In spring 2021, I was broke and decided to offer my services on a local Facebook group.
A woman reached out asking if I'd be willing to "babysit" her 95-year-old mother.
I had zero qualifications but was hired on the spot and became close friends with her.
In spring 2021, I was broke — very, very broke, as many college students are.
With a looming tuition bill, I decided to advertise a wide-ranging list of services on the Facebook page for Montclair, New Jersey. I offered writing, editing, cleaning, babysitting, dog-walking, dog-washing, and dog-watching services with a sympathy-inducing call to action: "Help your local college student pay her tuition." I received several calls — one of which changed my life.
The woman on the other end asked whether I would be interested in babysitting a few times a week.
The catch, which I wouldn't know until I arrived, was that I would be "babysitting" her bedridden 95-year-old mother, Phylis.
Kim, the woman who called me, was 62 and recovering from spinal surgery. And her sister, Connie, was their mom's full-time caregiver. Between caring for Kim, who lived next door, and tending to Phylis, Connie needed an extra hand.
Despite having zero qualifications to handle caring for a woman that age, I was hired on the spot. And so began my days of spoon-feeding her oatmeal and watching "Family Feud" for $20 an hour.
We became friends
Since I was simultaneously working my remote, full-time internship and babysitting Phylis, I would come a few days a week before my workday started, feed her breakfast, do internship work, and leave in the afternoon.
Quickly, we became friends. We had several things in common, such as our love of Costco's free samples, knitting, and Italian food. She struggled to talk, or, more so, I struggled to understand what she was saying a lot of the time, but we managed to build a meaningful connection — which mostly entailed me yelling loudly into her ear and her responding with nods.
On days she was feeling more vivacious, she would attempt to tell me stories about the children she loved during her career as a schoolteacher. I would talk about my college classes, and she would always offer a place to stay if needed, food from the fridge, or emotional support whenever she could, despite me being the caregiver.
On days she didn't quite have the energy to talk, she would hold my hand as she slept, and I'd work on my internship. My internship team grew to love Phylis, and she became integral to our morning project discussions, smiling into the Zoom camera from her bed in the background.
She met my boyfriend. I braided her hair. She would tell me I was beautiful and that she loved me. We even had a slumber party one weekend — me, Phylis, and her daughters. During our sleepover, we watched even more "Family Feud."
She died, but I'm grateful for the time I had with her
A few months later, Kim called me in the middle of the night. She begged me to go to Phylis' house because her sister wasn't answering the phone and there was an ambulance illuminating her living room in red and blue from the street. She had a feeling that something terrible had happened, and there was no one else available to check.
It was storming so badly outside that I was terrified to walk to my car. When I came running into Phylis' living room, it was clear Kim was right. Phylis lay pale and unmoving, and Connie sat by her bedside, crying. I instantly felt sick to my stomach.
Kim and her husband made their way to the house, and neighbors who'd grown concerned from the flashing lights showed up, too.
While we waited for the medical examiner to arrive, everyone shared stories of Phylis. I picked at my nails, taking in all these versions of her I'd never known.
Her 95 beautiful years were something that deserved to be celebrated, despite how heavy everything felt and how sad we were to lose her.
I rode in the limo with her immediate family to her funeral. She had always liked one necklace I'd wear, so we buried it with her. We all have the same necklace now, and I still see the family weekly.
Between the isolation of the pandemic and the hardships of supporting myself during college, Phylis came into my life at an integral time.
I was so grateful to have seemingly gained an entire other family the minute I met Phylis and her daughters. They took care of me in ways I didn't know I needed — they weren't just the reason I could pay my tuition and continue going to school.
So as much as Phylis needed me, in a lot of ways, I needed her, too.
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