Neutral Places - 5, 2006
I’m going to take a week or so off from What I Saw to be with family, attend to some work assignments and re-charge the mental batteries. I’ll be back on January third.
In the meantime, let me tell you about a couple of experiences yesterday that kicked me into the holiday mood more than anything has yet.
I had lunch yesterday with my mother to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. To be honest, there’s not a lot you can do for someone celebrating her ninetieth birthday at a nursing home. There’s nothing she needs or, at this point, wants. Life in the nursing home doesn’t present many fashion or beauty opportunities. We used to give my mother her favorite perfume for her birthday. But like a lot of things she has liked through the years, they’ve stopped making her favorite perfume. My wife found a replacement, and although I don’t know that my mother will have the presence of mind to reach over and use it, just having the bottle nearby gives her at least the illusion of being able to doll herself up a little.
I describe the food at the nursing home as being designed to make you want to get better and get the heck out of the place. It’s generally flat, dull and not very tasty. So I brought in some Pollard’s fried chicken—the best hereabouts—and side dishes you doesn’t usually see at the nursing home, like corn pudding, a whole sweet potato and a few other things.
I tried to find things to talk about: memorable birthdays, other relatives who lived to ninety or beyond, and so on. Sadly, my mother couldn’t remember much about any other birthdays and couldn’t describe to me exactly how she was related to some of her favorite aunts and uncles. The memory eater in her mind is gobbling up more names and events each day. Still, the lunch was a success.
After leaving my mothers’ room I decided to check in on her roommate from the assisted living center, who also recently moved to the same nursing home. The last two times I’d checked on Norma she was either asleep or unable to have visitors. But today she was sitting up in the dining room having lunch.
When we used to visit my mother at the assisted living facility Norma would always give us a big smile and greeting. She seemed so together that I initially wondered why she was even in the intensive assisted living area. But if you tried to have a conversation with Norma you discovered by the second or third sentence that her frame of reference was some other time or dimension.
So you can imagine my surprise today when I approached Norma’s table and she recognized me immediately and gave me a big smile and a hug. I told her we’d missed her and she told me how much it meant to her to see a familiar face and for me to take the time to visit with her.
Nursing homes can be pretty grizzly places for the uninitiated. Age, accidents and sickness can take a toll on people’s physical appearance. Over the four times my mother has been in this particular rehab/nursing facility I’ve gotten to know some of the long-term residents. The outward manifestations of their conditions can make them a little scary or intimidating at first. But if you can get past those outward appearances, you can often find a kind and thoughtful person anxious to interact with someone who isn’t a nurse, an aide or a food worker or housekeeper. The person might not be able to speak. Sometime just holding a hand brings a smile to the face of someone unable to understand why he or she can’t go home.
I’m sorry if this sounds gloomy. When I left the facility yesterday afternoon I actually felt like I was walking on air for a little while. Without any special effort on my part, I’d brought a little cheer, a little human touch and a little interruption from the tedium of institutional life to two sick old ladies and a handful of other lonely people I encountered in the halls and dining room.
If that doesn’t warm your heart, I don’t know what will.
See you in January!