Volunteering on Martha’s Vineyard is challenging, rewarding

— File photo by Sara Piazza

When I signed up to volunteer at the West Tisbury Library, I never pictured myself circulating books to elderly patients at Windemere. Hospitals make me nervous, and being with older, sick people can make me sad. But that is where the library needs help, so I made myself try it twice.

When I went to leave the second time, Betsy Burmeister, Windemere’s activities coordinator, asked me if I’d consider reading to Peggy once a week.

I remember Peggy. A petite woman with finely manicured hands and milky blue eyes, she was in the common room the first week I visited Windemere. Sitting in her wheelchair, she fiddled with a machine for listening to books on tape, struggling to make it work. Her daughter sat right next to her offering encouragement, but I could see Peggy was overwhelmed.

Betsy waited for an answer, and I was astonished to hear myself say yes.

The next Wednesday I’m back inside the hospital knocking tentatively on Betsy’s door. She escorts me to the second floor where Peggy lives. “This is where people stay who are in bed or wheelchairs,” she says.

There’s a lonely smell. We pass a cluster of old people in wheelchairs sitting silently and stop at a closed door. Betsy hits some buttons on the wall, then pushes hard against the heavy, institutional door. “And now we are entering the dementia unit,” she says, stepping through.

Stifling the urge to flee, I follow Betsy into Peggy’s room. Peggy is curled up, asleep under a hand-crocheted quilt in the bed nearest the door. She looks tiny and fragile. It’s as if her bones are reclaiming their original fetal position.

“Let’s come back,” I suggest, but Betsy wakes Peggy up, introduces us, and leaves. Besides a book of short stories in my pocket, I have nothing to hold on to.

Peggy smiles and I smile back. I’m nervous but I open the book I’ve brought and say, “Let’s start at the beginning.” It’s a poor choice. A tale of a gruesome murder, the plot is confusing and there are too many characters.

Shouting, I ask Peggy if she wants me to continue. She nods. I read a few more minutes aware of her concentrated attention. When I stop to ask Peggy a question about the story she gives me a blank look. “What?”

I realize she hasn’t heard a single word but she doesn’t seem to care. We sit in silence as Peggy struggles to gather her words. “You read so well,” she says. “Will you come back?”

Most Wednesdays, after coming up with reasons I can’t make it to Windemere, I picture Peggy and go. I learn a few things that make communication easier. Peggy can hear with a hearing aid. A nurse shows me where it is kept and how to put it on. I no longer need to shout. Glasses in her bedside table drawer help Peggy see and listen better.

Early on I toss the short story book and bring in stacks of picture books. There is a photograph of a tiger cat by Peggy’s bed so I bring books about cats. “Catwings,” the story of a cat family born with wings, by Ursula LeGuin was one of my daughter’s favorite stories and Peggy likes it too. Peggy takes her time pouring over the detailed illustrations. ” Aren’t they adorable?” she asks. My chair is pulled up right next to her bed. Her eyes never leave my face and something I can only call tenderness ricochets between us. I promise to bring the sequel next time.

Peggy sleeps through the next Catwings book. It has no interest for her this week. I don’t have a back-up plan, and we’re each a little lost. I grab a book on the shelf by Peggy’s bed and read a few pages, but it doesn’t hold us.

Fortunately, I remember the memory box outside Peggy’s door and go grab a few of the photographs from it. In one picture Peggy and her husband are sitting on a boat. All legs, their lean bodies touch as they look up and smile at the photographer. Peggy holds a miniature schnauzer in her arms. Peggy remembers she was in Lake Tashmoo, but she gets frustrated when she can’t remember the name of her dog. Her eyes light up when she examines the second photograph. It’s a black-and-white studio shot showing a young Peggy, hair smooth and neat, eyes and trim body turned modestly from the camera.

Sometimes Peggy forgets what we are talking about, but often she just needs a minute to gather her thoughts. I’ve learned to wait. “I was only 16 that year. I loved riding up to Vassar on the train, but I only did that once or twice. This was during the Depression, you know.”

When I show Peggy the third photograph of a middle-aged woman in glasses sitting cross-legged on a chair smiling, she draws a blank. “Maybe it’s my mother-in-law,” she says. I think the woman looks a lot like her.

I bump into Peggy’s daughter in the grocery store. She tells me that Peggy is in the dementia unit mostly because it is quiet and the staff is stable. I don’t say Peggy stares at the ceiling with a blank expression and never remembers my name. Instead I tell her what happened when I missed a few visits because of a family vacation. How Peggy was overjoyed to see me. How I keep coming.

Finally, Peggy and I settle on a book both of us want to stick with, but then it’s August and our Wednesday routine is interrupted. Three weeks in a row I visit with “Charlotte’s Web” tucked under my arm, but Peggy eyes me with hostility and refuses to speak. I’m surprised how upset I am. One time I ask the nurse if Peggy has had a bad day. “She’s been completely out of control if that’s what you mean,” the nurse says.

I ask Betsy if I should continue and we agree to give it one more time. “Peggy has a dark side,” she tells me. ” Some of it is the dementia.”

I enter Peggy’s room tentatively, but Peggy looks up at me from her bed with a warm smile. ” I am so glad to see you,” she says. The hearing aid is already in place. I reach in her bedside drawer for her glasses and put them on.

“I thought about Wilbur at the fair,” she tells me.

I begin to read a luscious description of Fern and her brother Avery jumping through Zuckerman’s barn door on a rope swing. Peggy listens, intently, “They do so much with so little.” It’s true.

If she forgets a lot, Peggy still remembers important things: how hard it was to be the youngest in her class at school, how much she loves her big sister, how wonderful animals are, how nourishing it is to listen to a story read aloud by someone sitting close to you. Our hands are clasped. I’ve kept my eye on the clock, but suddenly I’m reluctant to go.

Once outside her door, I know I’ll speed down the hall picking up momentum as I go out to my car and back into my busy life. Right now, Peggy holds me in the moment and I linger.