Help for Greys
“It’s going to rain.”
Emma stared out the window at the bright skies as she ran the brush through the old woman’s hair. There was little resistance. The silver strands sifted through the bristles like fluffy clouds.
“It doesn't look like it.”
“My arthritis is acting up. That only happens when it’s about to rain.”
“Mmh.” There was no sense in contradicting her. That wasn't why she was here.
“Hope I’m not brushing your hair too tight.”
“Oh no. You do it so well, dear.” The old lady turned her head and gave Emma a smile, fine wavy lines marking her features.
“Can I get you anything else before I do the laundry?” Emma asked as she placed the hairbrush on the side table.
“I really hate to impose, but could you help me sort the mail?” She pointed at the mahogany table standing beside the spinet piano. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be, even with the glasses.”
Emma went through the pile; it was mostly advertising mail. One was a subsidised holiday trip to the Maldives. She didn't think Gertrud would be spending time under lush palm trees sipping on piña colada anytime soon. She, on the other hand, could really use a break. Between a pile of prospectuses was a postcard.
“There’s a postcard here from your son.” Emma lowered herself onto the couch.
“From Wolfi?” The old woman’s lower lips quivered with excitement. “What does it say?”
“Birthday greetings. They wish you all the best.”
“Yes, it’s signed Wolfgang and Vanessa.”
At the mention of the latter name, the old woman grunted. More lines appeared across her brow.
“I didn’t know it was your birthday.”
“That was seven months ago. Before you started coming here.” She fidgeted with her fingers. “Besides, I stopped getting excited about birthdays after Helmut died.” She ran her hands over her skirt, as if smoothing out invisible creases.
“Well, it’s nice of him to remember.”
“He used to write and call more often. But since he met that American all I get are postcards on birthdays and Christmas.”
Emma stroked the old woman’s hand and gave her a smile. She made her way to the bathroom. By now she knew what clothes went with what detergent, what clothes had to be washed by hand, what clothes she had to sprinkle with vinegar before tossing into the washing machine. This prevented the colour from running, the old woman maintained. She pressed the start button and waited for the whooshing sound before making her way back to the living room.
Gertrud had dozed off by now. Her head hung loosely to the side as if her neck had been snapped. Save for the snoring and the slow but steady movement of her chest one could presume her dead. If only, Emma thought as she slumped on the couch, letting out a sigh.
She wondered how long she could do this for.
Anke had spent close to a year with her first old lady before the latter kicked the bucket. But it had been worth it, she said: ten thousand euro, a few pieces of jewellery and an iPhone.
“You just have to make them feel loved,” Anke said as they ate lunch in the university cafeteria.
“See it as payment for services rendered,” she quickly added, probably sensing Emma’s scepticism.
“But what are the chances that you’ll actually get anything out of it?”
“Better than playing the lottery, I can tell you that.“ Anke stuffed a huge chunk of Wiener schnitzel into her mouth. “There aren't any guarantees, if that“s what you mean. You just keep trying until you get lucky,” she added.
A week later Emma was on the website www.helpforgreys.de. It was important to go for the really old ones, Anke had said, no one under eighty. Most of the profiles were of women. There were a few couples and a smattering of men. Emma scrolled through the smiling, wrinkled faces.
She stopped at a rumpled face. She read the info: female, 74, needs help with groceries, going to the doctor and body care. Interested candidates should be available at least three times a week, preferably on weekdays. She clicked on the profile. A row of portrait pictures appeared over her screen. In one of them, the old lady was holding a cat. Emma was allergic to cats. She clicked the red X at the top right corner. Besides, taking the mortality rate for women in Germany into consideration, the lady still had some years to go.
She scrolled further. Her gaze stopped on a face with a warm smile. Her impeccable dentition and the pearl necklace caught Emma“s interest. An indication that this person wasn't badly off. Her statistics were equally promising: 88, widow, needs help with household chores, groceries, at least once a week. She lived in an average middle-class district. That was good.
“You wanna stay away from the low-income neighbourhoods. The oldsters there barely have enough for themselves, let alone something to leave behind. And you won“t find any rich ones on the site. They have enough money to hire professional companies,” Anke had said.
Emma clicked on the 'I want to help' button. The next day she got a call. The voice on the other end sounded giddy and enthusiastic.
“We're ever so happy to find volunteers who are willing to give their time and energy to people who need it the most,” the lady squealed. “Especially in this age of inconsiderate egoism and disregard for the older generation.”
“Of course. Absolutely,” Emma acquiesced
“So, tell me a bit about yourself and what made you decide to lend a helping hand? It’s really important that we know whom we connect our members with.”
She was a student, philosophy major, fourth semester. And why she wanted to help?
“It’s really all about giving back. These people literally helped build up this country after the war. It’s the least I or anyone in my generation could do, you know?”
“I couldn’t agree more,“ the other voice trilled.
A week later she was standing in front of Gertrud’s detached house. She“d brought flowers and cake. She feared it was a bit too much. But Anke“s voice kept ringing in her head. “Remember, your job is to be the child or grandchild they never had.”
“Oh, how nice. But it really wasn’t necessary,” Gertrud said as she collected the bouquet with her left hand, the right firmly resting on the gold-knobbed walking stick.
“It's quite embarrassing asking strangers for help, but since the heart attack It’s been quite difficult,” Gertrud said as she slumped into the armchair, carefully resting the stick against the wall.
“I understand. My grandmother was just like that. She wouldn't let anyone help her.”
“Always talk about family.“ Anke“s voice again.
Gertrud’s husband, Helmut, had died ten years ago. She had a son who lived in the States. Most of her friends were either dead or living in a facility. She couldn’t imagine herself in a home. She and Helmut had bought this house forty years before and she intended to take her last breath here.
The washing machine let out a loud peep, stirring Gertrud from her slumber. She let out a phlegmy cough as she looked around, somewhat dazed. The teary grey eyes fell on Emma.
“You're still here.”
“I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye first. Besides, I still have to hang the laundry.”
“That's sweet of you. But I“d rather do that myself. The doctor said I have to remain active.”
She stretched out a veiny hand, which Emma promptly caught, giving it a light squeeze. As an afterthought, she bent over and gave the old woman a light peck on the cheek.
She made her way to the door. Slipping into her jacket she asked, “What else did the doctor say?”
“What else is there to say? I'm an old woman. All he can do is pump me with drugs. We all have to go sometime. All one can do now is wait.” A weak smile followed.
This was Emma's chance.
“Never bring up what comes up after. Wait for them to do it,“ Anke had said.
“I totally agree. I wish my grandmother had been as relaxed as you are. She spent her last months worrying about her stuff, about who got what. We tried convincing her that spending time with her loved ones was more important than what happened after she was gone.”
The old woman had a pensive look on her face as Emma closed the door behind her.
Gertrud died a month later. Emma had gone to see her as usual. She wondered if the old woman was dozing off when she didn't get an answer by the third ring.
“You're here for Gertrud, right?”
The words came from a man pushing a pram a few feet away from Emma.
“I’m sorry, but she passed away last Friday.”
They had seen each other on Wednesday. She had looked tired as usual. But there hadn't been any indication that she was that close.
“She was found in bed. Her doctor believes it was peaceful. That's all one can hope for, isn't it?”
Emma“s heart raced. This was it.
“I hear there's going to be a memorial service next week.”
“Do you know where?”
“At the Baptist church down the road, I suppose.”
Walking away from the door, she called Anke.
“You have to go to that memorial.”
“What if she didn't leave me anything?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out. And even if she didn't, her son might be inclined to give you something, out of gratitude.”
The service was packed. Emma wondered where all these people came from, but most importantly where they’d been the whole time Gertrud was alone and needed help. Some dabbed white handkerchiefs to their eyes as the vicar gave his sermon. She recognised Wolfgang as soon as the service was over, because all the guests swarmed towards him like bees towards a honeycomb, patting him on his shoulder and giving him hugs. She waited for the crowd to dissipate before walking up to him.
Wolfgang stretched out his hand, an automatic mournful smile on his lips.
“My name is Emma Schenk. I was a friend of your mother's.”
The man cocked his head to the side, a crease forming between his eyebrows.
“I spent the last eight months taking care of her,” Emma added, trying to bring some clarity to the conversation.
“Yes, of course. My mother mentioned you a few times.”
Emma“s heartbeat quickened. The old woman talking about her was definitely a good sign.
“I was quite heartbroken when I heard.” She lowered her gaze and swiftly brought a tissue to her dry eyes.
“You see, I never knew my grandmother. She died while I was still a baby. So, Gertrud wasn’t just a friend, she was like the granny I never had.” She added a few sniffs to the eye-dabbing. “If only I had had a chance to say goodbye.” She let her voice break.
“Do you know if she left anything for me, a message perhaps?” She finally raised her gaze. The face staring back at her held no emotion.
“No. Were you expecting something?” Emma perceived an iciness behind Wolfgang’s flat tone.
Before she could reply, he stretched out his hand to her and said, “Thank you so much for coming, Ms Schenk. Do have a nice day.” The mockery in his smile was hard to miss.
Emma turned around and walked out of the church. Her eyes had lost their dryness.