(BTW – I have changed names here to protect, well, myself mostly…)
I had a bizarre experience last week.
I went to get a criminal record check (I have had many in the past) and suddenly found myself being escorted into the back room of the police station to be fingerprinted. Yes, little old me.
I fantasized, oh, for about 3 seconds, that I was a gangster moll about to roll on all of the Godfather’s henchmen and go into witness protection. Then I thought again about how freakin’ scary that would be, and how I’d probably be blubbering like a little girl right now, and quashed that mind-meandering in the bud.
I volunteer with children at a local church (hence the check) and my birthday matched up with someone who had done some very nasty things. I guess people who do nasty things tend to change their name a fair amount, and the only way for the RCMP database to really prove that I was not Bonnie Parker was to fingerprint me. (She was gunned down in 1934, but you get the picture….)
Speaking of Bonnie Parker, I was on my way to visit my senior friend Gladys in the Care Home, tulips in hand. Gladys, born in 1931, would only have been a toddler during Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robbing heyday.
Gladys was ecstatic to get the tulips. She has a fantastic smile, rich and illuminating, and I love to make her laugh and feel happy whenever I can. She was already in a good mood, because today was ‘Birthday Celebration Day.’ Once a month, they all gather round the big table in the main dining hall for music, cake, juice, and birthday announcements.
I was invited by Gladys to stay for this exclusive event. Awesome. I was happy to have something to do with her, as in more recent visits, I must admit, I’ve struggled to fill our hour and a half. Her mind tends to wander – a lot – and at times, she mumbles so softly I can’t follow her. It’s difficult to have a conversation that makes any sense – to me anyway. On those days, I just listen and nod, and push her around in her wheelchair or help her with her walker.
On one of our last visits, she told me that her hairdresser (a much younger man) was putting the moves on her, but he was only after her for her money.
She has no money.
She also seems to think that there is some conspiracy with the doctors monkeying with her medications. They do that to old people just for fun, don’t they? She once had a conspiracy theory about me, too: that I might be ‘connected’ to some nefarious characters because … well … I ran a yellow light.
Did I mention that she also has mental illness? It makes for some very interesting conversations. I assured her of course that I may run the odd yellow, but that I was no Bonnie Parker. It took some convincing, but we moved past that, thankfully. I decided not to mention the fingerprinting thing….
At 1:00pm we took our places around the long dining table; me in a chair and some folks in wheelchairs. Others preferred to sit on their walker seats. There was going to be entertainment – Mandy was here, with her guitar – and the room was buzzing with anticipation. Suddenly, a gal, oh, about 80-something, started yelling at me:
“Move the bag!” she snarled.
She was visibly upset.
“The BAG! Move the Bag!!”
Huh? I wasn’t sure what I’d done.
Then, she rammed her wheelchair into my chair, squishing my finger.
This was starting to feel like a Mr. Bean episode.
“Muriel, Muriel, what’s wrong?” the nurse asked.
“The BAG! The BAG! Move the BAG!”
And, who exactly is calling who a bag, I thought, but didn’t say.
“Oh, don’t listen to her,’ Gladys crooned, “she’s CRAZY.”
“She thinks you have something dangerous in your bag,” explained the nurse.
“Oh … you mean my purse?” I asked dumbfounded.
“Yes,” she said, then calmly wheeled Muriel away to the far end of the table.
I admit, since babies, the size of my handbag has expanded to accommodate pull-ups, wipes, toys, and snacks. I could probably fit a 9mm in there if I really tried, but honestly, the thought has not occurred to me.
Mandy tapped the mic. “Hello, friends. Is everybody ready to have some fun this afternoon?”
Silence. Then a grumble or two. Tough crowd. Glad it’s not me.
“Okay, then. Let’s get started.”
She launched into her first number. ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ which was good, because I have really missed hearing that song.
The crowd perked up. Sitting near the front, an elderly lady with a Scottish accent closed her eyes and began to sing along, in perfect harmony. She knew every word. A few folks started tapping their feet. The staff began serving coffee and orange juice. I was asked to pass out forks.
Muriel was DEFINITELY not getting one.
The gentleman sitting directly across the table from me had been giving me a quizzical look since we sat down. “You’re not in my family,” he mumbled.
“You’re not in MY FAMILY,” he mumbled louder. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that.
“No, and you’re not in my family” … stupid, stupid answer. What was I thinking?
He continued to give me a disapproving stare. “Don’t listen to him, he’s CRAZY,” piped Gladys. “I wonder when the cake is coming?”
Muriel was giving me big time stink-eye from the other side of the room. Probably, because she would be eating her cake with a spoon.
Mandy began strumming her next number, ‘Home on The Range.’ Geez, I love that song.
The Scottish belle continued to harmonize in perfect pitch. There was something heartbreaking and beautiful about her singing. Like this was one of the rare opportunities she had left anymore to recapture a sparkling moment from her past – sweet, faded flashbacks of a thousand lifetimes ago. I felt a lump come up in my throat. Another voice, in the periphery of the room, joined in – not singing, but howling – at high pitched, random intervals, but she didn’t seem to notice. I turned my head to see where the sound was coming from.
“He’s CRAZY,” said Gladys. I guess crazy people are good at spotting other crazy people.
“I think he’s just enjoying the music,” I said.
A nurse wheeled a woman (who had to be over 90) into the spot beside me, where Muriel refused to sit. She seemed to be digging the music, although it was hard to tell. Two beds were brought in at the far side of the dining hall and elevated to a sitting position. The one lady, who evidently could not move her legs, began swinging her arms joyfully to the music. The other lady just lay there with her eyes closed.
Mandy played a few more tunes and then they did birthday announcements. The lady beside me had turned 92 this month. I couldn’t help but notice there were no family members around for any of these folks. Perhaps they had celebrated on their actual birthdays. I hoped so, for them. I felt sad for them. Mostly, I felt sad for myself, as this place is an entirely likely destination for me, for you, for all of us in the future. I wondered if the ‘Mandy’ of my future would know any U2 songs.
Finally, the cake was served. Gladys had been waiting with a fork in her hand for 20 minutes. She loves cake. I love cake. Especially the shi shi foo foo fondant cake with dense egg, sugar and cream filled layers and fancy decorations on top. Yum.
Today, however, was a white Safeway cake with lots of preservatives and brilliant blue #2 dye in the icing. Sweet. Budget cutbacks I guess….
Sue, my 92 year old new friend, needed assistance getting the spoon to her mouth, but seemed to really enjoy her cake. Suddenly, Gladys had to use the Ladies’ Room. The assisting nurse asked if I would take over feeding Sue while she helped Gladys. (Gladys has had a colostomy bag since her surgery three years ago and needs help emptying it. Luckily, this is not my department.)
I have had some recent experience at spoon feeding, however, and was happy to take this on. Brushing Jett’s teeth, up until he was 3, could have been a new Olympic category. We used to have to pin him down, face up between our legs, trapping his arms underneath our legs. I was kicked in the face by swinging little feet on more than one occasion.
Spoon feeding – no problemo.
It occurred to me that in many ways, seniors are a lot like preschoolers. The once a month, collective, birthday celebrations, the embarrassing bibs, help getting their pants up, and wariness of strangers. They also get to sleep a lot. At least I can look forward to that.
Sue appeared to really be getting into her cake. She was rocking her head a bit and had lots of blue icing dripping from the corners of her mouth. I stopped feeding her and was wiping her face with a napkin when she tried to tell me something. I leaned in closer to hear…
“Can you call me a cab?” she whispered discreetly.
“I really need to get out of this place. Can you call me a cab?” she said again. I mean, this delicate woman could barely feed herself on a good day, never mind take a cab anywhere. Where would she go? I wondered.
“Umm, well … I–” the nurse abruptly took the spoon from my hand, said ‘thank you’ and took over. Sue gave me a knowing look, like that of a hostage who had just confided some secret information. Maybe it was a secret message. Maybe she didn’t really mean cab at all. Maybe she wanted my imaginary gun.
Gladys was back by now and finishing up her cake. Mandy set the closing tone with Elvis’ ‘Love Me Tender.’
Our Scottish songbird was complementing with the most beautiful harmonies, when tears started to roll down her cheeks. It was almost more than I could bear, thinking about what losses and hardship she had endured during her lifetime. I desperately wanted to call a cab, but then remembered I was parked outside in the hospital lot. And my time was just about to expire.
I am no saint, just a cowardly human. I politely excused myself, gave Gladys a kiss on the cheek, and told her I would be back in a couple of weeks.
As I walked out, most heads turned to watch me go, as they usually do. Gladys has told me that many of the residents here are jealous that she has a special visitor. Of course, not FAMILY man or Ms. Stinkeye; they did not turn their heads – a very clear message that they were happy to see me go. I can live with that. It’s not like I need more Facebook friends anyway.
I was pressing the automatic door button (yes, how lazy can you get) when a lady in a wheelchair passed by. I have seen her there before, making the rounds through the hallways, pulling herself forward in little baby steps. She’s always on the move. Perhaps it brings her comfort, perhaps she just wants to keep her legs in some kind of shape – it’s not like there is a work-out room here. I tried to think of something nice to say.
“Hey, it looks like someone around here is getting some exercise…” I said awkwardly.
“Yes” she said. “But I wish I could walk, like you.”
I mean, what could I possibly respond with? “Walking is not all it’s cracked up to be – I have a killer bunion,” wasn’t going to cut it.
“I know. I’m very lucky that I can walk,” I said.
“Yes, I am.”
In the midst of stressing about all the surface day to day stuff going on in my life, I forget about a lot of things. We all do. Coming here reminds me how lucky I really am. It reminds me to be thankful for my family, my health and my friends. I regularly forget to be grateful I have a warm home, that I can buy food at a grocery store, that I have decent shoes on my feet and clean water to drink. I have an iPhone for goodness sakes. I can call a cab any old time I want.
I forget that I can walk.
I also forget frequently which parking space I have parked in. Like today. I click my remote to see if I can hear my van beep. Nothing. Arghhhhh, I guess I’m going to be here for a while. Maybe I can make a reservation while I’m at it….
‘Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.’