At a Christmas party for seniors, Gradie Carter bobbed her head forward and back, shifted her weight foot-to-foot and clapped her hands, all to the rhythm of R&B singer Luther Vandross.
Carter comes to the Eastgate Senior Activity Center at the Eastgate Town Center every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to watch others play cards and dance.
She used to dance, and she misses it, but it's been 10 years since her 62nd birthday, the last time she took to the floor. She wouldn't dare risk it now, not after she had surgery to remove a brain tumor and patch an aneurysm, followed by a stroke, followed by breast cancer, all within a year of that birthday.
From 1964 to 2001, Carter worked as a nurse. But after falling sick in 2001 and 2002, she retired.
Since then, she's been doing all right, she says. She's still living in the same house she's been in since 1973, and she lives within her means on her monthly $974 Social Security checks.
But in January of this year, she had to pay about $950 for homeowner's insurance and $206 for the electric bill, and it was just too much.
She's an independent woman who lives alone, goes out to meetings and events at least four nights a week and doesn't even ask her children for help. But when she had to decide between losing her electricity or insurance, she knew she needed help, so she dialed 211, the social services helpline run by United Way of Greater Chattanooga. She got Susan Geary, a caseworker with the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.
Geary helped Carter pay her electricity bill, and Carter was able to handle the insurance on her own.
Carter cried, thinking of the single moms who needed help more than herself, but still, she accepted the help and sent Geary a handwritten letter of thanks.
"I'm used to doing well," Carter said Friday at the Eastgate senior center, "and it hurt so much to do that [ask for help]."
Since then, Carter is back to budgeting and balancing her checkbook. She said she's had no problems since, and Geary said that's the key.
"Her need was not like most people's," Geary said. "She only had one need."
Geary said many people wait until they have three or four or more needs and it's too late for help. Carter, though, took care of business quickly.
"It got her over the hump, and she's fine at this point," Geary said.
Carter said her two pills a day of Keppra help keep her from having seizures, but they also exhaust her.
"Oh, I'm so sleepy," she said. "It makes me so lazy and sleepy."
So she finds meetings, dances and events for cancer survivors and for seniors because she said she needs to stay active.
On Friday, she sang along to the words as 45 other seniors danced.
"I listen to the bells," she sang, "and they make me remember."
Andrew Pantazi is an intern at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who says that when he was 7 he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: play hockey for the Colorado Avalanche. Unfortunately, he says he wasn't any good at hockey, so he became a journalist instead. He writes about the lives we hide, like the man who suffered a stroke but smiled, or the football walk-on who endured 5 ...