Friday, November 6, 2009

shut softly your watery eyes

I was fourteen and fifteen when I worked for two summers in a nursing home. I worked in the activities department, and so my job was to entertain. We threw birthday parties, held bingo afternoons, movie nights, etc. There were three separate buildings, at least four floors in each building, about fifty residents on each floor. There was an "activities director" assigned to each floor, and I would take turns assisting different directors every day. Every floor had three planned activities for the day posted on a dry erase board:
9:30: Bingo
12:30: Movie: Once Upon a Time (starring Cary Grant)
3:30: Arts and Crafts.
Between these planned activities I would just walk around and spend time with people, wheel them around the courtyard, read them the paper, help them try and chew their food, anything, anything to brighten those dingy walls that surrounded them.

The buildings and floors were organized by the tenants' abilities, or, in so many words, their life expectancy. I mean that in the most literal sense (expectancy - the state of thinking or hoping that something, esp. something pleasant will happen or be the case). And so some floors were much sadder than others.

A good majority of the people were completely non-responsive. There were younger, severely disabled people, who were unable to speak, or move - I remember one man, he was probably about 35, was in a car accident at some point, paralyzed; he sat reclined in a chair, always covered by dozens of white towels, situated to collect the constant flood of saliva that fell from his twisted mouth like a leaky faucet. I remember the smell of him, and feel embarrassed that at first I had a hard time sitting near to him; I imagine the shit and piss in his pants was much more uncomfortable to him than it was to me. But I also remember his eyes, and the way he would smile somewhere in them when you came near and asked him how he was. He couldn't speak, but would sort of grunt and gargle responses. And his one hand, that permanently rested upright, his elbow wedged to his hip and bent upwards, fingers clenched tight, thumb inside barely jutting out between his middle and ring finger, when you would gently close your hand around it, saying, "give me a high five, Ed" his gargling would come in great, loud spurts, and his head would slightly rock back and fourth. This was the only way he could laugh.

Sometimes some of the older women thought I was their grandson, or some long-lost family friend, or even, sometimes, their husband. I learned early on it was better to allow them the delusion. "Yes, Martha, I'm still in the Navy. No we haven't set a date yet. Yes, Martha, I'm happy as well. She certainly is a wonderful gal."

I spent a lot of my free time with this one woman, Grace. She was, quite simply, adorable. She sat hunched over in her wheelchair, the brightly colored afghan wrapped under her frail legs. Though her face was textured and worn, and her eyes sunk behind large, thick glasses, you could tell she once possessed stunning beauty. Her smile was mischievous and enigmatic. She was a great conversationalist. Her mind was sharp. I would often take her outside and wheel her around the grounds, maybe stopping to sit on a bench and read the paper. And sometimes when I wheeled her into the elevator, and stepped back around her to press the button, a wrinkled brown hand would come out from under the afghan and two shaky fingers would reach out and lightly pinch my bottom, and when I would turn around in feigned offense, she would quietly laugh to herself. This was how it was on the good days. But for as many good days as Grace and I had over those two summers, there were just as many bad days. Sometimes you would find her wheeled into a corner, and she would be crying. I had never seen this kind of crying before, and perhaps never have seen since. It was unintelligible that such a feeble, and ordinarily lighthearted creature, could produce such deep and immutable sobbing. Any inquisition to the source would invariably fail. She would not, or perhaps, more likely, could not, reply. The tears would stream, and her lungs would lunge in dissonance, her head hanging to her breast, rising and falling with each pang.

When I mention good days and bad days, I am not being figurative. The days she would cry, she would cry all day. And the days that she laughed, and talked, and coyly smiled, she laughed, and talked, and coyly smiled all day. There was no overlap.

I never found out what caused that pain in her, and I never figured out how to bring her out of that dark prison she would find herself locked into. I could only occasionally reach out and wipe away a few tears with the side of my thumb, stretching out her furrowed cheeks, softly whispering apologies... or I could exaggerate how long it took to press the button in the elevator, giving her enough time to struggle her hand from her lap.


jessielynn said...

Poignant the name Grace.

Have you ever watched the "Diving Bell and the Butterfly"? If not. You should.

Kate said...


Josh Brown said...

When are you writing your book? I'll buy it.