The Invisible Neighbor
by Wendy LeGate
Elizabeth French passed away September 1, 2005.
I had been Betty French’s neighbor for almost five years before I ever met her. I had been told she was crazy; a mentally ill woman who was a hoarder; a pet collector and someone not to get involved with. I would find out later this information was not to be believed.
Her house was on the corner as you turned into our driveway off the road. No one was ever out and about. The weeds had taken over the yard and the horse pastures. The lights were always off. It was the sort of house that looked abandoned in many ways, so it was easy to put it out of mind quickly. I had heard a person, or two, joke how they had seen old Betty French at the grocery store with unkind words that came so easily out of their mouths.
The first time I met Betty she had been taken from her home and placed in a nursing facility by a family member. Betty, at 5 foot and 8 inches, weighed a little less than 80 pounds. Shortly after I heard of her move, I visited Betty in the nursing home. She was alert, although very weak, quite guarded with her trust and a bit on the defensive side.
A good hour had passed, when I found myself reflecting back on what I had been told about this woman before me. She was loaded with hard-edged wit and a dry sense of humor. Any residual ideas from other people that she was crazy were quickly dispelled from my mind. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by her. I didn’t quite know what to think, or expect, based on the things I had been told previously. However, one visit with Betty led to another…and another. I began to care for this neighbor of mine that had – before this…been invisible.
The only ‘crazy’ thing about Betty was the size of compassion in her heart. While tucked away in the nursing home, her constant concern was for the wild cats she had been providing love, food and compassion for – back at her home. She also had two dogs that needed care. It is not uncommon for the truly kind-hearted soul to turn away from those that take advantage – and turn towards the fulfilling love of the innocent. This was Betty French. Painful – and yet fulfilling, she cleaved to the memories of her 2 year old daughter that had drowned in a horrible accident ending her young and innocent life way too soon. Betty longed for the painting of her daughter and the video tapes that had recorded her child’s short life. It was if being able to see and touch them soothed the hurt in her heart and brought some validation into her world.
Betty told me that she had really needed help for the last couple of years, because her strength had gone – due to weakening health. She reported how things just seemed to snowball from bad to worse for her. She shared stories of how she used to ride and rope with her horses. She gleamed as she boasted about winning buckles and saddles – and once, won a rifle for getting the biggest buck in all of San Benito County one year. As she cherished the memories of her past with me, I felt honored to be there listening to this tiny woman’s huge stories of life.
Time went on and Betty began to regain her strength. She soon started to recover and we became friends. I found her to be a caring, sweet and loving woman – starved for affection and genuine friendship. Betty had lived a pretty interesting life. It was one paved with more hardships and sorrows than most. However, it didn’t seem to affect her openness to take the hand of friendship or welcome a good conversation about jewelry, horses, hunting or God help us all…the T.V. Shopping Channel, which was her favorite thing to watch. I must admit, Betty French had the scoop, when it came to getting a good deal buying anything from the T.V.
Things improved for Betty. She was able to go home and for over a year, she enjoyed the companionship and unwavering loyalty of a caretaker, named Roseanne. She also regained and improved a closeness with her sister, Ellen. Although it broke Betty’s heart that another family member had put her two beloved dogs to sleep while she was in the nursing home, she found new love in a Yorkshire Terrier, named Bear. Followed shortly after, by another she named Badger. Betty claimed it was after one of the Old Growth Oaks Morgan horses.
Betty loved to hear about what was the latest and greatest things going on with OGO Morgans. I never disappointed her – always telling her of things happening and plans for the future. Steve Costa, my fiancé, made sure that all the weeds were cut down around Betty’s entire property. He also assured that the arena outside her bedroom window was tilled up, so that Betty could see her grand-daughter ride. Betty had outstandingly bred Quarter Horses and she loved to watch through the window, or from the deck that had been built right off of her bedroom. This gave Betty endless joy.
I made a habit of bringing Betty meals and visiting with her. I cursed the fact that I had not taken it upon myself to knock on her door years earlier – just to introduce myself and get to know this special woman. I am thankful – through Betty, I had the opportunity to meet her sister Ellen and her caretaker, Roseanne. These two ladies took special pains to make the rest of Betty’s life as comfortable as possible…up to the very end. Betty took great comfort in all the things they did for her.
Betty had a beautiful Birthday party not long before her passing. It was her way of saying goodbye to the friends and neighbors she had spent time with in her life. She was determined to make this goodbye a happy occasion. I remember about a month before that party, she called me up and asked me to come see her. She had something that she wanted to talk to me about. I came straight away – as I always did, when she called me. At that point in our friendship, I stopped by whenever I wanted and could just knock, open the door and call out I was there. She would yell at me to come on in. She had made it clear, I was always welcome and it was expected for me to visit regularly. I will remember the conversation with Elizabeth ‘Betty’ French that day for the rest of my life. Betty knew she didn’t have all that long to live – and quite frankly, she was ready to leave behind the stresses and burdens that she felt thrust upon her…forever.
Betty sat me down next to her on the bed. She tenderly took my hand – and like a gentle warm blanket, held it between both of her weathered, loving hands. She stroked and patted my hand, as she spoke to me. She had an expression of affection and tenderness that had become common-place between she and I. Betty had much to say…so much, it would take pages and pages to do any justice to it all…so I will just share some small part of that moment.
Betty told me that she had been around the block once or twice, during her life…and had taken as many knocks as she had given out. She knew a thing or two about people and life. She felt the simple sound of my voice was like an instant injection that would make her feel better and the happiness she felt from my visit would linger long after I left her presence. She said, “You have been the first person to kiss my face…hold my hand, or hug me close for a very long time.” She told me that when I told her I loved her…she knew it. She didn’t feel like I wanted something from her. She didn’t feel suspicious of my love. There was no hurt to make her bitter. She continued, “When you say you love me, it feels like a warm blanket right out of the dryer on a cold day.” She wanted me to know that she felt like I was her little personal ray of sunshine. One could travel their entire journey in life and not be honored to hear such words from another. I was truly humbled, as she continued…
Betty told me things that had made her happy in her life and things that had made her feel the saddest. She told me of the dreams she had for her two grand-children and the doubts she had that those dreams would never come true. I think she may have told me all the things she didn’t feel she could tell anyone else – either because she didn’t think they would understand, or because…she just felt more comfortable telling me. I will never know for sure. Betty thanked me for coming into her life and taking the time to visit with her. She said that I would never know how much it had meant to her. I listened carefully to everything she said. I gave her my complete attention.
Like a secret ceremony of honor, Betty reached gently to place a watch in my hand. She told me that it needed to be cleaned and the safety chain repaired. It also needed a new battery, but that it was solid gold and a very nice watch. She wanted me to clean it up and wear it. Each time I wore it…I was to remember her. I tried to joke with her and tell her she was being a silly goose. She would be around for years and years, I retorted in denial. I would march right out to get it repaired for her and she could wear it herself. She could wear it herself and she could think of me every time she looked for the hour.
Betty chuckled with wisdom and squeezed my hands together in comfort. Like gently pushing a child onto the first school bus, she would not take back the watch. With the confidence of a great teacher…she did not ask me to take it, but rather, firmly instructed me to. Betty had lots of gold watches – in fact, she had more jewelry than anyone I had ever known to have. She went on to tell me that this particular watch was the way it was (broken safety chain and in need of a battery), because she had liked it so much. She wore it and that was why she wanted to give it to me. Much of what Betty had didn’t mean all that much to her. Only a few things held a special place in her heart. She wanted me to have one of the things she attached some personal value to. I was deeply touched.
I had that watch repaired and polished and a new battery was put in it. As soon as I got it back, I put it on and went right over to Betty’s house for a visit. Betty was alone watching the shopping channel. I showed her the repaired safety chain and had her look at how the gold shined on my wrist. I did some display poses – as if, I was modeling the watch. I did my best Vanna White impersonation and she laughed so hard she nearly fell off her hospital bed! I told her I would treasure her gift to me always and I hugged her closer and longer than normal. I gave her a kiss and touched my cheek to hers, as I whispered in her ear, “I love you and I will come tomorrow for another visit.”
We had more visits, but at each arrival, I would find her markedly more frail and weak. Her breathing was labored and she was suffering. There was nothing the doctors could do. She didn’t have to tell me…I knew it. Betty somehow made it through her birthday party – just on the fumes of life. I only saw Betty alive one more time, before she passed. She told me not to come back. She didn’t have long and she wanted me to remember her laughing and joking. She said, “If you love me…you will not come back anymore.”
I respected her wishes and never returned. She died shortly afterwards, early in the morning, of September 1, 2005. She had her caretaker, companion and friend – Roseanne, at her side.
I learned an important lesson from Ms. Betty French…being a good neighbor means taking the time to knock on a door and see who lives on the other side of it. I was lucky and honored to know Betty for almost two years, before she passed away. I am a better person for it. I wish I would have knocked on that door sooner.
I wear that gold watch and when I check the time…I do, indeed, think of Betty. I thank her from the bottom of my heart for showing me that compassion and a little bit of love does make a difference in the world.