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28 August 2004
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Korea Life Blog - Isabelle Gardiner

It would be a lie to say I wasn't a selfish person the first time in ages I went to visit my aunt Isabelle. She lived an hour's drive from my apartment when I went to SUNY Oswego in NY. She was related to my grandmother in some vague way, and though we weren't blood related she was always called "Aunt Izzy." I always knew she was close but I didn't go see her.

My girlfriend had just dumped me and I was down in the dumps. I was hopelessly depressed. I didn't want to be around pretty much anyone. During that miserable period of my life, somehow I remembered Isabelle. One day, at my wit's end, I simply got in my car and went to visit her. She lived in an old rundown trailer in the country across the street from a beautiful apple orchard:

She was overjoyed by my arrival. I still remember it. She was writing a check for $10 in response to a "sweepstakes"...one of those letters that prey on the elderly and anyone else with the suggestion they may make it rich. This letter was worded carefully so that she was sure she'd win if she sent the money. Money she could use to make everyone happy. And $10 to Isabelle was by no means a small sum. For years she had sent me a Christmas card with a one dollar bill stuffed inside. Same on my birthday. Always these cards included a hand written letter about the weather and about her latest ailments.

At that time she was around 85 or so. She had very little. Her husband died from emphysema at the young age of 45. He smoked liked a chimney, as Mom remembered. Isabelle stayed faithful to him after he died. She told me how a young man used to come visit her with flowers. She'd let him sit on the sofa until he got bored and then we would just leave. Eventually he gave up, she said. "And I was glad!"

She lived on Social Security and other social benefits us Americas are lucky enough to have. She had a nurses aid who checked in every week to clean, pick up groceries, and even do her hair.

Though she didn't have much, what she had was enough for her. She always had plenty of food on hand, usually sandwich meats and a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables. Especially potatoes. She loved boiled potatoes so much. With lots of butter. She loved all foods. Eating was her favorite hobby. And she insisted on preparing my lunch while I relaxed in front of the TV. I let her cook for me, though it was a struggle for her to get around, because it made her feel so good and important. I washed all the dishes.

We would sit and talk for hours. She had quite a sense of humor and I could make little jokes about her weight or about anything and it would get her rolling. She made me laugh too. She was amazingly with it for her age.

That first time I visited her, I could barely think straight - I was so caught up in my heartache. But I felt peaceful with Isabelle, just laying there in her small trailer and relaxing. From that time on, I visited her several times a week. When the hurt wore off from my relationship, I still visited her. Isabelle, an 85 year old woman, became my best friend. For over a year we spent a lot of time together. We went out to a nice dinner on my birthday and had delicious steaks and she insisted on paying, which almost made me cry knowing how much money that was for her. I used to drive her to the graveyard so she could talk to her husband and leave fresh flowers. Sometimes I'd just drive her around the countryside. It wasn't easy for her to get in and out of my compact Honda, but I helped her and she enjoyed it so much. There weren't many people in her life anymore, except a kind neighbor that checked in on her once in awhile. I realized she was lonely when I looked at her notebooks. She kept a journal for the past ten years. Every entry was pretty much the same: "I woke up at 11 and had a tomato sandwich. Sunny day. Ate a nice dinner - ham and boiled potatoes. Jean came by for a short time and watched TV. I went to bed at 12 AM."

She cherished the fact she was independent. But when she fell down one day and couldn't get off the floor and was stuck until someday came by, her remaining few friends convinced her that was enough. She had to go to a nursing home. She was allowed to take just a few things - a sad affair for her as she was a child of the Depression and never threw anything away.

She was also very sad when I told her I was going to Korea, but also she was glad for me. I felt guilty to leave her. I promised to write her letters all the while, a promise that I never kept. In a day and age when we're so used to simply getting online and writing an e-mail, writing by hand has become a rarity. I wrote her maybe three times. I have no excuse.

The last time I went home, I broke my arm and ended up staying for quite awhile. When I was able to drive again, I started to visit her in the nursing home, a rather dull and depressing place. A scary place. A prison. The last time I saw her was Easter of 2003. She was so happy to hear I would come. I was the only person who did.

She shared a room with a dying woman. Her life's possessions had dwindled down to a small collection of letters and a few photos. She had just a bed and a small TV. But she was ever cheerful. I remember how hard I laughed when she told me how one of her dresses went missing and a few weeks later she wheeled down the hall and passed another old lady wearing her dress. And the woman denied it, even though it had Izzy's initials embroidered in the collar! She never did get the dress back and she even thought about a lawsuit for $15. At first I thought she was serious, until she winked at me.

Isabelle died this morning. She was 89 years old. Her heart simply stopped beating and it was very peaceful. I feel guilty for not keeping in touch more. But I'm also very happy for her. She lived a long, simple life and was very happy with so little. She was the most heartwarming person I've ever met. I love her.

This is Isabelle Gardener, the kindest and gentlest person you could ever know. The smiley pin on her sweet dress speaks volumes about her charming personality.

We were together in this photo on Easter of 2003. We had a wonderful afternoon and I was sad to say goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw or spoke to her. I miss her so much and wish I could have spent more time with her.


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