Tuesdays with Alice

I scheduled for Alice Heinz. I also ordered t-shirts, deposited member dues and donation checks, planted flowers, gave rides to volunteers, and once stayed up until the wee hours with two of my best friends (and co-founders) painstakingly co-writing and laboriously re-hashing, word by word, the Lori’s Hands story that would appear on the back of the first ever Lori’s Hands mug. But mostly, I scheduled for Alice.

Nearly every Tuesday for two years, I would drive half an hour away and leave campus behind to dive into the satisfying, tangible joy of uncluttering whichever room the Heinz family needed uncluttered. That is not to trivialize the Heinz family’s worries down to mere clutter — Alice has limited mobility as a result of an accident and chronic diabetes; Kathy, Alice’s daughter who lives with her, suffers from MS; and Sue, another of Alice’s daughters, shoulders the burden of being the primary caregiver for both Kathy and Alice. There are a million things Lori’s Hands volunteers could have done from week to week, but clearing out rooms was important to the family: clearing space kept the home both accessible enough for Alice’s walker and Kathy’s wheelchair and livable enough to prevent Alice from moving into a nursing home and out of her own home. So unclutter we did. It was daunting at times — the piles of mail towering feet above desks, the buckets of embroidery floss left tangled for years, the shoeboxes full of questionably old craft glue and other mysterious amorphous solids — but if you know me, you know that sorting, untangling, and demystifying such a mess falls neatly in my wheelhouse. Brandishing a trash bag and label maker, I dove in each week with gusto.

But we all know this isn’t about how rewarding it is to win weekly victories over entropy. Visiting Alice was great because of Alice and the Heinz family. As I sorted through her craft room, Alice filled up the minutes with stories about the heirloom lace patterns and the delicate art of doll-hat-making. I saw her old sketches and her quick watercolors and envied her apt hand and eye for beauty. While cleaning the office, I pulled out long-buried travel guides for Italian cities and heard all about Sue’s adventures there from a trip she took when she was not much older than I am. Kathy grilled me on my romantic prospects while she trounced me in Scrabble. Bit by bit, the Heinz women and I let ourselves into each other’s lives. The impressions they have left on mine are indelible and lovely.

i also want to talk about the times when it didn’t look lovely. When Kathy snapped at Sue because she needed help using the restroom and Sue snapped back because she was simultaneously trying to fix her mother’s lunch and orient new volunteers and it was all too much. When Alice’s voice trembled with hurt and betrayal and loss upon suspecting that Sue had thrown out some craft supplies without Alice’s permission. When Kathy shouted at my silhouette in the doorway, “I’m not retarded!” as I walked into their home the first day I met their family. When Sue asked me about a leftover bar stamp on the back of my hand and I couldn’t think of a lie or gracefully deliver the (tame) truth, so instead I fumbled an answer and simmered in my nerves and possibly her judgement for the rest of the visit. If the lovely scenes made us people to each other, it was these scenes that made us real people.

But what I remember even better than the big stuff is all the medium stuff, the texture of it. How Alice liked pear juice best of all the juices that came with Meals on Wheels lunches. How Kathy kept a stockpile of raspberry-flavored Dasani water on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator because it was easiest to access there. How Sue’s hands were always beautifully french-manicured, and how I liked hoping that those minutes of soaking fingers in soapy water were hers alone. How I made myself a better listener than I really am for them. How at first, and even a bit at the end, I answered their questions with squeaky-clean Miss America answers to make them think better of me. How they were all on their best hostess behavior too when Lori’s Hands volunteers would come over.  How I learned about all of their many family members not by meeting them but rather by hearing about them from three distinct views and braiding those views together. How Kathy and Alice watched Days of Our Lives together every afternoon. How the tupperware drawers were always a little too full.

I volunteered with Lori’s Hands at a time in my life when 95% of the people I saw every day were under the age of 23 and the question most persistently and selfishly throbbing in the back of my mind was “What do you want to do with your life?”. I’m not sure I could have said with confidence what that question meant or if I had seen enough to know what a life was. My attempts to answer the question ranged from the practical (a business-oriented major with a color-by-number career path) to the profound (courses in world religions and Eastern philosophy), but in retrospect it is my visits with the Heinz family that have offered the most value.  These visits have shaped my life in ways that are lovely, real, and subtle, and they proved to me at least one great way that life can be: intersections of some strangers, over time, through endearment or habituation or accident, letting their humanity peek through.

*Names have been changed

Written by: Jennifer McCord

Jennifer (furthest R) and fellow Lori's Hands volunteers in 2011

Jennifer (furthest R) and fellow Lori's Hands volunteers in 2011