George and June

The decorations had been piling up in our apartment for over a week, and it was finally time to load them into my car and head over to George and June’s.  It was chilly but not quite cold: the perfect weather for my brand new green Lori’s Hands hoodie.  I had helped decorate at another client’s home that morning and would see a few more later in the day, but it was George and June’s I was most excited to see lit up for Christmas.

I had started scheduling for the couple that August.  June suffered from lupus and was confined to a wheelchair while George walked only with the assistance of a walker.  June loved to sit out on the front porch on sunny days, but just getting her out there was a painstaking process that required George letting go of his walker for anxious moments at a time.  The couple’s children lived on the other side of the country, and they had never even met some of the grandchildren whose pictures hung on their refrigerator.

Every Friday morning I would go with another volunteer to pick up groceries, pull weeds, and mop.  With each new volunteer, I would always explain a little bit about George and June: their needs, their medical conditions, and most of all their quirks.  If June was sitting on the front porch in nothing but a t-shirt and Depends, it wasn’t because she forgot pants–it was because she didn’t care. But if George called you something other than your name, it wasn’t because he didn’t care–it was because he couldn’t hear (it took months of weekly visits before he realized my name wasn’t Louise). If either one of the two referred to something we needed (a garden trowel or a stepladder) being in the “building,” that meant the shed out back.  To this day I don’t know if that was a case of regionalism or of two people living alone for so long that they’d made up their own vocabulary.

I had just finished going over all of this when we pulled up to their house that December afternoon and began unloading wreaths, poinsettias, and strings of lights.  It was too cold outside for June, particularly in her standard porch attire, so the two were inside watching TV Land.

Soon after we arrived, we got to work.  We placed the festive flowers around the house, hung the wreath from the front door, and wrapped string after string of colored lights, June’s favorite, around everything we could.  After finagling a complex rig of lights, extension cords, and timers, all that was left was to plug it all in and light up the house.  One of the new volunteers did the honors, plugging the end of the last extension cord into the outlet on the side of the house–and nothing happened.

Every year, volunteers decorate ornaments, stockings, and other holiday decorations for our clients.June had been watching out the window, and I could feel her disappointment from outside the house.  I was sure we’d figure out a way to make the lights work, but June was already convinced otherwise.  In her best impression of Eeyore, she said over and over, “You can keep trying, but it’s just not going to work.”  Her determined pessimism fueled our mission to make their house the brightest on the block.

We switched out the extension cords, swapped out strings of lights, and tried a different outlet.  We tested individual bulbs in search of a faulty culprit.  Nothing worked.  Growing desperate, I conferenced with George in the corner of the living room.  What hadn’t we thought to try?  As a last resort, George suggested I reset the power.  I found the breaker box, flipped the reset switch, crossed my fingers and closed my eyes.  When I opened them, every string of lights had lit up.

Inside the house, I could hear June saying, “I’m so happy!”  I went back inside to see that she had lit up too, from her knobby knees to the ends of her perfectly coiffed hair.  It was the first Christmas their house had been decorated in years, and as it happened, it would be June’s last.

I’m not even embarrassed to admit that I spent that evening watching It’s a Wonderful Life and weeping.  It was on that wonderful day that I knew my time with Lori’s Hands would not end with my graduation.  I love this organization and everything it can do for clients as well as volunteers.  My dream is to see Lori’s Hands grow and spread, becoming an essential, ingrained, and beloved part of the campus communities it reaches.  I admit that there have been times when I’ve felt like June–convinced that no matter how hard we try, it’s just not going to work.  But usually, all it takes is a little rearranging, the flip of a switch, and crossed fingers to make everything work just the way it should.

In memory of “June,” 1936 – 2011

Written by: Liz Bonomo