Elderly friends do not always just gently fade away into a nursing home, in my experience they make quite a ruckus as they go. My best friend here in the twin cities of Bloomington/Normal, Illinois was Kathy McKinney, who was a retired newspaper reporter/editor for the local newspaper, The Pantagraph. In the decade that I knew her we shared an interest in the arts, animals, walking around out in nature, and analyzing people. Our master's degrees were in sister subjects, mine was sociology and her was psychology. We both enjoyed writing. She was very good at it. I am not bad myself. We had a lot of laughs together.
Kathy and I did fun activities together until in her early 70s when she suffered a rapid decline such that her brother and sister-in-law placed her in one of the nicer nursing home in town. I am glad she is somewhere safe. She says she is comfortable in the nursing home, and she does not seem to remember her house or cats or dog or the plants in her yard that were so important to her. She does not remember any of the many, many things we did together. She does not remember our friendship. Sadness. The nursing home discourages visitors, and Kathy does not really know me any more so I do not visit her.
The year before Kathy was placed in the nursing home we were still doing things together but her decline was obvious and frightening. I feared that this was a too close look at my own fate.
I remember when we were going somewhere to do something and Kathy was driving. Her car was a cute, newer model that her brother helped her maintain. This time she drove so erratically that she sped past something and clipped it with her passenger side view mirror. The mirror came off and flipped back into the window where I reflexively caught it. I told Kathy that she had hit something and her mirror had come off, but she said bluntly, "No, I didn't." I held up the mirror in my hands so she could see it but she just shook her head no. She passively ignored me when I asked her to slow down and see what we had hit. I did not think it safe to ride with her again and I did not.
That same year when Kathy and I were visiting at my house my old cat Margaret walked by, and I said, "Isn't she the prettiest cat, for her type American long-hair calico? It was really just a rhetorical comment of contentment. Kathy got an unkind gleam in her eye, and said, "Oh, I don't know." And she comprehensively listed every flaw on cat Margaret. Apparently even the hair on my old cat's pinkish ears was too thin. This was uncharacteristically cruel of Kathy, and she did slightly diminish my pleasure in the beauty of my cat, but I did not call her on it as it was such an aberration from the happy, positive woman who had been my friend for so long.
I knew the friendship was over when Kathy showed up unexpectedly on my doorstep in a lather of anger. She marched into my kitchen, whirled around to face me, and defiantly yanked up her shirt and bra exposing one of her breasts. I was flummoxed. She nodded curtly to me as if she had proved herself and marched out of the front door. Later I came to understand that someone at the senior center, where we both participated in a lot of activities, had convinced Kathy that I thought that she was a man, which was ridiculous. It would not have prevented our friendship if she had been a man in women's clothing but I knew she was not a man. When others that we both knew had tried to discuss her sexuality with me I had only responded that she seemed very much like a woman to me, and as a heterosexual woman I thought I would know. Kathy had a stocky build that got thicker with age and finding clothing that did not bind was difficult so when she retired from the newspaper she just wore jeans and a t-shirt or shirt. She probably bought them in the men's department because they fit more comfortably. She was definitely a woman, and I am sorry that she felt that she had to prove it.
It is difficult to move the mind of an old person from delusion to reality, and I myself was too old to try. Soon afterward she was living in the nursing home, and she does not know me now. Sadness.
Caption: Kathy McKinney
chalk study by Annmarie Throckmorton 2014
Caption: Kathy McKinney at our ikebana class.
photograph by her friend Annmarie Throckmorton 2014