July 7, 2003
"I want to go home," an old woman keens quietly, to nobody in particular, sitting by herself in her wheelchair in the middle of the dining room with its shiny linoleum floor laid down for the ease of cleaning. "Somebody take me home..."
I don't know her name. But there are others whom I've been passing in these corridors whose names have whispered past me like sere leaves drifting by on early winter winds. And each name comes with a story. This place is a gathering of stories, an attic of human lives and the wreckage of the flotsam and jetsam of fate. The ones that have been forgotten and the ones that other people, those out in the world, are finding it more and more painful to remember.
It's called a convalescent center. Some are here to recover from something debilitating, and then go back, out, away. But what it really is, is a nursing home. Some of the residents have been here for a very, very long time. They have their own recliners, they have dressers with their old china, they have hand-made afghans on their beds, they have pictures on the walls.
One of them, Abby*, is often found sitting by herself in the TV room staring at her hands and not moving at all other than for a gentle rise and fall of her breast; sometimes she'll rub at the edges of her hospital gown as though at an invisible stain, or her lips will move in some soft litany too quiet to even merit the name of a whisper. Her room has a dresser which is carefully arranged with a full dinner service, old and beautiful china which looks antique. Her walls have a collage of sepia photographs on them, of her when she was young (and she was stunning, a smiling blonde with thick bouncy hair and long legs) and a handsome man who might have been her husband. She isn't talking; this is a closed world, lost now except for whatever remains inside her own head. It's hard to say what age she is, but the "birthday list" in the corridor averages out to late eighties so she can't be much younger than 85, maybe even older than that. And here she is. Her youth is gone, her beauty is a memory, and the mindless TV in front of her is a mirage. I wonder if she even knows where she is, or remembers her name from one morning to the next.
Another woman, Ellen, sits in her wheelchair by the nurses' station as I walk by and asks me very politely and coherently whether I could look up a phone number for her in a register sitting on the counter and which is apparently too high for her to reach. I take it and ask for the name.
"John McCoy," she says.
I look, and could not find it, and say so.
"Oh, he is in there," she insists. A passing attendant pauses beside the wheelchair.
"What's up, Ellen?" she asks.
I explain what I am doing and who I am seeking, and the attendant frowns slightly. "He won't be in there, that's the nurses register," she says. "Who's John McCoy, Ellen?"
"My son," she says calmly.
"You have his phone number in your room, Ellen," the attendant says gently.
Ellen looks at me with entreaty, as though I could pull John's phone number out of a register where he had no place being, make him call her, make him be here, conjure him out of thin air and make him materialize beside her and hold her hand. And then the attendant turns her chair and wheels her away and she is gone.
There is a large gilt-framed mirror hung in the entrance corridor. Another woman, Alice, her gray hair cut into a lanky pageboy and her eyes confined behind a pair of large square glasses like two fish in two glass bowls, is always sitting right there in front of the mirror, leaning slightly forward in her wheelchair and peering into the looking glass as though miracles lie within. What do you see, Alice? What is hidden in there that you have lost and that you seek so intently? Do you see a reflection of something quite different from the mint-green squares on the entrance hall carpet and the certificates of merit from state boards of nursing and care for the aged? Is there a whole Alice-in-Wonderland world in there where you can escape from the faint smells of bodily waste and institutional soap and disinfectant and bland foods suitable for the elderly digestion -- from the fiercely determined cheerfulness of bingo or singalongs (the Fourth of July is coming up, so the song on the menu seems to be "O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...") -- from the sight of others like you, wrapped in jaunty colorful crochet shawls but sitting with vacant eyes and open mouths staring into space? You do this often, Alice, and you are known for it. You were in someone's way one day, and he, another patient, told you to "go look at yourself in the mirror." What do you see, Alice? What lies behind those tranquil, distant, vaguely hopeful eyes? You sometimes turn and look at me as I pass you by, as if you expect me to be able to look into the mirror and see what you see, to reach inside in some way that you can't and bring out a golden apple of your dream or imagination which will restore your lost health and youth...
A man whom I've observed in a room with a name tag which seems to proclaim him as being Albert sits for hours beside the payphone in the corridor. The phone is silent. He sits by it with a hopeless kind of patience, waiting, waiting, waiting. Other times he is in the corner of the corridor, tucked away in his wheelchair beside a window looking out over a parking lot, his hands folded in his lap, staring outside -- there are birds hopping about there, and a squirrel running up and down the fence on the far side of the lot, but I don't think he knows they are there.
At mealtimes attendants sit beside residents unable to feed themselves and patiently spoon food of the texture and consistency of baby puree into their unwilling or simply unresponsive mouths. One of them, her pink scalp showing through her thin white hair, moves her head from side to side away from the spoon like a stubborn two-year-old, her teeth tightly clenched against it. Another old lady sits there in the dining room -- I've seen her moving around, her hands shake with palsy and her knuckles are so twisted and gnarled with arthritis until they look like they are made from twigs and branches rather than human flesh, and she makes these weird little moaning noises as she wheels herself along the corridors -- sits with her back to the table with her food tray on it, and just repeats, over and over again, a single word: "No. No. No. No. No. No."
A more with-it resident sits in the TV room, talking in that kind of loud voice that proclaims that he can't hear very well and therefore has no idea that he is shouting, saying, "No, I don't have any kids. I just have grandnieces and nephews. And I hate them."
One guy has a life-size cardboard cut out of a long-dead screen legend beside his bed.
Wheelchairs bearing lost and abandoned people litter the corridors.
"They tell you not to get attached," one of the attendants says, retrieving yet another would-be escapee from the vicinity of the front door, "but how can you not?"
I'm only here for a brief while, a butterfly alighting for a moment on this flower of suffering, sipping the bitter nectar for a painful instant before the man that I love is strong enough to move on to active rehabilitation after his stroke and continues on the road to recovery. He gets, after a long stay in places where they keep sticking him with needles and pouring pills down his throat, to go home. But when he leaves, for God knows how long, Abby will still be staring into her lap, Alice into her mirror, Albert by his phone -- and the woman in the dining room is going to be sitting there, all alone, pleading to go home.
I cannot forget them. I cannot get them out of my mind. All these people reaching for their hundredth year on this sad old world, all those ancient shells of bodies only barely inhabited by drifting souls.
It's like that one disembodied voice whom I've never seen but whom I've heard out in the corridor saying, in a quavering and panic-stricken voice, "Help me. Please help me."
I don't know how to help them.
But I will carry them with me, from here on, wherever I go. They will follow, like ghosts. Asking to be taken to a magical, mystical place they once knew, called Home.
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Alma Hromic on Swans (with bio).
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