Helen called the day before I was supposed to make my second solo trip out for Meals on Wheels.
“You’ve lost two stops on the route and gained one,” she said.
The explanation was sad, but predictable.
The week before, on my last stop at a senior living complex, the meal recipient hadn’t answered the call at the entry door to the building. After a few tries and then trying to ring the office, a maintenance worker had let me bring the food inside.
I’d knocked on the man’s door, but there’d been no answer. He’d died over the weekend, Helen said. We weren’t supposed to take the food inside the home, just leave it at the door, but I’d at least seen him after his caretaker opened the door to take the meal.
He’d been sitting across the room in a wheelchair.
The woman on the other stop had gone into a nursing home. We’d never met, either. I’d only heard her say “thank you” through the door.
These two stops were at the very beginning and the very end of the route, which changed everything, really. The new stop also shuffled things up a little. It was on the very far end of Charleston, almost in Dunbar.
“You going to be able to handle this?” Helen asked.
I told her, sure. No problem.
My ongoing trouble with navigation is well-known. I get lost — a lot. But after struggling with matching the directions of the two drivers I’d trained with and deciphering the instructions on the list of deliveries, I’d plugged in almost all of the addresses into the aging GPS I keep in the car.
My track record with the GPS has been mixed, but I figured between the written instructions, my memory and the gadget, I’d get everything where it needed to go.
Before we hung up, Helen asked if I’d be staying on. This series of columns was winding down. They were glad to have the mentions in the paper, but they also needed people to drive.
Meals on Wheels of Charleston is like many volunteer organizations in the area. It’s staffed by retirees, people who have time on their hands. It can be hard to keep people around, even in the best of times.
Volunteers often bowed out because time takes its toll. Age and the ability to get around can diminish.
Lives and plans change, too. Some people join retirement communities in Florida or Arizona. Some decide to go back to college. Others throw their savings at a glass and steel castle on wheels to tour the country, visiting gas stations in all 48 of the continental United States and sleeping in Walmart parking lots.
With the COVID pandemic, Meals on Wheels had lost volunteers out of health concerns and fears of getting sick.
“I hope you’ll stick with us,” Helen said.
I told her I thought I would, though I couldn’t say for how long. So much was up in the air — and this felt hard, a lot harder than volunteering to read to second-graders for Read Aloud West Virginia.
The next day, I picked up the two coolers of food and the tray of soups and set out using the GPS to get me to my first stop. Taking no chances, I kept with the GPS and got to my second and third stops without any trouble.
While bringing chicken and vegetables, I delivered a spare mask to a woman who walked, cautiously, with a cane. She’d liked the crocheted mask I wore the week before.
The mask had come from Sharon, a friend who works the front desk at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Sharon crochets to pass the time, and started making masks about 10 minutes after the CDC began advising people to maybe wear one when they go out in public. She’d given a mask to anyone who wanted one, and I’d been glad to get it.
It beat the beat-up bandana I’d been wearing around my face that made me look like a Jesse James knock-off.
Sharon had given me a spare mask to give to the woman on my route.
I put the mask in the bag, not intending to see her, but the woman met me at the door, cane in hand. I told her about the mask.
“Oh,” she said, surprised. She’d probably forgotten all about it. I hadn’t seen her in a week.
“That’s so nice,” she said. “Would you like to come to church with me? We’ve been meeting in the parking lot.”
I thanked her for the offer, but told her maybe later.
The new stop on the route almost threw me. The address didn’t show up on my GPS and the directions were confusing. West Washington Street apparently ends at a dead end and then restarts half a mile or so later.
Or maybe the paved road turns into a pebbled trail through the woods.
It slowed me for a minute, but then I went back to the directions, found a landmark and delivered the meal.
Feeling a little too smug and superior, I looked over at the tray resting in the passenger seat and noticed I had an extra soup. Looking at the list, I thought, “How did that happen?”
While scrolling through the list of recent addresses on my GPS, I’d mashed my fat finger on the screen and gotten the wrong street. I’d delivered the wrong boxed lunch to the wrong customer.
It took me a full minute of fretting and swearing to realize no actual harm had been done. I’d only delivered out of order, not swapped one of the special diet plates for a regular plate. Nobody had been harmed. The names were wrong on the boxes and it didn’t take long to correct.
But it felt like a close call.
The more I did this route, the more I understood how much these people relied on others for basic sustenance. Their lives were fragile and vulnerable. The responsibility of it all weighed heavily on me.
By the time I returned the coolers to Saint Francis Hospital, my mood had cratered. I’d gotten a little too wound up, and then I wondered if I was somehow looking at my own, eventual future.
My nearest family is four hours away. My children only talk of moving away, and I’m not married.
I don’t worry about getting old. I don’t think that much about dying, but part of me fears becoming a forgotten, wreck of a man whose only company is a television set. Someone who maybe comes to count on that one knock at the door each day that means a box of hospital food and brief visit with a stranger who might ask how I am.
That’s not necessarily who I’m delivering to for Meals on Wheels. That’s just the reflection I see when I come to their doors.
Tired and rattled, I went home to make a sandwich. It was noon. Maybe I was just hungry.