April 10, 2011
For the past month, Alice has been listening to her dining room partner, Libby, comment frequently on what’s happening with the flag, viewed from Libby’s position facing the front window: “The flag is waving. It’s windy.” “The flag stopped waving. Wind must have died down.” “The flag has a hole in it. They should replace it.” “The flag is at half-staff. Who died? Wait a minute. No, it’s not. It’s the normal way.” “The flag looks droopy. Must be sad.”
Libby cleans her fingernails with her fork, stares and points at people with palsy, shouts at passersby, and wipes her plate with her napkin when she’s finished eating and then uses the napkin to wrap up food she then places in a pocket she calls “the garbage dump.” She also talks with her mouth full.
March 30, 2011
Lately, Alice has been forcing herself to read books that feature devout Christian women trapped on remote homesteads during Dakota blizzards in the 1800s. Frost thick as cake icing covers every window. A handsome but forbidden male stumbles in from somewhere, shakes the snow off his boots and settles in. The North wind blasts through chinks in the walls in search of a meager fire to startle into wild, flaring activity and then abandon, leaving behind a heap of flickering embers.
Any reasonable character in such circumstances would go mad with cold and dread of more cold, but these women are easily distracted by envy, greed, lust (usually) and other sins that require an explanatory prayer every ten or so pages (as if the Lord may have lost track of the plot). The prayers go something like this: Read the rest of this entry »
January 16, 2011
When Alice arrived in the dining room, finally released from her apartment after a 12-day flu quarantine, she noticed Irene’s place mat was upside down. Without a thought, she turned it over and started looking around to see who else had been liberated. Read the rest of this entry »
September 9, 2010
I decided to extend the celebration of Alice’s 95th birthday by smuggling a contraband item into her apartment: a toaster.
Toasters are not allowed at The Place, and I’ve tried to imagine why. Maybe, long ago, a resident burned a piece of toast. An Emergency Anti-Toaster Meeting was called by the Director, who observed that the smoke alarm could have gone off. So then, put it in the rules and stamp it with a stamp: No more toasters!
One’s final years with no toast available except the cold, soggy version served at breakfast in the dining room–unbearable thought. What does one do with that yen, that ache of desire that comes late at night, the ache that toast and butter and strawberry jam will soothe? A delicious and sensual mixture–hot, slippery, and sweet–a satisfaction on the same continuum as something else that too often goes missing with old age.
One has lost one’s home, one’s animal companions, one’s garden, one’s trees, one’s husband or wife or partner, one’s comforts of the flesh. So much sacrifice. And now this little pleasure, too. Gone.
And maybe one’s adult children, if one has any, are far away or don’t give a damn or are munching away on their own toast, assured that one of advanced age needs neither sex nor toast when in fact one needs both, but toast anyhow will suffice. One pines for a slice of toast.
But no. One’s pinings had just better settle down. Go to bed. Count sheep.
For two years, Alice and I abided by the no-toaster rule, along with all the other rules of The Place. I listened to her say–very, very often–that she’d really love a piece of toast. She doesn’t even get the cold soggy version because she doesn’t eat breakfast in the dining room where it’s served. She’d like to have her hot toast in her own apartment which, by the way, is tiny and yet exceedingly expensive.
Apartment. Not a nursing home. Not a hospital. The apartment residents are men and women who may need help getting dressed or taking a shower on their own. Dropping a piece of bread into a toaster and taking it out again is not beyond them.
Maybe I’ve gained courage because I’ve never been spotted clipping a few of the many unappreciated roses along the chapel wall, at least not spotted by anyone except the neighborhood dogs. Alice loves the roses I bring her. And so for a follow-up birthday gift, on an impulse, I purchased a toaster at a nearby Fred Meyer store, along with bread, butter and jam. One-stop shopping.
Alice’s big blue eyes widened when she unwrapped the gleaming white toaster. I may as well have given her a brick of gold. “Can I?” she asked. “Really? Did something change?”
Nothing changed, I told her, and would she please keep it hidden when not in use? She immediately tried out several hiding places: hall closet, upper kitchen cupboard, lower kitchen cupboard, under the sink. Finally she found the right cubby hole.
Later that night she called. “The caretaker came by on her rounds to see if I’m all right, and she’s not coming back again tonight. So I’m going to have some toast and jam. No wait, wait! First I’m going to get ready for bed, then I’m going to have my toast and jam. Then I’m going to let the toaster cool down. Then I’m going to hide it again. And then I’m going to bed.”
Goodnight, TV set. Goodnight, La-Z-Boy. Goodnight, lamp. Goodnight, book. Goodnight, toaster.
July 4, 2010
Shortly after she moved into The Place, Alice learned that a 107-year-old woman lived there. Irene once had a dinner partner, also named Irene (aged 104), but the younger Irene had recently died, leaving the older Irene to eat her meals by herself. The staff wanted Alice to join her.
Alice had come reluctantly to Oregon, hated her apartment (“electrical outlets in all the wrong places”), and had so far refused to eat in the facility dining room. Geoff, the director, told me they couldn’t continue to send a caretaker to her apartment three times a day with a tray: Nobody gets that, unless they’re sick. The Place was short-staffed. They’d made an exception because she’d moved all the way from Iowa, but now the jig was up.
I explained this to Alice. She said she didn’t care.
I reminded her that Irene was 107!
Neck stiff, hands in fists, banging her knees for emphasis, she told me No. She twisted her face at me, hoping to scare me away, I think.
The all-female staff of caretakers sent Geoff to talk to her, believing that women of a certain age will always allow men to make the rules. Geoff repeated what he’d told me: Not enough staff. Lonely Irene.
“Sounds like you’ve got a problem but it’s not my problem,” Alice said. Read the rest of this entry »