Still caring at 103

Dr. Helena Russell
VA Home-Based Health Care
Reno, Nevada

Doris, holding a crystal heart from her collection, 103.

Care. There is a lot of meaning packed into this 4 letter word. It can be a noun, a verb, or part of a phrase. The VA identifies its core values with the acronym I CARE; Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence. The origins of the word care “karo” “karona”, “carien” have some potentially darker roots meaning complaint, worry, lament, grievance but has evolved to express affection, interest, concern.

Robin Family
Robin family nest under umbrella in Doris' backyard.

At age 103, Doris Howard and her son Bill have taught me much about what it is to care. Doris and Bill are closely bonded, and with his support she continues to live in her sunlit home overlooking the expanse of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is beautiful to see Bill’s gentleness and patience in supporting Doris. He has been recognized through the VA Caregiver Support Awards for his wisdom and warmth and cultivating joy, as well as his gardening skills.

Care goes in many directions, Doris has spent her lifetime caring for others and caring about life, the planet, and beyond.

Recently I reread Doris’s My Story and when her ship was struck by a kamikaze plane as a young WW2 Army corps nurse. I am astounded by her mettle. What did it take for her to stay by the side of her patient and provide care in the pitch dark, temporarily deaf by the explosion, waiting for the ship to sink? And I can only imagine what it felt to be abruptly returned from war with its terrors and triumphs and deep experiences. Despite being from an extended family, she was unable to bridge the gap, to find people who in turn cared about her experiences. She wrote of sharing her room with her sister who would nod off to sleep when Doris attempted to share her war stories and she would find herself alone, speaking into the air and darkness.

View from Doris' bedroom: beaver dam and Mt Rose of the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance.

And Doris continues to care about the present. For someone who was not introduced to the television until her adult life, Doris has embraced the positives of what technology has to offer, such as voice command smart devices and lights that turn color to remind that the oven is left on. She wears a ring to give her feedback on her sleep cycle and logged more VVC visits during the pandemic than the majority of other HBPC veterans. And yet she is firmly rooted into the soil and landscape around her. She speaks of ditching lawn mowers and cultivating bee friendly gardens, and watches the family of robins nest outside her window, and her enthusiasm of travels to forgotten valleys in the basin and range of Nevada. She speaks of constellations and galaxies, and she reminds me that we can still care about that which we cannot see or touch.

She introduced me of the words of TV news anchorman Lester Holt who would end his nightly show with “Please take care of yourself and each other.” Care is what helps us weather the storms and celebrate what is good. Doris and Bill have taught me what it means to care.