“Somebody help me. Somebody. Please help me. I want to go home. They won’t let me go home.” The words drag themselves over rough stones; the old woman’s voice is raspy as she sits in her wheelchair repeating her mantra over and over.
She raises her arm as best she can, and her hand hangs from her wrist, the fingers loosely attached and dangling at the ends. Her repeated “please” little more than white noise, embedded in the scene but indistinguishable from it, is ignored. Perhaps pitied by the other long-term residents, she is also dismissed by the occasional newcomer to the wing who might roll his/her eyes as if to say “there she goes again.” When she starts asking for a phone, the lack of response is the same, and the nurses busy themselves with paperwork. To them the old woman seems an inconvenience so minor, it’s as if she isn’t even there.
Putting my hand lightly on her shoulder and leaning over to get her attention, I tell her I’ll get a phone for her so she can make her call.
A look of dismay appears in her eyes as she withdraws from me, turning her body so she doesn’t have to face me.
“No,” she says to the wall, she doesn’t want it after all.
Dick spent his first couple of days here in a room with two single, hospital-sized beds but no chairs, two small wardrobes, two miniature night stands, and one small end table – all crammed into a box-like room with one window that didn’t get much light because it was squashed into a corner. A shared bathroom the size of a small closet was next to the door that opened on the hall. If cardboard flaps of a cardboard box folded over themselves from the ceiling, I wouldn’t have been surprised to witness someone pick up the entire room and walk off with it. It was difficult, at times, to take a deep breath without breathing in someone else’s exhaled leavings. And privacy – not a commodity. And certainly not valued.
We tried to put a cheery face on Dick’s reduced circumstances until there was an opening at our first nursing home choice, but it wasn’t easy. Without a ready alternative, he tried to make the best of things. It was just like him to look on the bright side. It was just that Dick might easily die right here. But we didn’t want to dwell on that. The hospital would not release him to go home this time. He would never see home again.
We toured the facility, ignoring dust bunnies along the carpet edges, pretending not to see the overflowing waste baskets, and taking an instant dislike to two nursing home cats, one of which had parked himself atop the water fountain to quench his thirst, lapping from the puddle in its stainless steel drain. A frail arm, of which there were many in that place, would not be able to swipe it away in order to get a drink. The staff didn’t seem to care – their Evian and Deer Park bottles sitting on their desks – and no one shooed the long-haired gray tabby off or bothered to sanitize the fountain. What could the residents do about it anyway? Nothing, if they wanted to avoid possible reprisals.
A group of residents collected at a round table in the common lobby; I pictured them playing cards – the same ones dealt over and over again with an outcome that was always the same. A Twilight Zone episode where people are stuck in time. Of the six people sitting there, not one uttered a single word and only rarely made eye contact. Speaking was rare. Conversation, non-existent. They mostly just sat there. Some dozing, others staring at the floor or off into space. It was a ghostly card game where the participants communicated telepathically without movement or expression. Some futuristic world where movement and emotion weren’t necessary. Occasionally someone managed to lift a hand from his/her lap and place it on the table. A little while later, they would remove it again.
Dick and I smiled at the non-participants, offering words as friendly gestures, hoping they could reach across the silent chasm with dawning recognition. That their words would begin to dance along the table’s edges, then run to the center and change places, like a do-si-do. But the phantom card players lacked the energy to expend on forming words, let alone projecting them.
Dick sought conversation so he asked questions, first of one person, then another, trying to draw out their personalities. To discover who they were – or used to be. But his voice was weak from illness, not disuse.
White noise divides families, friends, and the community of man to which we all belong. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation fester in its din.
Many people are locked inside themselves, spending the holidays alone, perhaps not for the first time. And they’re not all elderly either. Visit a shut-in, a homeless shelter, give your time and attention to someone in need of being acknowledged. It takes so little to be generous with a kindness, to smile instead of look away. It costs but a few words to demonstrate a genuine interest in someone else.
Be a part of something bigger than yourself this holiday season. Put the cell phone away, turn off your computer, and be fully present in someone else’s moment. Give something of yourself to someone else – it’s the only gift that matters.