Eleanor Rome is running out of air.
Just 25 minutes of oxygen left, and the checkout line is long. Three people are ahead with quite a few items. And then there's the drive home. It's not far, but that's several more minutes of oxygen, maybe more.
Where's another cashier? she thinks.
Her heart, the one that sent her to the emergency room, beats a little faster. Her breaths are getting shorter, despite the tube feeding her oxygen from the canister slung over her shoulder. She can feel the panic coming. Eleanor nervously glances around, looking for another drugstore employee.
There should be a second cashier.
She imagines what others are thinking: If you're on oxygen, lady, maybe you shouldn't be here at all. Maybe you should have somebody else get your stuff.
Frazzled, she dumps the few odds and ends she was holding onto the counter, except for the prescription already paid for. She walks out the door, gets into her car and drives home.
"I just walked out, which I've never done before — never."
Delays are not welcome when squeezing a trip to the grocery into a two-hour supply of oxygen. After 82 years, Eleanor's learning there are still firsts. There's the oxygen and the Life Alert emergency lanyard hanging around her neck.
"I have times when I cry, and I'm afraid," the Danville resident says, pausing. "But then I snap out of it again because I have to."
Sitting at the table in the small dining room off her kitchen, Eleanor is relaxed now. She's home in the Danville house where she has lived alone since Leon, her husband of nearly 39 years, died in 2005. No oxygen timetables here, no unpleasant surprises and plenty of good memories. Her life at home is predictable and comfortable, although always filled with the challenge of staying optimistic in the face of old age's debilitations and difficulties.
Even a trip to the grocery store in her 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier — her first new car that was solely hers — has become a rare event.
What if I get a flat tire?
She's not sure exactly how long she can go without her oxygen, but she'd rather not find out on a roadside. It's easier to stay home. Besides, what's worth taking the risk?
"I don't have anywhere to go where I would have to jeopardize my life or anybody else's. If I get to the point I can't drive at all, I'll be done with it."
The oxygen at home doesn't come from a canister with a two-hour limit. It flows endlessly from a plastic contraption that sits in one corner of her living room where a 15-foot clear plastic pencil-thin tube can reach her in almost every room of the house at every hour. The tube splits from each nostril, curls behind both ears, meets again at her chest and runs down her front where she must routinely grab and toss it here and there as she navigates around the house. At night, it can get tangled around her feet, legs and nightgown.
"I practically strangle myself," she says, laughing now. "That's when the German comes out. I cuss in German."
Nicknamed "Lilo" as a child in Germany, she immigrated with her parents to the U.S. as a teenager after World War II and has lived most of her adult years in this house. She doesn't intend to move. After all, she believes most of the people she knows who gave up their homes for senior apartments regret it.
"You feel secure," she says of living in her home. "It's your life. It's part of your life. But sometimes we just don't have a say-so, you know? Circumstances. But I'm not worried about it. I have my faith. Like I told someone the other day, God has not forsaken me in 82 years. I'm OK. I'll make it."
Despite the oxygen, Eleanor is still spry, shapely and energetic. She pulls her long, smooth gray hair back from her delicately wrinkled face and twists the blonde ends into a bun at the crown of her head.
Lately, she hasn't bothered with more superfluous things like hair color, although on better days she applies some lipstick and a little mascara above her soft blue eyes. Not always feeling her best these days or, in her opinion, looking herself, she's shy around cameras, preferring not to have her picture taken.
Eleanor and Leon fell in love in this little white house tucked behind a high hedge row at the corner of two brick-laid streets. Inside is the couch where Leon, on one of their first dates, sat drawing with Paul, the youngest of Eleanor's three boys from her first marriage that ended in divorce. Eleanor was cooking dinner when her son bounced into the kitchen and announced that Leon would make a good dad.
It's the same house where the boys wore their Mickey Mouse ears when they watched "The Mickey Mouse Club," where she and Leon had a fourth boy together, hosted family gatherings and planted a garden every summer.
Now, it's mostly quiet.
Whole days pass, and it's just Eleanor. The stillness is broken by music from the radio, chatter on the television or Eleanor's voice visiting on the phone with a friend or her older sister or one of her sons, who call occasionally and visit when time allows.
Eleanor spends much of her days in the wood-paneled dining room, sitting at the table covered with a tan and rose-flowered cloth. Curly designs hand-carved by Leon decorate the trim below the two windows draped with white lace curtains.
Through her windows, Eleanor keeps an eye on her driveway and the street, traffic, children playing, the neighbor washing his car. Portraits and snapshots adorn the walls, capturing the boys at various ages, Eleanor with the grandkids and great-grandkids, Leon drawing cartoon characters for one of the grandkids.
Most of Eleanor's life happens here.
After the emergency room trip a year ago, the doctor put her on oxygen. When winter came, she was told it was probably best not to venture out in freezing temperatures. She gets up when she feels like it and resists a regular routine. A man on television said she should have a routine, but what good does that do?
"If I have something to do the next day, I get up and get ready."
Unless it's too early. A nurse from the doctor's office called the other day to change Eleanor's appointment to 8 a.m.
No way, Eleanor told her flatly. I don't get up that early. I'm retired.
"I wouldn't even get up for the Pope, I don't believe," she says.
Half an hour later, the nurse called back and proposed 11 a.m.
Now you're talking, Eleanor told her.
Beyond mornings, she spends most days knitting and watching television, often simultaneously to avoid sitting idle in front of the TV. Other times, she reads or writes in her journal and looks forward to visits with Michael, her retired middle son who brings her dinner from time to time, or more brief visits with her postal carrier whom she calls an "angel without wings" because she routinely checks in on her. She listens to her classical music CDs and operas on National Public Radio. Sometimes, she gets up and dances a bit.
In her 20s, she traveled as a dancer in a chorus show. For years, she taught dance at a local academy and the nearby community college. She learned ballet, tap and jazz as a child in Germany, developing a lifelong love for theater, dance and music. She's seen many live productions in her days living in New York City and Chicago, and later, when she was lucky enough to take trips to the big cities. She still finds ways to "travel."
One Saturday night, she knitted and listened to a live radio broadcast of Verdi's "Aida" from the Metropolitan Theater in New York City. Another night, she watched "Phantom of the Opera" from Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I just imagine myself being there. If you have an imagination like I do, I'm there."
Eleanor has become a night owl, staying up to catch Conan O'Brien or David Letterman, sometimes until midnight if there's something good on. After all, there isn't much on daytime TV. She watches a lot of "Seinfeld" reruns and wishes Kramer or the lady who runs the lunch counter in "Becker" could be her neighbor.
"There wouldn't be a dull moment!"
Eleanor admits to some dull moments this past winter. At the table, she turns toward the window, her eyes suddenly wet and without humor.
"I get lonely," she says quietly.
After gazing outside for a few seconds, she wipes away the tears.
"But I can switch quickly and be happy when I see a bird or baby or a kind person," she says, pausing. "But it's not easy. I get blue and melancholy feeling sorry for myself, because I don't have any human contact.
"And the phone conversations aren't always the thing, either. Sometimes you would like to look at a person, maybe have a cup of coffee together and make eye contact."
Eleanor craves conversation with others, especially others her age. But finding a place that's easy to get to and feels comfortable to her can be difficult.
She's not a card player, and that's the main event at the local elderly center. She wishes they'd bring back that country line-dancing class. A classical dancer, she was skeptical at first. But to her surprise, the basic steps were familiar and the camaraderie a delight.
"I would give that a go even with the oxygen."
This past winter, CRIS Senior Services, the local senior citizen outreach agency, brought her frozen meals every Friday, so she could take a break from cooking on weekends. It also arranged for a woman to do the vacuuming, dusting and other cleaning chores that have become too difficult.
Wrestling with an oxygen tube, vacuum and the electrical cord stokes Eleanor's temper. She likes her house to be clean, but she's had to adjust her standards, learning to ignore the specks on the dining room windows where she hung two paper shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day.
"I'm Irish," she says, winking. "And Italian on Columbus Day and back to German in October."
The boys attended St. Patrick's School, and every St. Patrick's Day they had to wear green. She always cooked corned beef and cabbage that day. One year, her oldest boy had to sing a solo in the Irish play. Eleanor bellows out a few lines in her best Irish voice: "I want to go back to that humble old shack with my old mother." From the dining room, she sees a butterfly flutter by the window.
"Oooooh, a butterfly!"
For the first time in quite a while, Eleanor drove to church on Sunday.
"It was so cold for so many Sundays before that, and I wasn't really motivated to go. The first Sunday I didn't go, I felt very bad about it, but I came to the conclusion that God understands my situation."
At church, a couple told her they had missed her and were concerned about her.
"I was so flattered."
A simple act of concern or shine in the weather can make a difference, at least for a day.
"I think everything looks better when the weather is better."
Today, Eleanor has donned a T-shirt that reads "happy." She decided to wear it after the "little pity party" she had for herself the other day. She had returned from driving herself to the doctor, and her heavy garage door slammed down on her head as she tried to close it. No blood, thank goodness, but it hurt. She retreated to the house, sat in a chair and cried.
"Getting old is frustrating."
But she's still not ready for one of those retirement places: "I keep praying God will take me before that happens."
No, she says, her life isn't exactly the way she would want it to be. But then she perks up.
"Maybe what I ought to say is, 'When is life the way you really want it?' Good question."
Tracy Moss is a News-Gazette staff writer. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.