Nursing Home Gauntlet – A plea for mercy, a plea for relief, a plea for sanity
A dozen nursing home residents sit in wheelchairs on either side of the lobby hallway as if waiting for their chance to break out of their confinement and recover the sunny days of their youth. Every day on the way to see my terminal father-in-law, I pass this gauntlet of withered faces and empty eyes. Their heads don’t move but their eyes follow me as soon as I walk through the front door. Perhaps they hope that this lone figure has come to take them for a visit to the outside world and to their past, or perhaps they are looking for a familiar face that will hold them and tell them they are loved.
At first I passed them by not knowing what if anything to say. I felt guilty because by not acknowledging them, it was as if I denied their very existence. Some lowered their eyes as I approached not having recognized me or not wishing to be ignored once again. Others watched with expressionless faces as I passed. They sat silently, seldom talked, never smiled. They just waited to live another day, or not. They were too tired to care. What were they thinking as I strode by? Did they yearn to walk again? Did they envy my health and youth? Did they think that I only had enough love for the person I came to see and none to spare for them? Is love specific to each family and not a generic commodity available to all? I wonder what thoughts they have. I wonder if they have any thoughts, or are they beyond thoughts. Perhaps their world has shrunk to the present moment and no longer is there is a past or future for them. They are waiting but I do not know for what. They are just waiting. They are the silent waiters.
The silent waiters are like kindergarten children at the end of the day, waiting anxiously for their mothers to find them and love them. There are days and weeks and months when no one comes, but still they wait. They have nothing else better to do, and waiting in the lobby is better than waiting in their rooms. The lobby is a channel to the outside world where once they worked and loved and laughed and lived. They now look out the front door and see a gateway to the whole world, a gateway to the whole universe, a gateway now locked forever to them. If you asked them, they could not tell you why they sat there and why they looked at the world now beyond their grasp.
The silent waiters are strangers to each other although they are neighbors. Some cannot remember who they are, or the names of those who faithfully pay homage to them. The nearby library is not available to their diminished minds. Books are written in foreign languages and television is a senseless hodgepodge of noise and color to the silent waiters. They wait for another day or perhaps for the day’s end.
I find it difficult to ignore the silent waiters who watch me each day so I greet them with a smile. “Hello ladies. Hello gentlemen. How are you today?” What a stupid greeting! What a stupid question! But what else can I say? I do not have the words. Me, the one with too many words and yet I cannot find the right ones for the silent waiters. And yet a tiny miracle occurs each time I greet them. I have come to realize it is not the spoken word that brings these lost souls back from the abyss. It is rather, the smile. No longer are they frozen in place looking at the withered hands in their laps. A greeting wakes them from their sleep and a smile seems to reach the very depths of their genetic soul as does a dying dog still wag its tail in the arms of its beloved master. The simple smile must be the most powerful force on the face of the earth. It is a brief message of love. For an instant their eyes sparkle again, their faces brighten, their lips move, their feeble hands wave the hello that their voices fail to speak. A smile is a hard-wired response that breaks free like birds scattering upward into the open sky. The silent waiters have, for a brief moment, breached the surface of the clouded waters, gasped for a short breath of precious air only to sink again beneath the opaque surface to wait for the next breath. Their attempted smile is like a small ray of sunshine that breaks through the overcast sky and then vanishes without a trace.
How many more smiles will they receive? How many more smiles will they give? Did I receive their last smile? Did I give them their last smile? Is their last smile as valuable as the million smiles a child freely gives every day to all who will receive them? Surly the last smile of a dying person is the single most rare and valuable thing in the world. How could it not be? What is the value of a smile? It is worth our tears. It is worth a revaluation of our morality and a realization that we do not give our loved ones the treatment they deserve.
There is a time when the silent waiters may not surface for one more breath of life; a time when they have given their last smile and can find no others. We call them the fortunate ones because we have provided loving and proficient attendants, therapists, nurses and doctors to care for them. We have provided them with all the drugs they need to cling to something we like to call life. Why do we not realize that life is more than a beating heart? Why have we allowed our love and our technology to prevent them from finding eternal peace? Why are we so blind that we can-not see the truth before or eyes? Our love is stronger than our good judgement. Our misplaced morality commands us to prolong the lives of those we love so much. It allows us to take away their humanity bit by bit, day by day. Why have we forced this distortion of our love upon them? How could we have let this happen? Who is to blame for this atrocity? These are questions easily answered. These are problems easily resolved. The silent waiters deserve more than we have given them.
Author’s note: Here are a few poems about those final days when hope is gone and existing is a chore. The aged brains have no room for religion and cannot comprehend prayer in spite of the insistence of pastors and rabbis.
The conscious mind can fade, as does a withering rose.
So slowly does it happen, no danger it seems to pose.
Like wearing darkened glasses on a sunny day,
we miss the full intensity of every solar ray.
Some think this is a blessing that guards us from the bright,
and gives relief from the pain of losing our last sight.
But as the rose does fade so peacefully each hour,
and as the winter light no longer stirs the flower,
the beauty of the conscious mind slips away in darkness,
and leaves behind a barren land characterized by starkness.
Does the shaded eye ever think about lost color?
Does the shadowed brain think the world is duller?
Does the fading rose think about its past?
And does it ever wonder how much longer it might last?
Is the conscious mind, a sun darkened by a storm,
always there and waiting for its chance again to warm?
Or is it just another day that cannot be recovered;
gone forever with all the beauty it discovered?
We will miss the essence of the rose and the days long past,
but memories of its beauty, in our minds, will last.
As the twilight of dad’s life so gradually turns to night,
we think about his sunny days that used to be so bright.
As the petals of his mind, with age, do fall upon the ground,
music of his life remains forever, our most cherished sound.
My Father is not Home
My father is not home.
Yes, once he did dwell here.
Not too long ago, those white locks and vacant eyes belonged to him.
That time-ravaged body was once his. It is no longer.
A stranger greets me now. Poor man, he is nothing like my dad; that gentle,
loving man who gave me the gift of life and the knowledge of how to live it.
Where did he go? Why did he leave me? Does he have a new address?
No, I think not. He has died and sadly, has no grave.
He did not say good-by to me, or I to him.
He left when I was away. He stepped out into the night, wandered off alone and was lost.
He was lost and knew not he was lost. His innocence was fearlessness in the face of death. He could not sense the growing twilight and coming night.
I looked for him. I called his name in the darkness and several times I heard a faint reply… or was it just my imagination?
Was that a light in the old house, or the moon reflecting on the broken windows?
I will never know.
Dad, Dear Dad, it’s me, your son who loved you and never told you so.
No answer. I will call his name tomorrow… or perhaps I will not bother.
What is the use? He is gone and it hurts my hands to pound on the old door
of the vacant house. It is unyielding and cruel. It is forever locked to me.
No one lives in the old house now. My father is not home.
Written with memories of my father and my father-in-law, who both suffered with dementia.