I went to visit a patient of mine at a rehabilitation/nursing home where she had been ordered to spend the remainder of her post surgery recovery.
From the street it was, as most had hoped, the very show behind the curtain we all sign up for: a romance of acceptance, of our waning power and ability, the slow drowning of skin and memories in a whirlpool of time, and the unique heroism of that last stand against our own demise. Dressed up well enough, the immaculate orange brick exterior gave no hint at the tragedies deep within its walls. And for that suffering which those, unseen, bore to end, there was an uneasy air about the streets where it lay, and the injustice stuck to your feet.
There was no enthusiasm in my step for walking through a door so well known to stop the steps of others, the lame and whispered third act of decline. I didn’t care for it—and no one else did either. And so, before facing my own future, I stalled, performing a deed I had imagined might help to buy the favor of that force which controls the mortality of humankind: I held the front door, pressing my bodyweight hard against the glass and metal frame to allow an elderly woman and her wheelchair-bound husband through.
“Thank you” she called out awkwardly with her back towards me. Her head cocked from side to side, measuring the space with weary eyes that glistened as she passed over the threshold. Her husband sat oblivious to our efforts, gazing at the space that drew away from him as he exited the entrance tube.
After identifying myself, the receptionist pointed to a cramped foyer behind me where a gathering of riders waited for the elevator. They were employees of the facility. One of them, an older lady, shouted to a short filipino man leaning against the wall behind me, “Hey, you, what’s up?” The two began to speak in Tagalog, with the man interjecting with perfect English, “Really? Why?”
The light above the elevator doors seemed to jump randomly between floors, so that it could never be learned when you might enter one. Strangled by impatience I walked up to the receptionist window, who was now engaged in an important phone call about how willing she was to smack her cousin for “actin’ a fool”.
“Are there stairs? I’m young and pretty athletic.”
She pointed me to the left and down the hall without looking up.
The stairwell doors on the fourth floor led me into a short hallway flooded with white light that fell from a low hung ceiling. The corridor’s path was crowded with the confusion of wheelchairs parked against its walls and floating in between. Towards the middle of its length sat a string of elderly women who at first glance appeared to be congregating, but after drawing nearer, revealed themselves to be islands of perfect isolation.
Where my client’s name appeared in red, I entered a dark room with the shades drawn. Nearest to the door lay a small old woman, who I had failed to identify. The shape and size of her body crowded so far to the edge of the mattress that she gave the impression of being nothing more than a lone pillow ornament. Her cheeks pulled the skin away from her nose to form a smile that made her eyes disappear behind years of speechless wrinkles. She stirred in my direction, a recognition of what changes in the air and lighting my presence had brought. For a moment it seemed as though she might speak, but the words never came. The tone in her throat stayed there, never evolving into an expression of herself, of her story, and a part of me became aware of regretting that I never knew her.
There was a call from inside the mouth of the open bathroom just over my right shoulder. It was my client. In the hardship of her recovery she had lost the luxury of her pride, and in her need for aid, had surrendered the former dignity of her youthful vanity. It was something you could hear in her voice, a faint hint of disgust lay just inside the ringing of her desperate plea for a nurse—a nurse so alarmingly absent. By every measure she was exposed and vulnerable and I didn’t want to see that; I wanted nothing to do with it. This was not the way I knew her.
Just as I had turned toward the door for help, a brisk wind swept by me and I felt the phantom presence of some unknown person in the room. It was the nursing aid, having passed just behind me, was now calling to my client in an unnecessarily assertive voice.
“Is she in there?” It was a question born out of pure anxiety for the situation.
“Yes, she’s using the bathroom,” she answered blankly. Her tone reflected the suspicion that I was an idiot for having asked.
A cry echoed from the bathroom walls.
“Oh God, don’t come in here,” she pleaded, and I assured her that I had no intentions of doing so.
“I’ll just wait in the hall until she’s finished,” I said in the direction of the nurse’s aid. Before leaving she made sure to remind me of her job description and how dedicated she was to it.
“I don’t know where her nurse is, but I really don’t do this. I think she went downstairs but she didn’t come back.”
She followed me as I left the room and called out, in Tagalog, to a woman that seemed to be in charge at the large desk where the hall opened up. The woman in charge answered her in English, and then switch back to her native language to address a clean cut man sitting beside her. The tone and inflection in her syllables, though foreign to me, echoed the universal message of frustration as she picked up a receiver in a hurry. She called for the nurse who had gone missing using perfect English, slammed the phone down, and switched back to Tagalog.
My goal was to remain largely inconspicuous as I crept closer to the main desk, trying to find a spot on the wall that would make me as invisible as my client’s nurse.
A cute old woman scooted by me in her wheelchair, pulling herself along a rail that jutted harshly from the wall. Her eyes remained a mystery under the shade of large sunglasses that swallowed her entire face as she smiled.
“I like your sunglasses,” I remarked.
“Why thank you, I like yours too,” she said.
Her eyebrows had popped just above the frame of her shades, and her mood shot up to greet them. There was a delight in her voice, the tune of the welcomed upset of believing I hadn’t noticed her.
I had forgotten I was even wearing my $5 shades and withdrew them from my face.
“Thanks. We look cool don’t we?”
“Oh yes.” Her voice dropped with conviction.
Leaning against a wall across from the nurse’s station, I watched the floor work itself around the residents scattered on the sidelines. An elderly man sat with a deck of cards strewn across a tray for a game he played alone and barely at all. The man next to him sat staring, his eyes fixated on some faint memory that no one else could sense.
A loud and boisterous black man waltzed down the hall in a bright orange t-shirt and jeans, swinging a set of keys around his index finger. It was his habit that he should be at exactly half the hallway’s length before attempting to communicate with someone by shouting. He darted in and out of rooms talking about the function of the telephones, the tail end of every conversation being completed as he walked out, his back to the receiver of his messages. He called out to another man at the other end of the hall in Haitian French, then switched back to broken English as he strolled farther away and into another room.
Across the way I caught sight of a sign that read, “Dayroo”, and wondered for a moment if the missing “m” ever made a difference.
I was on the verge of running out the door when there came a cry to the left of me. Down the length of the hall sat an elderly woman in tears. She slumped endlessly into the back of her wheelchair where the damp and depressive green color of her t-shirt hung too low on her neck. The lady with sunglasses pulled up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to decipher a message between sobs.
“They’re gonna move me…” she said through tears. Her face contorted and her head fell deep into her chest. “I want to stay here.”
Two nurse aids buzzed in and out of the door next to the old women, weaving around their chairs and speaking in Tagalog.
The woman in shades called out past me and towards the main desk, “Can somebody help her?”
The wailing grew louder, its echo warping down the length of walls and a ceiling that seemed all too eager to collapse inward, on all of us. As her sobs filled the air, mixing with the languages of caretakers unmoved, I began to feel the isolation grip at my throat. And all at once, a phantom heaviness pulled at my spirit, forcing me down and inward—into a place where no one could hear me. And no one did; no one even looked up.
There’s a depressing sort of nonsense about the coporatizing of human affairs and the complicating of death; the process misses the point. One man said something that struck a chord with my own internal fears when he said,
“If I ever get like that, I’ll just rock myself down a flight of stairs.”
That man is a comedian, and although the audience laughed, I like to imagine that most of them had committed to that very plan. I know I did.