Helping my 102-year-old friend move

Irene Orselli will turn 103 on the first of November.

Her fragile frame is covered with a robe and blanket, and her swollen ankles are supported by a foot rest. Her oxygen tank hums and buzzes in the corner, but Irene has grown accustomed to the sound. It is late Sunday afternoon, and the last day of my visit in Portland. My friend Tucker sits with me as Irene offers us chocolates, paintings of the Virgin Mary that hang on her wall, and best of all, stories of her 102 years on earth.

A four-year resident of Calaroga Terrace in Portland, Irene has recently been informed that the cost of rent has increased, and she will need to move out at the end of the month. As she tells me this story, I am sitting on her bed (which acts as a couch for guests) in her 6th floor studio apartment, trying not to show the emotions boiling inside of me. I promise her I will come back at the end of the month and individually wrap all of her precious glass figurines, photographs and china.

"Those are from Venice you know," Irene says smiling (she herself was born in Florence), and I look up at the beautiful wine glasses gathering dust on a shelf. Once again I insist that she will not go through the move alone.

"Will he be there?" she asks, looking at Tucker with a sly smile.

I laugh out loud, thrilled to see the Irene that I know and love shining from behind her thick blankets and tired eyes.

I first met Irene when I was two years old, and she was at the ripe young age of 86. Her garden lined the backyard of the apartment complex that I lived in with my parents in South East Portland. The story of my first encounter with Irene changes, depending on whether you hear it from Irene or my mother, but both versions center around Irene's husband Viktor and a ripe tomato.

Irene says that Viktor, who had recently had a stroke and could no longer speak, gave me a tomato from their garden so large that I could barely hold it. The way my mother tells it, Irene said "Viktor, give her that tomato!" and bewildered, he handed it over to the tiny person that he had never seen before.

But no matter how our friendship began, it is one that will never end. Irene has always been there for me, waiting with a bowl of hard candies and a glass of juice, ready to tell me her stories that never grow old although I have heard them time and time again.

My absolute favorite story of Irene's is about how she and Viktor found each other and ended up getting married in their mid-seventies. The two of them were born in cities 45 minutes apart in Italy, and then both ended up emigrating to Oregon and eventually Portland. They were both in childless marriages for more than 40 years, and lost their spouses around the same time. Irene knew Viktor and his first wife vaguely since they ate in the restaurant where she worked, but they didn't officially meet until years later.

When they officially met, they began to go on a few dates. Their wedding on the Oregon Coast was a complete surprise; one thrown for them by their closest friends. At last the world had brought them together. Irene took care of Viktor until the day that he died. He was the love of her life.

As Tucker and I finally left Irene's apartment, I was filled with mixed emotions. I wish that Irene could stay alive forever, but more than anything I am just honored that I have had the privilege to know her in my lifetime. She has taught me so much about life, and shown me the kind of love that I hope to always give back to others. I don't know how much time I will have left with Irene; but I will do what I can to make every moment count. I know that I will never, ever forget her. And when she does finally leave me I will be heartbroken; but not for too long.

Because I know that Viktor is out there waiting for her.

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