Pelican Lady scowls and mumbles, and what she’s saying under her breath would make a muleskinner blush.

Unhappiness bends her body, breaks it in dispirited places, leaves her mouthbreathing as she walks, frowning and rolling her eyes. I don’t know why she’s so angry, don’t know her backstory, but it would have to be a doozy to make her THIS miserable.

“Oh, she’s much better than she used to be,” said one attendant cheerily, “You should have seen her six months ago. She’s really mellowed. Her hair has grown all the way back in.” (Apparently Pelican Lady pulls out her hair when frustrated, and until recently was missing half her coif.)

I’m discovering that life really doesn’t change in an assisted living facility. The residents suffer the same frustrations and social irritations as their younger counterparts, but maybe with fewer internal censors.

How did I meet my husband? I was at a dance and he was there with this ass I couldn’t stop staring at. He had the most beautiful ass I’d ever seen and so before the second dance started I’d snuck up to him and said, “You’re going home with me.” And he said, “OK.”

He had a great ass and he couldn’t tell me no. I knew he was husband material.

–Marge, 89

We’re assigned seats in the dining salon, usually at tables holding four to six people. Pelican Lady has a small table all to herself. Put her at a table with others, and she’s soon marking and expanding her territory–the whole table–and woe betide any trespassers.

Now she guards her tiny table even more ferociously. A woman at a neighboring spot stood, wobbling a bit, and her folded news paper momentarily touched down on Pelican Lady’s table.

Pelican Lady was up like a shot, grabbing at it. “Biiiiiitch!” she hissed, glaring at the interloper.

“MY newspaper,” said the other woman, firmly, grabbing the paper back and swatting Pelican Lady with it. “It’s not hurting you, old woman, so just sit down and shut up.”

The invective that followed was…breathtaking. And sad.

Everything is a problem to Pelican Lady; nothing ever works, and no one can satisfy her. She eats two waffles for breakfast but only asks for one. Later, when the kitchen is closing down, she’ll demand a second. “I don’t know why you’re so stingy with the food here, stupid bitch.”

The attendant tried to forestall the extra labor by simply delivering both waffles at once. “TWO waffles on my plate?” she groused, “It’s too much. Take it away. You know I only want one.”

But when the first waffle’s gone, she demands another.

The impatient part of me sometimes wants to slap Pelican Lady upside the head, and I marvel at the patience of the caregivers who deal with her demands, complaints, and insults every day. She reminds me why technology was such a good career choice.

Still…I look at Pelican Lady, and start thinking that could be me in a couple of decades. How will I conduct myself when I’m old, and life’s disappointments have mounted until I’m counting what I lost–or never had–more than what I gained?

Will I ever get to the point that people look at me and see a Pelican Lady?

Forget it. Maybe I start right now to keep that from happening. Maybe, instead of sitting on the sidelines and observing, I should break past the barriers and befriend Pelican Lady. Get past the prickles, dive through Pelican Lady’s crusty interior, and discover she’s really a lovely person.

Tentatively, I approach the Pelican Lady’s table, careful not to encroach but holding out a hand. “Hi,” I say, smiling, “I’m Cynthia.”

“Bitch,” she mutters.


The Elmo stories (of my replacement knee and then the fight to save him when I smashed my femur) have been going on for more than two years now. People ask to read them start to finish, so I’ve set up this Saving Elmo index page to let you view the whole series in one swell foop. Thanks.