Updated: Dec 21, 2020
As 2020 comes to an end, we continue to see our seniors face isolation and separation. Although this is unprecedented in modern memory, seniors are no strangers to such adversity. Natural disasters, wars, and other wide-spread illnesses such as the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the polio epidemic of the mid-twentieth century have plagued mankind and disproportionately affected the very young and the very old.
It is during these trying times that those who are alone and isolated find solace in seemingly insignificant things that many of us may have a difficult time understanding -- until we ourselves reach that point in our lives. That creased and fading photo, the string of dirty pearls, or an old pair of shoes may hold more importance to a person than any house or bank account. We must not only understand this but honor it.
This is also the belief and commitment that Attorney Connelly has towards those seniors and their families that he works with. Shortly after I met him, he had just returned from a widower's home who had just been admitted to nursing care following a devastating stroke. In his hand was a cardboard box of personal items that were going to the nursing home where he was receiving care. The box contained clothing, hygiene products, medications, and a small, aging wooden container. Inside that container was a lock of hair and a cracked and yellowed comb and brush set.
A staff member asked Attorney Connelly, innocently, if that should be taken to him, after all, it seemed so insignificant given the situation. "That," he said, "is most likely the most important thing that he needs right now." With a look of confusion on her face, RJ went on to explain.
"These items must have an important meaning to Mr. Jones (not his real name), something that represents an occasion, a symbolic moment, or a memory with a loved one. Memories like this are the most important things seniors have because they keep alive those moments or people who now only reside in the recesses of their minds, and in many cases, gives them a reason to move forward with their lives," Connelly said.
"This lock of hair and the photo may be all he has from his wife who passed some ten years ago, and it certainly holds prominence for him because it was on his nightstand in his bedroom -- by itself."
Connelly continued, "So often we think it's the big things that are important to people as they approach the last chapter of their life -- the house or property that they own, maybe personal accomplishments at a job or a diploma hanging on the wall, but I've learned this is not the case. This lock of hair, the comb and brush set assuredly elicits memories that hold more meaning than any material asset. As we age, we will begin to realize that it's the small things in life that take up the most room in our hearts."
Connelly's words hit home for me and brought back my memories of an older woman who had a profound impact on my life some five decades ago. Her name was Zofia, who lived on a small side road named Market Street in a New Jersey town bordering the Delaware River called Phillipsburg where I delivered a local newspaper, the Easton Express, to her each evening after school.
Zofia was an immigrant from Poland, coming to the United States shortly after the end of World War II. Each night I would personally knock on the door and hand the paper to her just to see her smile and weathered but gentle eyes squinting through her glasses. She was probably sixty-something at the time and lived alone. I could tell she had some health issues but did not know at the time that she was in the early stages of dementia. She also had a left arm that hung limp at her side. I didn’t know why and it was really none of my business but I sure was curious.
As the months went by, I grew closer to her. Her speech was affected by her illness but I could still understand her, though she had a thick accent. Her deep blue eyes and expressive face gave me the answers I needed when the words eluded her. She would invite me into her home on hot days for a glass of cold water and during the winter, would be waiting for me with a cup of hot chocolate -- usually half full because her shaking good hand spilled most of it as she readied it for me at her stove.
On one special evening, she motioned for me to come in and I saw a beautiful piece of apple pie and a scoop of ice cream waiting for me. She struggled for the words but managed to communicate to me that she made it herself. It was delicious. This piece of pie turned into a regular meal at least once every two weeks. I enjoyed my time with ‘Zoffy’, as I began calling her, and eventually, I felt comfortable enough to ask her questions.
My first being about her arm. In my mind, she must have been in an accident or maybe the war, but she wrote the word “polio” on a piece of paper. Now I understood. She then stood up and went into her closet and pulled out a journal and gifted it to me. I began reading and learned that Zofia was a talented and prolific writer in her younger years, in both English and Polish, and I later used her words and story in a thesis for a graduate paper I wrote in geriatric psychology - "The Resilience of Seniors with Traumatic Histories". What I learned about Zoffy was nothing short of remarkable and inspiring.
According to her journal, she had been married in her native Poland before coming to this country. Her husband, Wojciech, had fought for the Polish resistance during the German invasion of the country in 1939. It was during this attack that she lost her father to the brutality of the German troops. Her mother, who was at work when the invasion occurred, never returned home that night.
Zoffy wrote of her fear for Wojciech every time he went out to attack the Nazi soldiers. The couple also had a child named Dymek, who was the inspiration for her husband’s fight for Polish independence. He so badly wanted the boy to live free and not under the brutal Nazi regime.
But one day, Wojciech went out with other members of the resistance and never returned. Zoffy wrote of the German soldiers rounding up families, especially those of Polish officials or members of the resistance. Fearing for her life and the life of her child, Zoffy hid in the homes of friends until she could be smuggled out of Poland and placed on a boat to America.
During their trip across the ocean, Dymek became ill. It first appeared to be a cold, but the coughing became deep and frequent. At times he struggled to breathe. There was some medical care on the ship but nothing to really help the child. He became lethargic and refused to eat, by the time they arrived in New York, he was coughing up blood. Upon examination, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized, but it was too late. Just a scant three days later, he died. Zoffy had no one to turn to and was forced to deal with the loss of her son alone. She looked to the church for solace and this became a cornerstone of her life.
Fellow parishioners helped Zoffy find a place to live on Staten Island and she began to attend college as an "older" student, with many of her classmates being young enough to be her daughter or son, but for Zoffy, being surrounded by young people kept her "feeling alive". She also continued her work as a seamstress in her spare time. She wrote of her love for children and wanted to teach school as a gift to “my Dymek”. It was 1952 when she entered her senior year. In her journal, she complained of the fatigue that she started to feel, chalking it up to her non-stop schedule. Zoffy wrote:
“I woke up one morning and was unable to get out of my bed. When I did not show up at work that night, my friends came looking for me. When they found me, I was unable to move, paralyzed on my left side. They called for help and I was taken to the local hospital, first in New Jersey and then transferred to New York City where I was diagnosed with polio.
The thing I remembered the most was being moved outside into the cold winter weather, day after day, because, for some reason, they thought that cold helped with the symptoms, but it didn’t. It was bone-chilling cold in New York and I couldn’t get up to walk inside so I laid there and listened to the street noises and tried to imagine it was summer. I made believe I could hear the birds singing and the hot sun beating down on me. I went through this again and again.
After a month in the ward, I started getting letters from church members which made me feel better but I was by myself in America. It was a big place, a lonely place. My sister, who had come over about a year after me, was living in Pittsburgh with a family we knew from Warsaw. Any contact with her was sparse at best. I struggled with whether I should tell her but if she came, would she get sick too? Worrying about my own health was stressful enough, I didn't need to worry about another.
I initially began to feel better, then, without warning, things took a bad turn and my breathing began to suffer. Not only was I paralyzed on one side but now I felt like I had just run one hundred miles and kept going. My heart was racing and no matter how deep I tried to breathe, I just couldn't get enough air. After a few days, my doctor came in and told me I would need oxygen and suddenly I was moved from the ward that was busy into critical care with a respirator strapped on my face that was really bothersome. Then they came in with the news that I would be put into an "iron lung." I had no idea what that was at the time but I learned really quick. When they rolled me to it, this huge piece of metal with tubes, gauges and handles that I would soon be a part of was imposing and added to my anxiety.
But as scared as I initially was about the “iron lung”, it actually was quite comforting. The respirator that was strapped tightly on my face was removed and I was lying flat on my back with the machine helping me breathe. It was quite relaxing except for the fact that you couldn’t see what was going on around you. There was a mirror on the front so you could see behind you with a frame that a book or newspaper would go into, but it wouldn’t do you any good if there was no one to turn the pages and believe me, there was plenty to do for the nurses as it seemed there were new patients coming in every few minutes for their turn in their own iron lung.
The "lung" reminded me of an oven and me being on a cookie tray. They would slide me in and out like a roast chicken. Underneath me was the pump for the machine and you could feel the vibrations of the motor running. It would take a breath for you and then you would feel a bump as the air escaped. But I got used to it and came to appreciate the warmth and comfort of it after spending those cold days outside.
Eating, however, was another challenge. Because my body was inside the machine and my head outside, swallowing became a chore. As the machine pulled your diaphragm in and out, you learned to swallow in rhythm with the lung. It was a strange dance I did with the machine but it was a partner that saved my life. On the sides of the lung were portholes so the therapists could reach in and do the massages I needed on the muscles and joints to keep them loose and working.
I remember people feeling sorry for me, asking me how I could take being locked up in a machine all day, not being able to have my freedom. But I told them that I was thankful to have had this chance. If I would have stayed in Europe, I may not have been alive much less having a chance for life thanks to a machine like the "iron lung". Overall, I considered myself very lucky...”
Zoffy ended up recovering enough to be discharged but her arm would never improve. She did return to college after nearly two years of being hospitalized and graduated, getting her first teaching job in South Jersey. A few years later she took another teaching position in eastern Pennsylvania where she stayed for the remainder of her career.
Zoffy never remarried, maybe it was because of her polio, or perhaps her heart was so broken by losing her husband and son that she couldn't face loving someone again. Instead, her passion became teaching and her love for those she taught was evident.
When I would go to her house for dinner, I was amazed at how she was able to prepare food with only one arm. She would take her paralyzed limb, place it on the table, hold an apple or potato, or whatever she was cutting in that hand while using the kitchen utensil in her right. She didn't have to speak for me to know Zoffy enjoyed the time we spent together. And I did, too.
As the months went by, the meals began to diminish as her dementia became worse. Her smile still radiated but her eyes began to grow tired. For whatever reason, dementia targeted her speech, and she reached a point where she was only able to utter a word every now and then. Because of this, she rarely ventured outside, instead choosing to stay in her house listening to her records. Mostly gospel, some Polish, and two songs that she played over and over – “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny and “If I” by Jimmy Clanton. If you walked by her cottage on a warm day and her door was open, those songs would repeat and repeat (It was later in life when I actually listened to Jimmy Clanton's song and understood why this was a favorite for her).
Despite her worsening dementia, she continued to attend church every Sunday which kept her connected to friends who helped her remain in the cottage she loved. They would go in, help her clean, make food for her, and wash her clothes. It then reached a point where she no longer remembered me, at least not all the time. There were moments but they became further and further apart. She no longer read the paper however I kept delivering it just so I had a reason to have some connection with her.
One Christmas season, Zoffy went with her church group for an evening trip to see the holiday lights in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, known as “The Christmas City”. When she returned home, several members of the church ushered her into the house and got her settled. The following morning, disaster struck.
A fire had ravaged her little cottage and if it weren’t for the bravery of her neighbors, Zoffy may not have survived. As it was, she did suffer minor burns and smoke inhalation and ended up in the local hospital. The neighbors stated that the fire started because of a hotplate that she left a coffee pot sitting on. The house was a total loss.
The following day I went to the hospital to see her. She looked my way but did not seem to recognize me. “Zoffy,” I said quietly. She looked up somewhat confused and said, “Demy’s cookie, Demy's cookie," over and over, crying hysterically. I was sad and left. I told the nurse what she was saying but they said she was "senile" and not to pay attention to her words.
A few days later, I stopped by the hospital again and saw an older woman in her room that turned out to be her sister Hannah. We spoke about my relationship with her and Hannah seemed to enjoy hearing about her sister. Every so often, Zoffy would cry out, “Demy’s cookie”, and close her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks. "Demy," Hannah said, "was her son. She must be thinking about him."
While I was there her church friends stopped by with several gifts, but Zoffy waved them off. She grabbed one of the women by the arm and cried, “Demy’s cookie” over and over again until she became tired and laid back on her bed. What I did notice was that her once bright and expressive eyes seemed dark, devoid of life.
Before leaving the hospital, Hannah asked me if I would meet her at Zoffy's burnt out home the following morning to try and salvage any keepsakes. She indicated that the police had given her permission but warned her to be careful. It was the least I could do.
It was a December morning, just a week before Christmas and I was looking at a woman's life reduced to ashes. The water used to extinguish the fire had turned to icicles that were hanging on wires and broken glass. The task for which we went proved to be impossible as the photos and other important papers that were not destroyed by the fire were damaged beyond repair by the water. Hannah did manage to find a damaged and burnt jewelry box that had her crosses, a rosary, and other small objects in it. “Well, it's not much but it's something for her,” she said.
The following day when I stopped by to visit Zoffy, there was an amazing transformation. She was awake, smiling and her eyes looked alive again. Hannah motioned excitedly for me to come into the room. When I entered, Zoffy yelled out, “Demy’s cookie, Demy's cookie!” In her hand was what looked like a small half-eaten cookie.
I looked at Hannah somewhat confused. What was Zoffy talking about? Why was she so happy? What was in her hand?
"It's been so long that I forgot all about this," Hannah said. "What she is holding is all she has left from her baby boy, Dymek. It is a teething cookie that she kept from the old country. When they left, she had no clothes, just a few pictures, no toys, and this biscuit -- with his tiny teeth marks on it. That's Demy's cookie. Zofia treasured this more than anything. How in the world it survived the fire and the water, I'll never know, but it's the most wonderful Christmas gift she could have ever gotten."
Zoffy left the hospital and went into a nursing home where she died a little over a year later. As I walked to her casket to say my final goodbye, I saw in her hands those things in life that she cherished most -- her rosary and “Demy’s cookie”.