"Welcoming Mrs. Frailey"
About the Documentarian
"Welcoming Mrs. Frailey"
I FIRST MET PAT FRAILEY reading at The Arbors Retirement home, in Newport News, Virginia. I interrupted the casual circle of about a dozen elderly folk and a handful of nursing staff, chagrined and feeling intrusive. The nurse introduced me to the circle, and my nerves softened to their welcoming smiles. Mrs. Frailey rose slowly, her tender movements punctuated by creaking, arthritic joints. The serene circle of advanced retirees wished us well as we set off down a long, dim fluorescent corridor to her room.
I adjusted my pace to the incremental lunging of her walker and introduced myself properly. Over the course of several months, I would visit with her about once a week to conduct interviews, take photos, run errands, and chat. Our differences in years provided a productive tension to our conversations as the clinical tinge of the earliest conversations (“What is this project? How many hours? What do you need to know?”) was quickly overcome by genuine interest in mutually sharing our different experiences.
For example, upon admitting I was an English major, she read me a poem she wrote after experiencing a sublime sunset in Australia. Moments like these fostered genuine interest and care for one another that went beyond the imposed goal of getting a good grade or producing a quality video.
Pat’s stories, both significant and seemingly less so, were delivered with a directness I found refreshing. She was open to any question about her life, from her childhood to the lives of her grandchildren. Her apartment, where we spent most our time, was artfully decorated and shockingly clean (especially when compared to my own humble dorm.) Oblivious to the ornate wooden clock hanging in the living room, I soaked up the stories of Mrs. Frailey with genuine interest.
Remembering a Painful Incident About the Loss of a Sister
One seemingly innocuous, yet bleak, story regarding her earliest memory kept resurfacing—it is about her sister and shoe-tying. For my documentary, I wanted to focus mostly on extrapolating palatable tales and anecdotes from the unusually empathetic woman before me. I found the bravery with which she confronts, daily, her increasingly limited physical agency inspiring. Surely, I thought, this uncomplaining fortitude is indicative of a laudably earnest life. Her little story about tying shoes is perhaps the most unsettling account ever made of this ubiquitous routine. Surely it doesn’t fit into the narrative I am trying to tell, or so I thought at first. Here is the story is the form of a poem:
Mrs. Frailey laces orthodontic shoes
Aglets, entwined, secure two loops,
The cloth string threading eighty years,
To her first memory- old, yet clear.
At the age of three, in her parents’ home,
A tragedy strikes too great to know-
Sister Jackie, just four years old,
Loosed her ties to earth bound load.
Listless light in Mother’s eyes
Seems to speak of what they hide,
Acceptance-faux in Father’s sighs
Pass Pat, too fresh to recognize.
Tossed into a terribly turbulent world,
Lost and confused, hungry to learn,
Everyone struggling through grave concerns-
One soul wearies of being ignored.
Young Pat exclaims, proudly, from the living room,
“Look Aunt Bess! I can ties my shoe!”
Then shooting innocent, stinging words,
“And Jackie can’t tie hers anymore.”
The bubble of suffering stupor is burst,
Invoking injustice, honing hardy horror,
Her lingering family, lashed, unfurls-
Such devastation precipitated by one unguarded girl.
Born to a world knowing of death,
The gift of each bow knot she’s got left
Serve Frailey well, still some strength to give-
‘Cause pains such as these remind us we live.
Empathy & Compassion
Capturing or doing justice to a life through words or images is challenging, if not impossible. The process of prioritizing what to share about Mrs. Frailey was particularly hard for me. I was uncertain if I knew enough about her to guess what she considered important. On top of all that, our growing relationship felt like it had a time limit as the due date crept nearer. What right do I have to another’s life? Is it wrong to exploit personal memory, not belonging to you? Death often becomes more prevalent as one advances in years, and younger people especially can be very uncomfortable with this subject.
Pat has experienced much loss in her life and she was unafraid to open up about it to some extent. At first, I planned to cut out most of the tales pertaining to the ultimate absence. Surely experiences with death cannot be adequately documented, universal as it is. I believe the great empathy and compassion exhibited by Pat was forged in response to a world of chaos and random cruelty.
Pat’s loss of sister, parents, husbands, and son seemingly transcended the physical struggles of her day-to-day. Yet, she told me of her will to maintain a devoted, Christian outlook when remembering these losses. “God has a plan.”
The Comfort of Sharing Pain
Initiated by the moral turbulence of taking more than I was giving from my admirable subject, I suddenly found myself telling her about the devastating loss of a girl I loved in a car accident over winter break. A heavy discussion followed, contrasted by earlier mentions of death with an almost grateful mutuality. I realized, in that moment, the great comfort of sharing pain.
The elderly community is more familiar with such moments of transcendental communion than most of us. They are prone to intense, unbiased reminiscing on times both good and bad. Many of them live alone, separated from their families- but they do so together. All of them struggle in some capacity with the physical or mental deterioration of age. The poetry circle where my path first crossed with Pat’s exemplifies the therapeutic value found in communicating personal memories, even when painful, with others. After all, at the end, we just want someone to understand us and to see the value in the life we’ve been given. ◊
"Courage & Quiet Fortitude: A Portrait of Mrs. Frailey"
film & essay by William Sweeney
Pat Frailey inspires a respect for the wisdom that comes from life experiences, especially those difficult ones that are sometimes tragic. The video profiles her story of overcoming personal adversity to help others, in part by becoming a special education teacher. In the accompanying essay, "Welcoming Mrs. Frailey," the author reflects on her sharing a story of personal loss led to his sharing the story of a recent loss in his life.