd gotten out of there.

The other friend is a woman whose situation was in some ways even worse off, because she had no family to call upon when her health started to go. She owned her own house and lived alone. After she stopped working last fall, she saw very few people, and as she began to deteriorate it was some time before others noticed.

But eventually some safety nets, both formal and informal, began to deploy. Alerted by a neighbor, case workers from the local agency that works with the elderly arrived. They were appalled at her condition, and they began, gently and tentatively, to encourage her to make new living arrangements.

As word about her problems spread, friends from near and far began magically to appear. A distant cousin in another state provided some financial help. A neighbor came in to do her laundry and scrub her kitchen floor. A friend from Baltimore helped her sell her house and move into a pleasant ''assisted-living'' facility where she should be quite comfortable until she requires round-the-clock medical attention.

She isn't especially happy about the move, but she seems resigned to it, especially as she has been able to keep the company of her beloved cat. My guess is that she'll like it better as time goes by. To her friends, meanwhile, it seems providential that she's no longer living on her own. Her new residence probably won't meet her needs forever, but life has to be taken one step at a time.

More than 2 million people die in the United States each year, and probably almost as many suffer some disabling and eventually terminal illness. That's so much tragedy it's impossible to comprehend. And while it's possible to generalize about it, it's also pointless.

Locally, though, where the tragedies are individual ones, it's remarkable how frequently friends and neighbors and communities pitch in to help those who need it. It isn't only God and the federal government who look out for the shorn lambs.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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