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    curtains on a sunlit window

    Dorothy at the Window

    A Bond Transcending Memory Loss and Social Distance

    Esther O’Reilly

    October 2, 2020
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    I will remember the summer of 2020 for many things. I will remember it as the summer when I asked my neighbor if I could hug her. I will remember it as the summer when I could drive around my little town and see store signs assuring me they were open (“Please come buy stuff!”). I will remember it as the summer when I could look out my window and see broad daylight, yet not be allowed to walk in it. With all these things, I will also remember it as the summer I saw Dorothy at the window.

    We had to be proactive in planning this. Nobody minded, it was just that you had to ask. We arranged it so that the worker would call us and give Dorothy her phone. We got the call on the way. I picked up while Mom drove. “Should we come in?” I asked. “No,” she said, “Dorothy’s right here. Just come to the window.”

    Dorothy used to live on our street, across the road and a few doors down. At Christmas we would line up with a group and carol outside her door. “Next house is the Widow K!” Mom would say. Dorothy would open the door and listen with her body in the bent-over double position she’d had ever since I could remember, though it bent progressively lower with time. At every house we would sing an opening number, take a request, and close with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” She would smile and nod and wait until we were done to say, “I got something for you guys,” then produce a box of specialty cherry truffles. Her dachshund, Princess, was generally present and active in this ritual.

    Princess was a conversation staple when we would visit Dorothy in the home later. She took particular delight in the contrast between Princess and her son’s big dog. She has two sons. They call her often. They haven’t come to the window, or so she tells us.

    I use my scrap of notebook paper with things Dorothy said to mark my place, to keep it safe.

    We pull up two lawn chairs and sit. I set my phone on speaker so we can hear each other. She’s smiling, in a good mood. She flexes her feet in purple socks and takes off one brown velcroed shoe. We ask her how she’s doing. We talk of little things. “I’m a people person, y’know. I like people.”

    We ask if she’d like us to sing, per our tradition. My mom carries the tune, I carry the harmony. We open with her favorite, “Now Is the Hour”:

    Now is the hour when we must say goodbye;
    Soon you’ll be sailing far across the sea.
    While you’re away, oh please remember me,
    When you return, you’ll find me waiting here.

    She told us once how she used to play slide guitar with a band when she was a girl, entertaining the wounded boys of war. She remembered being shaken the first time she saw them. “Some of them missing an arm, or half a face. Some of ’em only had half a body.” When she came home, “I just sat down and cried.” She said, “Mama, I can’t go back.” “Try again,” her mother said, “and see if you can make them happy.” She remembered how the men from each branch would begin clapping when the band played their theme song – the Navy men for “Anchors Aweigh,” the Marines for “Halls of Montezuma.” “I like all music,” she told us. “Just not that modern music, you know. But,” she smiled, “the music we played was modern for its time.”

    She loves the song. We sing more, our usual handful of gospel tunes. Mom discreetly tells me to switch and harmonize under instead of over her. We sing “I’ve Got a Mansion,” “I’ll Fly Away.” Some noise from inside distracts her occasionally while we sing, and she turns her head in a little distress to say, “Will you please be quiet, my girls are singing to me!”

    Her face shifts suddenly from bright to tearful in these moments, and in a flash I am reminded of the day four years ago when we saw her at her lowest ebb. “I got such pain,” she told us, covering her lips while they trembled. “On a scale from one to ten . . . ?” the nurse asked. “Ten,” she said, instantly. Her wrist was broken in one, two, three, four places. Broken and couldn’t be set, because her heart was too bad.

    I remember that day she took a call from her son, and he told her they would have coffee and donuts in the morning. “Okay, hon,” she said. “I look forward to morning.” Enunciating carefully, “I look forward to morning.” But to us she smiled and said, “Every night I fall asleep and pray I don’t wake up.” I remember telling her she wouldn’t have coffee and donuts with her son then. This was true, she agreed.

    “Boy, you made my day,” she tells us in tears after we finish a tune. “I’m crying, but it’s okay, they’re tears of joy.”

    We chat more, and sometimes she shakes her head and says she can’t hear us. We play with the phone, try muting and un-muting things until she smiles and nods. There might be a correlation, but we aren’t quite scientifically convinced.

    “While you’re away, oh please remember me, when you return, you’ll find me waiting here.”

    At one point someone pushes a cart behind her with balloons and a cake. “Is it someone’s birthday?” we ask. She looks around. “Well, I don’t know.” She laughs. “I guess so!”

    “I’m having a birthday soon,” she says. “But I don’t know how old I’ll be.” We ask when that is. “April twenty-one,” she says twice, slowly. “April twenty-one.” We don't remind her what month it is.

    What kind of cake does she like? “Chocolate. Anything chocolate.” Wide grin: “I’m a chocoholic!”

    She’s sure her sons haven’t come to the window? “No,” she says. “But they call me every day.”

    a bouquet of roses on a windowsill

    Photograph by Tyler Parteka (Public domain)

    We end with “Now Is the Hour” again, transposed to a higher key. We’re singing both for her and for the older gentleman off to her right who’s been listening and waving, grinning at us. We get up to leave and say goodbye, and say goodbye again. I notice as we go that purple flowers have been planted all around below the window. I don’t recognize them, woefully lacking in flower knowledge as I am. But I note they are flowers, and they are purple. Purple to match her socks.

    We meet a woman on her phone as we walk away. She’s there to see her dad. We tell her how Dorothy couldn’t remember her sons ever coming to the window. We wonder whether perhaps they simply don’t know it’s an option. She says maybe so. But then again, her dad couldn’t remember either.

    We leave Dorothy and drive away. The days melt into each other. I refresh Twitter when I should be sleeping. I walk around the neighborhood before curfew one night and take pictures of the chalk art: flowers with faces, hopscotch squares, “George Floyd Rest In Power.” I hear about houses burned downtown. I hear about an old woman who escaped but couldn’t go back.

    I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I use my scrap of notebook paper with things Dorothy said to mark my place, to keep it safe. I unfold and look at it, then tuck it back in. I mean to write, but I refresh Twitter again. I forget to sleep again. But one of these days I will unfold it, and smooth it, and write. One of these days, I will make a monument to that day. The day I saw Dorothy at the window.

    Contributed By Esther O'Reilly

    Esther O'Reilly is an American essayist and cultural critic. Her writing on religion, politics and the arts has appeared in national and international outlets, including The American Conservative, Quillette, The Critic, and Arc Digital.

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