Tonight I ordered a hamburger for a 91-year-old woman.
Based on the missed text messages I received from the delivery man who said he had waited five minutes and left, and based on talking to this 91-year-old woman on the phone confirming that she did not yet have the hamburger, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t make it to her.
The hamburger probably sat on the ledge of her apartment building’s front door, hot steam in the bag slowly wilting the cardboard box holding the fries. Maybe someone stepped over it on their way out the door. During a global pandemic, it’s unlikely that someone decided it was safe to eat and claimed it as their own.
Back inside the humble apartment, the woman’s face probably grew more downturned as she started to understand that a noble attempt had failed.
She could have been having a regular night but I had to ruin it by trying to order her a hamburger and missing the delivery man’s text by four long minutes.
This woman talks to me about hamburgers every week. She longs for a “big, juicy hamburger”, not the dry, crumbling kind her attendant prepares for her that lie lamely in the fridge.
At 91-years-old she can’t do much for herself anymore. She can’t cook on her own. She can’t walk on her own. She can’t go to the bathroom by herself. She can’t go outside. She can hold a fork but sometimes her joints hurt her and it slips out of her hand. She tells me she can’t pick up change off a table, but has to slide it to the edge to let it fall into her cupped hand.
Over the past four months, I’ve gotten to know Vivian better than I ever knew my own grandparents. We talk every Tuesday for 30 minutes. I usually take my dog out for a walk while we talk. She usually has a Western on in the background that she’s not paying attention to.
She is a devout woman and a humorous woman. She has told me many times that her grandma taught her that “we’re all god’s children”, especially around matters of race. Vivian is half-black, grew up in Hayward, hasn’t traveled too much but sure would like to. I picture her kind of thin but sometimes I realize that she could be a totally different shape and size.
All of her — her short hair, her long sleeve shirts, her small companion dog (“Ms. Sassy”) — and all of her apartment — the single window with a view blocked by a tree that she wished wasn’t there so it would open onto a more exciting view of the neighboring McDonald’s rooftop, the robotic bed that she can maneuver up and down — all of that I have never seen. I have had to imagine it.
After I realized that the delivery man was not going to go back to actually deliver the burger to her door, even after I told him it was for a 91-year-old woman, I considered the option of driving over there myself to see if it was still there. She only lives a ten minute drive away from me but we’ve never been able to visit in person due to Covid. I didn’t see why I was any different risk than the delivery man.
But I decided to not breach the divide that exists between us. I imagined that if I delivered the burger, it would hurt my heart not to be able to accept an invitation inside, to sit in her world for a while. Most of her loved ones are gone, except a couple friends and her 70-year-old daughter who lives in the apartment above her.
I wondered if my heart would hurt more leaving her apartment knowing that she had gotten the burger but I had to leave quickly or if it would hurt more just knowing that the very thing she wanted was so close in reach, yet not attainable.
Brushing my teeth tonight, I was trying to find a lesson in all this. And the only takeaway I could make of it was: There are real constraints in life. There is always an opportunity to change the way you think about something — “I didn’t want that hamburger anyway” or “It’s the thought that counts” — but some things just hurt. Sometimes tragic and painful things come down to a four minute window of time or one new strain of virus.
I’ve never heard Vivian curse before tonight. The moment when she realized that there was a hot, juicy burger downstairs that was never properly delivered and likely wouldn’t be, she summed up how life is sometimes — “Shit.”
My one salve is that there is a lemon pie headed her way tomorrow late morning. Vivian also loves lemon pie. She has told me how all her siblings loved lemon pie but her momma didn’t, which she finds very strange.
I will be sure to have my phone volume on high and close at hand tomorrow so the delivery driver won’t dare drive away without getting a little slice of care to this woman who I fear each week as I dial her number will not pick up, but who each week dependably greets me:
— “Hi Vivian, It’s Melissa.”
“Hi. How are you?”