Saturday, January 7, 2012
Long Hand of My Heart
Sometimes when I walk through the doors of the Alzheimer's Unit where my grandmother has lived for the past few years I feel as if all the lead fishing sinkers she and I ever lost together on our fishing trips have suddenly materialized from their mossy lake bed and have attached themselves to my shoes. This feeling makes it difficult to shuffle forward. My boys call the nursing home, "Death's Waiting Room" and I know that many people feel that way. Sometimes I do too. Even though I am thankful for the wonderful care my grandma receives, it will always feel rotten. It shouldn't be this way. Often I get very angry that we live in a world where it is impossible to care for our sick elderly at home- no one can afford to do it. Of course, it would be easier to for me to not visit, to avoid the sadness of the place, but that is what not visiting would be about: me. Who am I to think that I shouldn't have to experience sadness; that I can opt out of what makes me uncomfortable. At some point, that idea- we only deserve happiness and have no obligation to participate in hard things became acceptable and that strikes me as sadder.
As I slog my way through the hallways, towards my grandma's room, I am buffeted by waves of scents, sounds, and other people's memories. Often, residents are in the hallways in wheelchairs, making progress with barely perceptible foot and wheel movements. Sometimes one of the old people will ask me for for help (it is against the rules- you are supposed to get a trained staff person), or ask me a question (I try to answer) or launch into a story (I stop and listen). One of my favorite ladies worked all her life on a farm and is forever worrying about the cow that needs to be milked. Often, to ease her mind, I tell her I took care of it. Sometimes after I tell her this, she smiles and says, "Cock-a-doodle", very matter-of-factly, which I love. Another often pleads that I take the child ( a doll that she holds) home and please watch him for her because she can't keep them there and worries they will get run over by old people in wheelchairs. I don't know what to say to that. I mumble that it will be okay, but she doesn't believe me because she knows it won't.
A tiny, and pinkly wrinkled and very ancient lady who seems to have no eyes has been calling for members of her family for several years. The background of every visit has been populated with her cries. She is surprisingly swift and agile in her wheelchair and so I often feel her little grasping hand clutching mine. I call her the "Daddy come and get me," lady. Usually after determining that I am no one she is looking for, she tosses my hand down in disgust and roars off at top speed, small legs pistoning with purpose,searching in vain for a father she last saw 60 years ago. Today, however,she was stationed in a portable reclining chair parked on the side of the hallway. I realized she must have declined. She was still. Her silence was somehow sadder than her seeking. Her quiet and immobility gave me pause. Then, as I slowly moved on and made my way down the hallway,I heard her say softly ," I am sitting on the long hand of my heart.....and it hurts. I am sitting on the long hand of my heart....and it hurts."