Margaret’s Unexpected Visit

When you’re young, you believe your youth will never end.  You’ll always be healthy, happy and full of vitality.  Invincible.  One Republic-Kids’ song says so.  “When we were kids, we swore we’d never die!” And, then one day, despite the trickeries of fancy hair colorists and nurses who inject you with Botox’ magic serum, you realize you’ve aged.  You look in the mirror and see wrinkles and age spots which were not there yesterday.  Random things start reminding you that life is finite, just as this bizarre incident which occurred last week did.

Having just showered and dressed for the day, I casually sauntered into the living room where I was met by a stranger sitting primly on the couch, smiling nervously and enjoying a glass of water.  “Your friend Margaret is here to see you,” Bibi (my husband’s caregiver) announced.  I looked at Margaret, she looked at me, both of us with blank expressions. No recognition on either side.

Margaret looked to be in her early 80’s, expensively dressed in muted tones of taupe, with short cropped grey hair, neatly styled. She carried a large Louis Vuitton bag and a small Chanel purse.  She wasn’t wearing glasses, but I suspect that was for vanity sake.  Despite her well-groomed appearance, Margaret had three long white hairs on her chin which my eyes kept returning to despite my effort to not stare. Margaret’s almond-shaped brown eyes made her appear to be part Chinese.  Her look was distant, as if she were lost.

Trying to be polite, I asked who she wanted to see, and she replied, with a slight French accent, “your husband.” Margaret explained my husband had visited her several times years ago in her home and frequently invited her to his. She claimed he had been very kind to her when her husband died.  Given my husband is a sweet soul and capable of being caring for others, I allowed her to continue.   “I brought him a present to thank him,” she explained. When I asked what my husband’s name was, she replied, “I don’t recall but I sat in that chair when I came last,” pointing to a blue antique chair in our library. 

“Your husband speaks French, doesn’t he,” Margaret queried, looking at me impatiently for confirmation.  When I told her that my husband only spoke English she looked gravely disappointed, almost as if I were trying to trick her. “But I’ve been in your home before,” she insisted with sincere conviction. When I told her my husband’s name was Ed Lauber—who luckily was in the shower at the time when all this was going on—she replied with a slight hint of anger in her voice, “No, that’s not it.  His name is Julian,” she suddenly remembered.

Clearly, Margaret had memory lost and was in the wrong apartment.  Margaret started to fumble nervously with her beautifully wrapped gift and then apologized for taking our time and for intruding our privacy.  But, then, she repeated that she knew our home and my husband.  We were both embarrassed, but I didn’t have the heart to make the situation any worse for her than it already was. What to do? With as much kindness as I could muster, I slowly repeated that my husband’s name was different from her friend’s and that she probably had the wrong building. 

My concern was that she might be lost so I asked if she remembered where she lived. Indignantly, she said she owned a brownstone close by.  I inquired if she wanted me to take her home and she frowned.  “I know where I live and besides, I am going to church now.”  She was clearly offended.  Knowing that our local Catholic church, St. John the Evangelist, was a block away, I relaxed.  Margaret would be safe once she got to the church.  Gradually, I inched towards the front door hoping Margaret would read my body language and understand this surreal experience was coming to an end.  Slowly, she rose, collected her bags and made her apologies.  Looking around, she pointed at the blue chair again and shook her head.  It was all familiar to her, or so Margaret thought. Her look was forlorn, her demeanor painfully sad.  I felt terribly sad for her.

We went down the elevator together and said goodbye.  After Margaret was safely on her way to church, I asked our doorman how in the world he let her up to our apartment.  “Well, the lady told me she couldn’t remember the person’s name she wanted to visit, but she recalled that HE spoke French. Then she said she was certain that it was the apartment on the top floor,” the doorman meekly tried to explain. “I called upstairs and told Bibi you had a friend downstairs who wanted to come up.  I figured as YOU speak French, Mrs. Palanci, that it was fine,” he sheepishly continued.  So much for security and logic.

In hind sight, I had met a lovely, albeit lonely widow and the visit had been harmless. I still wonder what was in the gift box but will never know. Nonetheless, I was disquieted by the encounter. Could something else have been done to have made the encounter less awkward for Margaret? 

Over the following few days, I asked several friends how they would have handled the situation.  One recent college graduate explained her first reaction was that this was part of a scam.  For security reasons, she would have shown the lady to the door immediately, no questions asked.  Another friend, in her 30’s and a teacher for disadvantaged adolescents—who had done some sensitivity training—responded she would have handled the situation exactly as I did.  A third friend, a woman my age, added “I would have given your front doorman Holy Hell!”

No matter the selected solution to the invasion of our home, the saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” keeps flashing in my head.  Who knows how we will end up in our later years. Let’s hope people will be kind to us and that life will allow us to maintain our dignity as we go off into the sunset.

One thing for sure, Margaret’s unexpected visit reminded me of my favorite saying, “Carpe Diem.”  This is part of a longer phrase by Horace, the Roman poet.  Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, which can be translated as "Seize the day, but put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)".  By that Horace meant don’t expect things to fall into place on their own. So, let’s remember to be mindful of the priorities in our respective lives.  Don’t wait until tomorrow. Start making them happen today.  Thank you, Margaret, for reminding me.