Our office has for ten years contracted with an elderly cleaning lady named Dorothy. She "came with the building," essentially, and went door to door after the building was sold to sell her services to every individual tenant in the building. She was opinionated, feisty, and full of character, so of course we hired her.
Dorothy is now 90. Every day she shuffles in around 2 pm to empty our office garbage cans and clean the office kitchen. You can usually count on having your concentration derailed when she arrives with her questions about whether or not it's going to snow or rain, but you smile and politely engage. She's not the 'cleanest' of cleaners, and we had to have a discussion with her after a fruit fly infestation about actually changing the garbage can bags rather than simply picking the trash out by hand. (I'm guessing this had something to do with her frugality.)
Sometimes her personal body odor is such that you have to breathe through your mouth. But we keep her on because it makes her happy and gives her purpose, because she needs the money, and because it keeps her going.
You worry about her, living alone, walking all those icy blocks home. Once I gave her a ride home when I saw her shuffling down the snowy sidewalk.
Her only son lives in South Carolina, and she's told me all about him. I also know about her brother, who died just a few years ago, her neighbors, and what she does over the holidays. She had open-heart surgery a few years ago, and came back to work as if nothing had happened.
She baked sugar cookies with lard, and we bought her a Christmas gift every year. One year, worried that her black cardigan was looking a bit too threadbare, we all chipped in to buy her a new sweater ... that she promptly returned.
It was easy to make her laugh.
She was a fixture at our office, always there with a key in case you locked yourself out of the office en route to the bathroom, always there after we returned from summer break, happy to see us and ready to get back to clucking about her strange new neighbors or the general state of things.
I've blogged about her twice before. (Click through for some fabulous Dorothy conversations.) And now I'm so glad I did. Because I just learned that Dorothy had a stroke this week, rendering her unable to speak.
Today around 2 pm I stopped working on the project at hand so I wouldn't seem impatient when she came in, and prepared to greet her with conversation. But 2 o'clock came and went, then 2:30, then 3 pm, and 4 pm...no Dorothy.
Last week we chatted for a longer period than usual, about whether or not it would snow over the weekend. I promised her I wouldn't let it, which made her laugh -- one of her hearty, patented cackles that last much longer than the joke deserves. After she left, I actually felt it might be the last time I'd ever speak with her. I smiled at her just a little longer that day, because I knew it on some level. Premonition, intuition, I don't know...but I am glad to have known Dorothy.
(Although knowing Dorothy, she'll be back to work in a matter of weeks; but our office is moving in a few months. I'll miss her, either way.)