She was tipped over so far to one side in her wheelchair she was almost horizontal to the floor. From this position she was trying to drink a cup of cranberry juice. I stared across the table at her, entranced. Was it possible? Apparently. Somehow, despite the tremor of her hand, the slant of the glass, her casual grip and the sloshing of the juice, it all stayed in the cup.
Getting her straightened up had naturally occurred to me as I watched, but then came the question of whether touching residents was allowed, further complicated by the actual mechanics involved — would I come at her from the back and scoop under her arms? But I had nothing left; just getting my mother here to this very dinner table in the memory unit had been a Mission Impossible feat carried out by a team of family members, near and far, and a few saintly professionals. A placement process that usually takes several days if the stars line up, a bed is available and all the regulations and conditions are met, this one had started urgently and unexpectedly just that afternoon, the afternoon preceding the 4th of July as necessary doctor’s offices were shutting down early, and so after 7 frantic hours of not knowing where we would be if this didn’t work, I found myself conserving the nobility and helpfulness required to right a tipped person. So I just watched.
“Do you think it will spill?” I asked Mom.
“It doesn’t seem to,” Mom said.
A bit dazed, we were scrambling to orient ourselves to this place Mom would be staying for a short while, and the people in it. We’d rolled through the door just 5 minutes before and were immediately shown to this table so Mom could get dinner before the kitchen shut down. As we chattered on about the salmon and beets, I kept my eye on that glass as the woman tried to get her mouth on its rim.
Suddenly, she turned her head and looked directly at me, studying. It was as if she’d come to, as if she felt the presence of some different, maybe younger energy across the table. As we looked at each other, I could see she had been beautiful. High cheekbones and delicate features. And there was something smart about her bearing, reinforced by that momentary flash of intelligence in her eye when she surfaced, though her brittle, dull gray hair standing straight out distracted me. It didn’t go with what I was seeing come through from somewhere underneath.
Sitting here surrounded by these old people, I am immediately transported back to high school when I’d worked in the kitchen of a nursing home. There is something about this setting where old people are collected. Removed from the outside world where our attention gravitates to young people or our own peer group, in nursing homes the elderly become the entire point. In this orientation, they become visible in a way you would least expect given their increasing irrelevance on the outside. But here they are the relevant ones.
That was the surprise of Mapleleaf: how old people became so interesting. There was Z.M and Nina, husband and wife. Breakfast, lunch and dinner they would walk into the dining room holding hands, she a tiny bit of a thing, he towering over her in one direction then his gigantic belt size extending beyond her in the other. They were very quiet in their togetherness, not bothering with words, a study in old love.
Sitting next to Nina was Lillian, cold, imperious, beautiful Lillian with her sculpted cheekbones, stunningly blue eyes and pure white hair which, improbably, she wore in two small, very high pigtail puffs which she pulled off, as if this is were how queens wore their regal white hair.
Nellie with the red hair would roll in singing a little song about Nellie with the red hair, a song she’d composed for herself. She wasn’t entirely wrong; you could still see traces of red.
And Pansy. I loved sweet, plain-Jane Pansy with her standard old-lady hairdo of non-remarkable color. There was nothing recognizably young in her face traceable back to the little girl, but she had a youthful zest for life about her, the way she’d be so interested in all of us high school girls, asking us questions while helping us set the tables, doing the silverware, the worst part. She was so warm and had such lively, curious eyes as if she delighted in seeing a group of unruly teenage girls running the show, which is exactly what went on over the weekends. Somehow our whole gang — all five of us — got ourselves hired on and that kitchen was ours come Saturday and Sunday.
After dinner Pansy would save a cookie or her dish of pudding to take back to her room for later when she would read her book. She kept a plant which she watered faithfully, and never said anything unkind about her roommate, who had lost her marbles a long time ago. I somehow knew all this and I somehow knew this roommate situation wasn’t a happy arrangement for her, but she was cheerful anyway and that registered.
Mid-afternoon William Hunt, our famous centurion, would bring an onion into the dining room. Sitting at his place, he’d pull a knife out from somewhere, peel the onion and eat it. He said on a frequent basis this was the reason he made it to 100.
There was a Beryl. And Artis with gnarled-up hands crippled with arthritis. Such strange names. Lily in her tennis visor was always cruising by, very spry with the walker. Agnes continuously chanted I want a cookie, I want a cookie, I want a cookie right now. That would be me. And angry Anna, the disgruntled diabetic who resented the vanilla wafers and water-packed fruit cocktail the diabetics always got for dessert. There were many disgruntled diabetics.
We had a Parke with Parkinson’s. And Harold Hollingsworth who shuffled around in an odd, slightly bouncy way as if his knees had too much give in them. As if they would just go ahead and give out at any point. Harold was totally out of it. And Alta Perro, just a name tag on the rehab tray cart for us, a name tag I cleverly replaced one day with a translation. Even with my shamefully limited Spanish, I could work out Tall Dog, a stunt for which I nearly got my ass fired.
And then our tragedy, the tragedy of Don and Laura. One day a very handsome, middle-aged man lurched through the doors, a confusion because it seemed like there would probably would be an age threshold for getting into nursing homes. It turned out Don had Huntington’s disease which explained his chaotic movements which reflected the chaos in his brain driving him to gamble away their life savings, and so it was like a Japanese koan, an enlightening paradox of illogic, to watch tall, elegant, beautiful Laura sweep through the door after work, search Don out and greet him with a big hug and a kiss. They held hands. I loved her classy high heels. She must have bought them when they had money.
Discounting Don, these people were old, but in here they sparked our imagination, these walking life stories, Russian matroyshka doll glimmers of their younger, smaller selves telescoping back in time if we could just see that far.
Back at the dinner table in The Arbor, Mom and I get our bearings. Just like at Mapleleaf, there are some people who immediately pop out to me. My eyes go to the low profile guy in camouflage hunkered down in his wheelchair a few tables over, a billed hat also in camo pulled down over his eyes. Everything about him is low. As I study him, he backs himself out of park and starts rolling our way. What’s he up to?
“Low…ri…der drives a little slower,” I notice myself singing in my mind as he glides behind a counter into a little kitchen area. Opening the freezer door, he helps himself to an ice cream cup.
“Do you think he’s supposed to do that?” I ask Mom.
Her eyebrows raise as she shrugs. We both watch to see what happens. While he’s maneuvering himself back around, an aide happens by, sees him with the cup resting in his lap and says, oh, feeling like ice cream? He says yes and she says well, you know where it is!
Mom and I make eye contact. “It looks like you can get yourself ice cream whenever you want,” I say. “That’s a good deal.”
Over at the nurse’s station a slim man with white hair is standing at the counter. Even from the back I can tell he’s got a slick haircut, well-maintained. Though he’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, there’s something about him that makes me think maybe he’s a doctor, which seems even more likely when he turns and I see that despite the white hair, he’s actually quite young. I’d put him around my age, in fact.
He takes some papers and a pager and makes his way over to a table where he sits down. Then picks up a fork. That’s unusual. I get a sinking feeling but think, well, maybe doctors around here sometimes eat with the residents.
I will later put together that he has early-onset Alzheimer’s, this handsome man with the boyish athletic body and bright blue eyes. Maybe he was a doctor in his earlier life. Maybe the staff leaves that outdated pager on the counter just for him. I sometimes see his wife — my age — sitting with him on the love seat. They hold hands. They don’t talk. They just sit.
And of course, there is no missing the exceedingly skinny lady in a wheelchair right in back of me, trying like the dickens to get going. Her method is all in the legs, her feet pawing at the ground unceasingly as she grunts in frustration. I see the brake is on but have no idea if she is supposed to be set free so I do nothing. An aide hears the animal-like sounds and comes over.
“Are you stuck, Lily?” the aide says, releasing her.
After Mom’s been there a few weeks, she tells me Lily is constantly on the move, toeing herself around.
“I don’t know how she has the strength in those skinny little legs to just go and go.”
“I know, ” I say. “They’re toothpicks!” They truly are remarkable.
Then a thought suddenly occurs to me.
“That would be Amy,” I say to Mom. “If Amy were boiled down to her essence, it would all come down to her legs. Gotta move, gotta move.”
Mom instantly sees this and we bust out laughing.
It’s this notion of essence that gets me. So often it seems when we reach this stage of life, we present with a few very central, very concentrated characteristics. Who knows what these will turn out to be, though we spend our lives trying to find ourselves. That this knowledge has to be discovered, that we don’t just know who we are and may never know is a fascination to me. And even now, having dedicated more than a decade to a very close examination of myself, and though I have sorted and organized a lot, I’m not sure what my over-riding characteristic would be when I arrive at this stage.
This makes me think of a story a friend told me about a harpist she knew who would occasionally go to nursing homes to play for the residents. She was playing for a small gathering at Ross Manor when she heard something odd. Looking up, she saw a little old lady sitting in a wheelchair pantomiming harp-playing with great exaggeration. With each mocking pluck of the string, the lady imitated the sound, sarcastically waggling her head with the reverb.
A smart ass. Had she been a smart ass through and through to the end or was this feature something layered on by life?
I’m so curious to see how this works and set about my research. Every time I visit Mom we talk about this little population here, this tiny society in which she lives. I’ve given her the assignment to find out everything she can.
“What’s your intel?” I ask. “Have you found out anything else?”
It’s a question that takes me back to grade school. Every night Amy and I would go in and sit on Mom’s bed where she was reading and ask her who was sick in the hospital that day. Mom was a pediatric nurse and we loved nothing more than hearing the horrifying and fascinating stories of what can befall people. Especially children. We’d pore over her medical books while she talked, looking up the dread diseases of which she spoke, mesmerized by the riveting photographs of kids — sometimes naked — with those black rectangles superimposed over their eyes to protect their identities. A baffling amount of identification weight seemed to center around eyes, one minuscule part of us, real estate-wise.
“Well, I think Helen went to Harvard,” Mom reports. Helen of the tippy cranberry juice has captivated both of us.
“How do you know? Did you ask the aides?”
Mom’s evasive on this point. “I heard people talking in exercise.”
Exercise class has proven to be an incubator of information as well as an out-er of personality. It turns out Mom is competitive, making a name for herself as the kickball queen. The activity director rolls the ball out and Mom, toeing herself quickly out ahead of the others, scores. But after awhile she has to be spoken to, reminded to let others have a chance.
Hearing this news from Dad, I ask Mom about it. She tells me with not a little pride how she and another lady are the only ones in wheelchairs, but look who’s getting her foot on the ball? I’m proud, too, and brag to my friends, while also making the point that if Mom can get out there ahead of people who walk, she should get to kick the fuck out of that ball. I know if Mom had been at Mapleleaf, we would have loved her.
In fact, I’m acutely aware of Mom being one of the characters here herself. We are not just observers on the sidelines. Who is she to these workers? How would I see her if I were working or visiting here?
To my eye, immediately apparent is her style. Though I didn’t fully appreciate this while growing up, color and design go deep with Mom. A stitcher of fabric for over 60 years, there is always thought and artistry that go into putting the pieces of her outfit together for the day. She’s color-forward and of late has taken to wearing brightly-patterned, hip Buff headbands which set off her snow white bob.
Is color her essence I wonder? Or the Old Nurse, as she described herself in a recent phone call to Tommy, having taken on for herself the job of reminding the escape-prone to stay in their wheelchairs so they won’t get hurt.
One day Mom has something good for me.
“What’s been going on?” I ask.
“Well, I had a visitor after I went to bed last night,” Mom said. “It was Peg, the tall one who had been a physical therapist. She came in and said she just wanted to see what they’d done in this room now that it wasn’t empty. Then she picked up the teddy bear Ellen gave me and said, ‘I can use this.'”
“She said ‘I can use this'”? Burglar alarms are starting to go off in my head. I already knew Peg was quite gone, led around by her husband most of the time, so what was she up to, wandering into Mom’s room by herself?
“Yes, ” Mom confirmed. “Then she starting picking up more things, saying ‘I can use this, and I can use this, and I can use this…'”
“Mom, what did you do!” I interrupt, immediately aware of how unfair this thievery is considering Mom can’t get out of bed to protect her property. At the same time, I’m delighted by a core truth coming through. What are we but wandering gatherers of all that we need?
“I tripped my fall sensor,” Mom said. “When the nurse came running in I said I didn’t know what else to do since Peg was stealing my things.” Mom is laughing, delighted herself with the high drama.
“Wow, quick thinking, Mom.” I am truly impressed.
Last week I found Mom sitting at a table in the common area coloring with Helen, Helen of the tippy cranberry juice. This day Helen is sitting perfectly upright. I pulled over a chair, said hi to Mom then hi to Helen. She looked at me carefully, thoughtfully.
Mom and I talked and they colored until Helen’s paper fluttered to the floor. I hopped up and circled over to Helen’s side. Crawling under the table I watched as her toe blindly reached and reached for the paper. I was struck by the futility of this randomly reaching toe and then shocked by how good the coloring on that paper was when I picked it up. Did Helen do that? I stood up and put it on the table in front of her.
“Here you go,” I say.
Helen waited til I sat back down then started talking. Looking straight at me, she spoke words I couldn’t understand. They sounded real and had the feel of real words coherently strung together; they just weren’t ones I knew.
“I’m sorry, I missed that,” I said, “What did you say?”
She spoke louder and though it had a sensible cadence, I could now hear it was just mumbo jumbo. This went on for a few more sentences and then ended with a final word.
“Mishmash?” I repeated.
Nodding her head she confirmed.
“Okay,” I said. “Mishmash. I got it.”
There was something there in that mishmash, an intelligence naming mishmash for what it is, a flickering intelligence finding its way through. Harvard Helen. I see you.
A few weeks after Mom arrived at The Arbor, Leo’s 3rd birthday rolled around. A few days before the party, Hunter texted to tell me something funny Leo had said after they’d told him who all would be at the party. Leo had just one follow-up question:
“When is GG going to learn how to walk?”
My heart seized up with the hilarious, wild innocence of his question, but it was a clutch also tinged with something else, something more complicated. Was this how it seemed to Leo? That it was just taking GG a really long time to get the walking thing down, but that she would?
There is such faith in the phrasing of that question. It was not why doesn’t GG walk. It was when is GG going to learn how to walk.
But of course Leo would have faith, this a kid who came into the world at 2.5 pounds. He knows on a literally visceral level that hard, even unlikely things can be done. He did them. He learned how to breathe and eat on his own, milestones which seemed on a few occasions he might not be given the opportunity to reach. And so from his perspective, no matter that it’s taking GG a long time, of course he would believe she would get there.
And embodied in that faith, is there also a sense of his own mastery I wonder? After all, he’s only 3 but he got this walking thing down a long time ago, while GG has had so many more years to work it out.
Belief and mastery. Is this what is happening in his head? Is this how he sees the world, a world, therefore, he sees into existence?
For myself, I think about what it was like to see Leo well before we were supposed to. There is something about seeing a soul before it’s packaged in the way we are accustomed to seeing it, a tiny soul wearing only technology and a diaper the size of a band-aid. A whole soul that fit in the palm of one of Hunter’s hands.
I will never lose those images of pre-seeing Leo before his scheduled beginning. It’s like looking at raw potentiality, which isn’t always easy to look at. But maybe that’s what Leo sees in GG, a potentiality for walking that pays no mind to the backwards or forwards of it all. In fact, a potentiality that has no boundaries, front or back. Maybe that’s the way to see — to look for the glimmer of what came well before and will go well beyond.
When I look at Helen, I want to think I see something distilled, some essence she started with before life and will carry out with her beyond, the infinite and truest piece of who she is — a concentration of her in her timelessness.
I want to think that as I had a conversation with Helen about mishmash, I was sitting in the presence of spirit.
Amy — sister
Tommy — brother
Ellen — daughter
Hunter — son
Leo — grandson
Loved this! K
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