Nearly 20 years ago, Gary retired from the military and we moved to this house in this neighborhood in Kansas. We’ve lived here the longest that we’ve lived anywhere and grown roots that we never dreamed would go so deep.
We hadn’t met our next-door neighbors yet when one day the kids and I were out working in our yard. It was a hot summer day. There in the driveway at the house beside us knelt an elderly man, our yet un-met neighbor, pulling weeds in the hot summer sun. He was kneeling in his gravel driveway, working hard on those weeds, all the while coughing like crazy.
I was worried about him, so I told our three children to run over and see if they could help him. Off they scurried, only to be told no and thank you. We were sad that he didn’t want the help and worried about his coughing in the hot sun, but no is no.
Time went by, as have many of my memories. I don’t recall how we broke the ice with our neighbors, but I do know that they loved our white German Shepherd, Rainey, and they eventually learned to welcome us and our children as their new neighbors.
Thus, we slowly came to know Don and Nora Kelly. I distinctly remember that first Christmas, standing on Don and Nora’s front porch holding our simple covered plate on which we had placed some home-made Christmas goodies. Don was totally surprised to open the front door after we rang the bell, and to see all five of us there with our smiles and our Merry Christmas wishes as we handed him the plate. He was embarrassed and awkward as he thanked us, and then said, “But we don’t have anything for you.” We told him it wasn’t necessary and that we just wanted to wish him and Nora a wonderful Christmas.
The following Christmas, our doorbell rang one day and there stood Don, a smile on his face and a gift bag in his hand. We exchanged Christmas gifts every year from that point on, for fifteen years.
Don and Nora were very private people, still not wanting to ask for or to receive help from any of their neighbors. They did, however, learn to take the garden veggies that we shared with them every summer. I also learned that Nora absolutely loved my homemade rice pudding, so I would sometimes surprise her with a big warm bowl full…and remind her that she had to share with Don!
Don’s hearing wasn’t the best and he never would get hearing aids. Nora loved to talk…and talk…and talk. I knew never to go over if I was in a hurry to get away, because Nora had lots and lots to say. Don would smile and then disappear, leaving Nora and me to talk. Well, leaving mostly Nora to talk and me to listen.
Don and Nora were very close. They went everywhere together. I never saw Nora drive. When they were out shopping or eating, wherever they walked, they always held hands. Always. People who didn’t even know them recognized them as the cute old couple who were always holding hands. There they would go, little tiny Nora dressed to the nines and with her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail…and very tall Don, usually in a suit with his hair still dark.
Sometimes I would run into them at our local Dillon’s store. We would stand in the aisle, Nora talking up a storm in her little shrill voice, with Don beside her smiling as usual. The last time I saw them there, I snapped this picture of them as they walked away. Hand in hand…always.
That Christmas, in 2013, I went over to their house as usual with our Christmas goodies. Don answered the door. He didn’t look well. I stepped inside as he took our gifts and then said that he would get Nora to go downstairs to get ours. I thought that was unusual. Nora soon came with their gift and told me that Don wasn’t strong enough to go down the stairs and back up. He had been sick, she said, and she was worried.
Things went downhill quickly from there. Their other neighbors, the Tuflys, were also keeping an eye on Don and Nora. One day they told Nora that an ambulance was coming to take Don to the hospital. They had called one to come, and despite Nora’s objections, Don was soon admitted to the hospital. When he finally came home days later, he was under Hospice care for advanced cancer throughout his body.
Nora insisted on caring for Don at home, though she was weak and exhausted herself. But Nora was a tough wife who refused to let Don die anywhere but at home. Our two families on each side of them helped…a lot…and three months after returning home, Don was gone.
Poor little Nora was left alone. After being married to Don for 68 years, she was suddenly all alone in her big house and all alone in her many big decisions to make. She had no hand to hold. It was sad to see.
She so wanted to be with people all the time. She loved coming over to our house, including spending time with Aaron even when he got impatient with her.
Both of us neighbors stepped up to help her with the housework, yard work, shopping, doctor appointments, and the many decisions she needed to make about her future. Eventually, we helped her sort through every room and closet and drawer of that big house as she got ready for an estate sale and then a move to a retirement center.
Five months after Don died, we moved Nora to her new home. What a huge transition this was for her! Nora, I learned, was extremely afraid of being alone. But alone she was, and she knew she had no choice. Her inherent stubbornness stood her in good stead as she adjusted to not only this very new life, but a new life without Don by her side.
I had no idea at the time about what Nora would need, but I did know that she needed to be seen by her doctor about a wound she had gotten on her leg. She was sent to the wound center, where she initially needed to be seen several times a week. I reluctantly made the appointments for her, not sure how I was going to manage both Nora’s schedule and taking care of our special need’s son, Aaron. Yet I couldn’t just walk away and leave Nora stranded.
Things grew after that. Nora needed compression socks, special lotion, wrappings, and more doctor appointments. Her eye doctor visit came, with a referral to a retina specialist. She needed a new family practice doctor, along with an ENT referral and soon had to be seen by a podiatrist. And don’t forget her normal dental visits…medicines to fill…insurance…hearing aids to buy. It was too much for Nora to manage and understand on her own.
In a way, I became the daughter that Nora never had…and she became the mother that I never got to care for in her old age. We got into a routine of sorts, Nora and me. We were getting into a groove, you might say, bumps and all.
It hit me one day that I was now the one holding Nora’s hand. From the very beginning of our outings, she would hold my hand as we walked. Part of her reason was that holding my hand gave her stability, but I learned that holding my hand also gave her security. She knew she wasn’t alone.
Nora needed me, but she had to learn to share me. She especially had to share me with Aaron. This meant that her appointments had to be scheduled around his doctor visits, and around the fact that I had to take Aaron to his day group every day and then pick him up. I never knew about Aaron’s seizures, of course, so there were times I had to cancel a fun day or a doctor visit day with Nora. She learned to adjust, but oh it was so hard for her to do that.
Nora also had to learn to trust me. Trust was not an easy thing for Nora. I learned that fact quickly on the day she was called back to see her doctor and I offered to watch her purse for her. I got a big NO from her on that one! Over time I knew that if Nora and I were to be together as much as we were, then I would need to earn her trust. With time, that happened, and it filled me with joy that she would trust me with so much of her life. And she even let me put my hand in her purse to help her find things – a HUGE no-no when I first got to know her. When she let me hold her credit card or hold her purse while she was in a restroom, I knew I had truly arrived at full trust!
Our relationship continued to grow beyond doctor visits and trips to the grocery store. We shared with each other our lives, our disappointments, our worries, our joys. Nora gave me advice gleaned from her many years of living, and I tried to give her encouragement when she was scared and worried.
As time went on and we grew closer, Nora would also reach for my hand in more personal ways. When I was driving, she would hold my right hand and tell me that she loved me. As we sat in doctor’s waiting rooms, holding my hand gave her comfort. And if we had a disagreement or she was upset, she would take my hand as she told me she was sorry.
One of the best things that we shared was our love for God. Nora would pray the sweetest, most heart-felt prayers. We nearly always prayed before we ate, and Nora really wanted to pray before seeing a doctor. She was always the most panicked before those doctor visits – even before getting her teeth cleaned! But prayer was a big part of Nora’s life, both praying out loud together and asking me to pray for her at home while assuring me she was doing the same for me and my family.
Nora wasn’t always an easy person to be around. Our personalities were mostly opposite of each other. I could make her laugh, though, and those times were so much fun. It was good to see her relax, to enjoy life, to laugh, and to have something positive to remember. She especially loved just riding, looking out at the pretty Kansas scenery as we drove up to Yoder or as I purposely took the longer, country route back to her apartment when I could.
She loved it when I took her to see the graves of Don and their son, Jim. We made sure that there were always flowers in the vases…also making sure she could always buy them for half price at Hobby Lobby!
And oh, how she loved eating out!
Nora definitely made me laugh. Did she ever! She had the funniest sayings and such a spunky attitude. She said whatever she thought, but she could get by with it at her age. Servers in restaurants and the employees in stores we frequented enjoyed her so much.
Nora was very, very thrifty. She never wanted to spend a dime more than was necessary. I became very proficient at sneaking more money on the table for the server’s tip because Nora rarely left enough. Once when we were in TJ Maxx, her favorite store, she insisted on me picking out a sweater as a Christmas gift from her. Here’s how it went:
Nora: Now, Patty, pick out anything you want and don’t worry about the price.
Me: Nora, you don’t have to do that.
Nora: No, I WANT to do it. Now get something and don’t look at the price.
Me: Are you sure?
Nora: YES!! Get whatever you want and don’t even think about the price.
Me (finally holding up a sweater): I like this one.
Nora: How much is it?!
HaHaHaHa!!!! That was so Nora!
I have many funny stories that I could share about Nora. Sad stories, too, as this past year Nora began to greatly decline. When she first moved to her new home, she was alert and mostly healthy and so pretty.
But last year, I noticed her increasing tiredness and confusion and weakness. I talked her into getting a wheelchair to make our outings easier. She would fall asleep while we were shopping, or when I would do her nails.
Her vision was getting worse, and even though her retina doctor wasn’t sure if treatments were helping her, she insisted on continuing with them.
She would call me, and others, at all hours of the night. She would wander the halls of her assisted living center during the night and was very confused about what time it was. But she kept pushing on, not wanting the increased help that was provided and not wanting to discontinue our outings.
On May 1, I picked Nora up for what she called a “fun day.” That meant no doctor appointments or anything else stressful. We went to our new Cheddar’s for lunch. Nora had never been there, so she was excited. She ate a bacon burger and fries, loving every bite. Then we went to TJ Maxx, where she bought two big bottles of perfume. I think she bathed in the stuff! Finally, to Dillon’s for a few of her essentials, where the wonderful employees there greeted her and made her feel loved.
On our way back to her apartment, she took my hand as I drove. “Patty,” she said, “I don’t think I thank you enough for all you do.” I assured her that she did. “No,” she said, “I don’t believe I do. I just want you to know how very much you mean to me and how thankful I am for all you do.”
At her apartment, she sat and watched as I put her things away, opening her perfume bottles for her as well as her other items. I showed her several times that her credit card was indeed in her wallet in the pocket of her purse, and that the zipper was shut. I put her receipts where they belonged and her mail, and once again went over her medicines with her. All the things we always did.
I could tell, though, that Nora wanted to talk so I sat down beside her. She told me that she just wanted to be loved, so we talked about that. I assured her of my love for her. She wanted to talk about heaven, so we did. There were some personal things said, revealing some of her hurts in life. I put my arm around her. I tried to comfort her as best I could, but she knew I was leaving soon. She always hated my leaving and being alone again.
That day, while we were out, she asked about all my children…each one by name as best she could remember. She asked if they were happy. Before I left her that day, she told me that she was so glad my children were happy. Then our last words were what they always were.
“I love you, Nora,” I said.
“And I love you, too,” she replied.
Then a kiss…because Nora always wanted a kiss goodbye.
On Sunday, May 5, Nora called to ask me to cancel her retina appointment on Tuesday. She told me she was sick, so I told her I would make an appointment with her family doctor, but she said no. Before we hung up, she told me that she didn’t think she would make it through this.
I had a full day on Monday, so I wasn’t able to go see her. I planned to go on Tuesday to check on her and to try to talk her into seeing her doctor. But on Monday night, shortly after 11:00, I awoke to hear my phone vibrating over and over on my nightstand. I clumsily answered it.
The nurse on the other end identified herself. I immediately thought that Nora must have fallen and that she was on her way to the hospital. But it wasn’t that.
“Patty,” she said. “Nora passed tonight.”
It was so shocking. So fast. If only I had known on that Monday how quickly Nora was going downhill, I would have gone to be with her. I would have held her hand until the end, but instead she died alone. I know it’s not my fault, but I do have regrets that I wasn’t there the way she would have wanted.
There were many other regrets that ensuing week for all of us who knew and cared for Nora. Nothing was done in the way that Nora had carefully planned with me several years earlier. Each of us have had to come to terms with this, and to say goodbye to Nora in our own ways, the best that we can.
I’m thankful for my years with Nora…for the good times and the hard times, even. I’ve seen clearly that sometimes God plops a person right in your lap, out of the blue, for you to care for and love. For me, it wasn’t only that I could help Nora. Nora also helped me in ways I am still discovering. And helping Nora was also a huge way that I could serve God.
I was privileged to hold Nora’s hand.
And I am sure that I will always hold Nora in my heart.