“Susan? This is Jane. Really hate to bother you at home but Mama’s not doing too good, her knee is really bad.”

Mama, Thelma, is nearly 91. She lives in a rambling Burnham farmhouse with a son next door, two daughters fewer than two miles away, and a third daughter in nearby Freedom. Her husband died some years ago and she remains the beloved matriarch of a large family. Thelma became my patient about 10 years ago when she was seeking care for her male friend and his severe emphysema. She would bring him to his appointments and then, I presume, decided she would see me as well. It’s been a relationship of mutual admiration since then.

Thelma greets everyone in the office with a kiss and a hug. She has an endearing habit of standing very close and patting your arm as she talks. Apart from some deafness and mild dementia, her aliments are few (which is, of course, why she is 90). So her visits are mostly just that, a visit. We chat. She asks about our children Johnny and Anna, who I’m pretty sure she stills thinks are ages 5 and 8 (they are 16 and 19), and she always, always tells me to “say hi to your handsome hubby” when she leaves. She met John in 2002 when he campaigned at her home. She sent him home that day with some homemade mustard pickles and has been rather smitten with him ever since.

She loves to putter around the house and yard, activities that are hard to curtail after 90 years, even when arthritic and osteoporotic bones and joints cause her grief. Jane called as Thelma was suddenly having a hard time getting around and Jane was unsure what to do.

My answer was immediate. “I’ll be by tomorrow, Jane, after office hours.” Medical providers don’t do house calls often anymore for a variety of frustrating bureaucratic and time management reasons, but all three of our providers at my office do home visits when needed.

I have been to Thelma’s before. I too have campaigned for John there, visiting with her in her kitchen. The main entrance, like many Maine homes, is at the kitchen. This room is a busy place, filled with typical kitchen wares, photos, mail, food stuff, etc. But the living room was a new experience for me. It took my breath away.

Engulfed in a large sofa, draped with assorted hand-knit or crocheted afghans, sat Thelma, bright eyed and delighted to see me. After the prerequisite hug and kiss, I turned to gape at her room. Every inch of space is covered with photos. Every spot of wall, perched on the stair treads to upstairs, on several cramped bookshelves, standing five deep along the periphery of the floor, are photos. Most are lovingly framed, but some are just attached to the furniture, TV, and windows, with tape. They are not, however, hung haphazardly. One entire wall maps out a family tree of sorts with photos. Thelma and her daughter Jane took me on a tour of the family, including many photos of her long deceased husband’s even longer deceased relatives. Thelma’s memory was flawless, and her enjoyment of our little tour was contagious.

“Here’s my son, such a good boy.”

“Here’s my granddaughter, isn’t she beautiful?”

“Oh look, Jane, here you are at age 16 with your first car!” (One of my personal favorites).

The only trouble she had was with the names of her great grandchildren. Although she sees them regularly (her sofa back is lined with stuffed animals for them to play with) she struggled with remembering a few names. Jane helped her with infinite patience. “Oh yes, that’s Cream Puff! Isn’t she cute?” Thelma cried. “Yes Mama, but she prefers her name Harmony” corrected Jane, gently.

Eventually, after the wonderful family history, I tended to her knee, an arthritic flare. We talked about treatment and when to expect some improvement. As she guided me back to the door, I couldn’t help but notice three photos hanging side by side amid dozens more family photos in a sunny alcove: George H.W. Bush, Billy Graham and Barack Obama. I commented on them and she just giggled and said, “Oh yes, aren’t they wonderful?” Clearly a woman of eclectic tastes.

Beside the door is a taped up a “Piotti for State Representative” card with our family photo on it, the kids aged 5 and 8. I pointed it out to her. “Oh yes, what a nice family”, she beamed. “And there is your handsome hubby!”

It is always an honor and a privilege to treat my patients. But it is a true gift to be wholly invited into someone’s home, someone with a vast history of births, deaths, good deeds, heartbreaks, successes, and most apparent of all, unconditional love. I can only hope that my life will be decorated with family and friends, both living and in memories, as I enter my sunset years. I hope I can greet all those who are important in my life with hugs and kisses.

Thelma would approve.

This week, John Piotti has a passed off his column to his wife, Susan, a Physician Assistant who works at Inland Family Care in Unity. Susan thanks Thelma’s family for giving her permission to share their story.