“I wish that I would just hurry up and drop dead!” exclaimed our next-door-neighbor, Carrie. I told her that she had better do no such thing, as we had every intention of celebrating her 88th birthday in April. She chuckled and shuffled back into her trailer as AJ and I continued to repair her HVAC and rake up the leaves in her yard. As she walked away she mumbled “I hate having to depend on others to do things for me.” and with a laugh added “It takes me all night to do what I used to do all night.”
I was feeling a good deal of guilt associated with the discovery of her recent $429.00 electric bill. We had always been impressed with how her power bills never exceeded $25.00. The previous one was only $21.00, and that was for the cold month of December. Now, we were trying to determine what could have caused so much usage in a single month.
In the process, we learned some very disturbing things about the way Carrie has been living.
Carrie is a stubborn and resilient old gal who reminisces about the days when she worked and played hard. her face softens with sadness and guilt as she tells the story of losing her first husband. They were a young, married couple traveling in the mountains, with their daughter and her friend in the back seat. Carrie had offered to drive, but her husband insisted upon taking the wheel. An oncoming car swerved into their lane, hitting them head-on. Carrie and the children survived, but her husband was killed. “It should have been me. I should have died instead.” she repeats, each time she tells the story.
She never remarried, but she did spend 40 years with the person she refers to as “My Man” (her common law husband). They retired and moved to Florida together. Not long afterward she came home from work to find him dead on the couch. For reasons that I’ve yet to unravel, neither his children, nor hers have contact with Carrie. To top it all off, her trailer was damaged by the hurricanes of 2004, which ripped off her front porch and carport and created numerous water leaks. She is completely alone except for her “family” here in the park. Until recently she never failed to bake a cake for everyone’s birthday, which she would always present with a recycled greeting card. No one may stop to sit with her without being offered a can of Natural Light. I suspected that something was wrong when the cakes stopped, but I assumed that it was her memory going, not her stove.
“Don’t take my picture! I look like a witch. I’ve got to go get my hair permed.”
I won’t delve too deeply into her financial situation, other than to say that she makes do on nothing more than $600.00 per month. She is fortunate to live in a park where the owner is kind-hearted and hasn’t raised rent in a very long time. It doesn’t take great math skills to determine that Carrie is a master of getting by on very little. The $429.00 electric bill, however, was too much for her to handle. A fortuitous fuel credit (whatever that is) did bring the bill down to $246.00, but that is still ten times her regular bill! Once she showed us the bill, we got busy trying to figure out what could have caused it. This is when we learned the lengths to which Carrie had gone in order to retain her pride and independence.
For over a year she has been without heat or air. At least three months ago, her water heater stopped working. Afterward, she was heating water on the stove; until it also broke. When we went over to investigate, we found that the breakers for all of these things had been switched off, months ago, by a neighbor. We also found out that she really needs help in cleaning (although she adamantly refuses) and that she has been reduced to wearing clothing that is in rags. This is compounded by the fact that her roof and windows leak, and her floors are all dangerously rotted out.
She still insists upon doing her own shopping, and won’t consider the idea of going into assisted living. She never comes back from the store without gifts of food, beer and wine for all of her neighbors. We have come close to fighting more than once, when I refuse to take cash for driving her around or doing her laundry. She can hold a grudge, but only as long as her memory allows. Dependence upon others upsets her more than she can describe. On warm evenings, her laughter echoes throughout the park. Her closest neighbors are always around to check in on her and help out with things like mowing grass, raking leaves, taking out her trash, driving her to the store and doing her laundry. She can’t recall our names, but she goes to great lengths to remember which brands of alcohol we drink and which snacks we like. Anyone who takes the opportunity to sit with Carrie will be treated to one of her many humorous songs or sayings.
I’m a rambler and a gambler and I’m a long way from home. And if you don’t like me, just leave me a lone.
I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry. If the whiskey don’t kill me, I’ll live ’till I die.
On Thursday, a delightful man named Yoel from Florida Power & Light came to do an evaluation. His only theory for the astronomical power usage was the leaking water heater. At this point it is FPL’s word against the neighbor’s (who claims to have switched off the breaker so long ago). Regardless, Yoel’s supervisor is unable to do anything about the bill but freeze it until Tuesday, while I try to locate assistance. Although the county funded assistance agencies are out of money, the Salvation Army has alluded to the possibility of finding a way to help her with this bill. I hope to contact the supervisor on Monday and see what she can do.
In a desperate plea for assistance, I turned to the internet in hopes of finding a used water heater and some clothing for Carrie. Although I’m still looking for a water heater, I did meet quite a few angels. A woman named Tracy has offered to donate the labor of her and her family to help fix up Carrie’s place. She has also been a wellspring of ideas and supply resources. Today I picked up a huge bag of clothing and some food from a woman named Sandy. Along with the aid from these two great ladies, I have gotten many helpful suggestions from other online strangers. I truly appreciate the support from so many people who don’t know Carrie or me.
I will continue this story as it unfolds.