This afternoon after work, A- and I went by the nursing home to visit my aunt. I hate that place. It smells of chemicals and loneliness. I see the indifference on the faces of the staff as they trudge down the halls half-heartedly doing their duties. I see the ache of fear and pain in the eyes of the residents we meet in the halls.
I see my aunt in the bed, looking nothing like the woman I grew up knowing. She smiled when we appeared in the doorway. I walked to her bed and asked how she was today. She replied, “Not too good today, I’ll tell you.” I asked what was wrong. She said, “Well I’m dying, that’s what.” I heard A- gasp. I smiled. I patted my aunt on the shoulder. She smiled at me, and when I looked into her eyes, I did see the woman I’ve always known. Softly, she said, “But it’s all right. It’s all right that I’m dying. I’ve had a good life, I sure have.”
That moment was more than I could bear. I lost a lot of years with this, my favorite aunt. I can never make up for that lost time. In that moment, looking into her eyes, I had nothing to say. No words came to mind. I stood mute, just rubbing her shoulder and staring into her watery eyes. What could I say? I fought the tears that wanted to come. Not so much because of her words, but because of everything I feel when I walk in the door of the facility that is her prison. That’s how it seems.
She was a bright, colorful woman with a quick laugh and easy smile. She was warm and kind and filled my childhood with a special bond that we shared. She seems a shadow of that person as she lays in that bed. That happens. I know. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
This woman was a huge part of my life. We could talk and laugh for hours. I remember so many days I would come home from school, pick up the phone and call her. We could talk for hours about nothing at all, but you would leave thinking you’d had the best conversation ever. I was always getting my mom to take me to her house to visit. We laughed so much.
And yet today I could think of nothing to say. I stood there in her room, asking several times if there was anything she wanted or needed. I was tongue tied and helpless. After a short visit, I made an excuse about needing to head home because it was starting to rain and I hated driving in bad weather. I don’t know just what came over me. How could I not be able to think of anything to say to someone that I spent a lifetime loving and talking endlessly with? No matter what, no words would come. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken at the look of resignation on her face.
My heart aches in that place. A- likes to visit with the people we see in the halls. I love to watch her as she chats with people – some of whom I know never have any visitors at all. I wish I could think of things to say to the strangers we meet. It’s not that I’m not friendly or don’t like people; it’s just that I have always had great difficulty thinking of things to say to anyone I don’t know.
A- handed out some cards she had made. She had given one to my aunt, who put it on her heart under her quilt. She said that was the best place to keep it. In the hall, she encountered a lady in a wheelchair slowly making her way to a common room. A- walked over to her and asked her how she was today, and asked her if she would like to have a card. The woman took the card and opened it and read “Happy Thanksgiving” she kept saying it over and over. She told A- it was the nicest card she’d ever gotten. A- told her she hoped she had a good afternoon and we went on our way.
A-walked into the common room and talked to a few people there. The lady in the wheelchair caught up to where I was standing and asked me if I had a pen. I told her I did not. She said she needed a pen because she wanted to write her name on her card. I went and found a pen. When I got back, she handed me her card and said, “It’s a happy Thanksgiving to Lorraine card. Will you write that on it? Will you write Lorraine on it so it shows that it’s mine?” I told her I would be happy to. Again, I was struck with the overwhelming urge to cry. That wouldn’t do. I handed her the card back and she ran her hand over her name. “Now, that’s better. Now it belongs to me.”
A- came out of the room where she had been talking to other residents and we told Ms. Lorraine goodbye. She looked so sad. She said, “You can’t be leaving now?” A- told her we had to go. Then she turned to her and said, “But we’ll come back. We’ll be back real soon, and I’ll see you then, okay?” The lady beamed at her and told her she would be waiting.
I hate that place where people already seem like ghosts; lost and forgotten. And as much as I hate it, I am filled with an equal desire to return, to find ways to talk more with the residents there; to help in some small way to make them feel important.
I feel like every person I see there is someone waiting to say goodbye. I would rather say hello.