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What I Learned From Isabel’s Story

Birthday cupcakes candles


Things Aren't Always as They Appear

Do you ever get a quick, passing feeling that someone or something just isn’t exactly as it seems? If there is anything I have learned to do, it’s to take a thoughtful second look as often as possible. Things are not always as they appear.

I will never forget a time in my teen years when I experienced a profound example of this. Two evenings a week I volunteered to sit and visit with residents in the nursing home where my Grandfather spent the last year of his life. I became somewhat of an on-site Granddaughter for lonely, elderly people who didn’t often have guests. I spent time going from room to room, listening to their stories and looking at all of their worn pictures. I grew to love each one of them and looked forward to the individual personalities. They really just wanted someone to affirm that their life mattered, their memories mattered! Being someone who loves to connect through the sharing of life experiences, I enjoyed every moment of it. I was lonely at home growing up, and this was unlimited connection for me.

One day I was in the lunchroom looking over the same vending machine choices when two nurses came in recollecting a resident from a few years earlier named Isabel. Isabel rarely spoke, they said she’d been extraordinarily beautiful and dignified in her youth and remnants of that could be seen today, yet she was not usually one to talk. Over time they would muse over the cause of her aloofness. One day Isabel surprised everyone and presented a carefully wrapped birthday party invitation she’d received from a close friend of hers. The party was in 6 weeks and it was not far, it was to be held near her old home. Isabel quietly said she’d love to have someone take her. 2 other nursing staff members volunteered, putting tremendous care and thought into the preparation. Over the next month the nurses helped her pick a gift that she felt was appropriate for this friend, Isabel chose a musical jewelry box with a spinning ballerina inside. She picked a beautiful dress from a catalog and they had it shipped in. Days in advance they practiced dressing her up, fixing her hair and applying her makeup. She glowed with excitement. She kept asking if she looked like a princess.

The day of the party, Isabel was dressed and ready, with tears of joy in her eyes over the mere idea of venturing out. She excitedly talked about how this friend had been a “great secret keeper on the playground when they were just girls in grade school.” She shared how theirs was a cherished friendship that spanned the decades. When she was dressed and made over, the staff members gathered the gift and birthday card and loaded Isabel into the transport van. They drove approximately 10 miles to the address. Upon turning onto that street Isabel commented how different it all looked. “Well I supposed it would sweetheart, it’s been a while.” The nurse said soothingly.  When they pulled into the driveway it was easy to see not many cars were there for a birthday party, there were no balloons tied to the mailbox. Just a dog barking relentlessly from the yard next door. The house on the other side had boarded up windows. The nurses were told by the person who answered the door that there was no party scheduled and truthfully, the resident had no idea who the person it was planned for even was. “Never heard of her.” She said, closing the door.

It took a few months to console Isabel and just as long for the nurses to finally figure out, through research and phone calls, that the party was for the 5th birthday of the girl she had been best friends with in grade school. They had remained friends and neighbors until they were married, then the friend had moved away. Isabel had carefully preserved that birthday party invitation for 80 years. In her dementia she had remembered the party and the friendship in real time.

I learned so much from those residents and a lifelong wealth of lessons in Isabel’s story. Things are not always as they appear. The pendulum of that truth can swing good or bad. Someone who appears aloof, rude, detached, even unlikeable may actually have a big, mushy heart of gold and a lifetime of treasured memories just beneath the surface. While someone who appears warm, friendly, and is loved by all may be a living hell to deal with in private.

It really doesn’t matter if it’s an addict being misjudged as a "wasted life" with "bad character," or a smooth-talking manipulator who doesn’t mean a word they say (or a picture they post). What does matter is that sometimes things and people require a second look. Because every life does matter. Sharing our memories and experiences, or sitting with someone through theirs, goes a very long way.

Someone afflicted with an addiction is still a Mother’s child, born with talents to develop, who had much different hopes on their own playground. However, in the death grip of addiction, the appearance of who they truly are gets covered over. Just as a person of great public esteem may actually be a bully in private, but simply great at presenting a glossy image. Who knows, times tells. What I do know is that it is impossible to assess anything, or anyone, with just a glance. There are layers to us all.

In honor of those residents who, along with my own Grandfather, have long since passed, I have tried to make a point of sincerely listening to the experiences of anyone in front of me. Even if the reason for their being there may be negative. Everyone deserves a chance to be understood, listened to and cared about. I know I have often been misunderstood until truths became a little clearer. By the same token, I have often been quick to write someone off as bad news (and even quicker to trust that someone is not bad news — a very painful lesson in and of itself). Looking deeper into things with kindness and intuition goes a very long way.

“How will you know what tragedies or treasures exist unless you look past the surface?” ~Unknown

Wishing you love, kindness and empathy,


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



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