When I was still a mere Hospitality Aide at the nursing home, one of my tasks was to assist residents in getting to the dining room for meals. I'd push a wheelchair or stroll next to someone who was a little unsteady on her feet.
Hazel walked quite well, but she felt more comfortable about ambling to dinner with her arm through that of an aide's.
At first, she accepted my offer to walk with her, but then suddenly, she began turning me down. "What's wrong, Hazel?" I'd ask.
A slight blush reddened her pale cheeks, and looking at the floor she mumbled, "Nothing's wrong. I want to walk to the dining room with my black boyfriend."
"Uh, okay," I said. I could see she had quite a crush on someone, but who could it be? We didn't have any black men working in the nursing home. I thought that perhaps one of the black ladies on her hall had a brother or son who came to visit, and Hazel was enamored with him.
I didn't see who walked into the dining room with Hazel that night, but from then one, every time I offered to walk her to dinner, she gave me the same answer about waiting for her black boyfriend to take her. I asked some of the other aides, "What's going on with Hazel? She won't let me walk her to the dining room."
They said they had gotten the same response from her, and we pondered who her black boyfriend could be.
Finally, one evening I saw her enter for her meal on the arm of my friend Lynn, also a Hospitality Aide and a black lady. I looked at them with surprise, and noticed the glow that lit up Hazel's face. She looked so pleased and proud.
When I had a moment alone with Lynn after dinner, I told her that Hazel had been refusing to walk with me because she wanted to be with her black boyfriend.
Lynn and I locked eyes. Then we started to laugh. "I'm Hazel's black boyfriend?" she sputtered. "I know my hair is short and I'm not very shapely, but no one has ever mistaken me for a man before."
"Well, Hazel's sight isn't that great," I reminded her. "She's confused about a lot of things. Remember the day she thought we were doctors?"
Lynn and I spoke with the other aides. Although we couldn't help laughing at Hazel's mistake, we weren't making fun of Hazel. We just had to tease Lynn a bit.
But then we all started to wonder if we should tell Hazel the truth about Lynn. I remembered how happy Hazel looked when she walked into the dining room with Lynn and made the decision for the group. "No. We can't tell her. We'd be stealing her happiness. She's completely on her own. She's never had a visitor. Hazel deserves this little bit of joy."
Although Lynn wasn't thrilled about being "the man" in Hazel's life, she agreed that it was a harmless charade.
From then on, when Lynn was on duty, she and Hazel always entered the dining room arm-in-arm, with Hazel's eyes sparkling. No one ever told Hazel that Lynn was a woman.
And when Hazel died, her "black boyfriend" was at her side, holding her hand.