Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the Shelf (WAG #5)

This week’s adventure instructions: “WAG #5: Life In Motion” Sometimes it’s good to approach writing like taking a photograph with words. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that a scene is always in transition. For this week’s adventure, sit in a good observation spot and notice how the scene in front of you changes from one minute to the next. Has the light changed? The sounds? The people? What’s different now compared to when you first arrived? Is there anything you can see (or hear, smell, etc) that is changing right in front of you? Be creative and break the rules! This week is all about change! More about the Writing Adventure Group

I avoid nursing homes if I can. Whenever I'm forced to spend time in them I wonder about the billions of dollars spent every year to extend the average age of mortality one more year. I don't understand the drive to continually push upward the life span of a human if all we are going to do is warehouse him during those extended years.

Unfortunately my family recently accepted we had no option but to move my father into a care center. Which means I will regularly drive several hours to spend a weekend with my Dad, so he knows I have not forgotten him.

I spent last weekend in his new home, which as nursing facilities go, isn't bad. It is clean, comfortable and accessible. The staff seems caring and compassionate and my Dad, the world's biggest flirt, has charmed all the nurses to the degree that every time I show up there are at least one or two in his room, sitting, chatting and laughing with him.

I previously noticed that a particular female resident always sat on a love seat across from the nurses' station. Few details about her appearance registered, beyond her constancy to her post. When I showed up this weekend she was on duty, sitting, looking down at her hands and oblivious to everything going on around her. Busy with my Dad and the to-do list he had waiting for me, I didn't pay her much attention.

On Saturday afternoon I deposited my dad in his room for a nap. He was exhausted but content after a morning shopping for boxer shorts at J.C. Penney and lunch at his favorite BBQ joint. While he napped I went to talk with the nurse about his medication. She was on the phone when I got to the nurses' station. As I waited for her call to end, I observed the elderly female sentry still on duty.

Looking closely, I noted she sat almost perfectly still. Her head was bowed, and she stared intently at her hands in her lap, as though she was confused about where the hands had come from and who they belonged to. The only movement was her feet which shuffled rhythmically back and forth, the soles of her brown, sensible pumps shooshing across the linoleum floor. I noticed her bright pant suit, which looked expensive and the height of fashion for the over 80 set. She wore several rings, a pearl necklace and large pearl earrings. Someone still cared terribly about her appearance. Cared enough to insist she be dressed and fully accessorized each day.

My mind began to wander, thinking of the long drive home and how I was going to fit everything my step-mother insisted I take home in my car. I glanced up just as the woman's head was nodding back down to stare at her hands in her lap. I'd not seen her raise her head so didn't know what triggered the movement.

This slight movement captured my attention so I focused fully on her. Nothing happened for several minutes. A steady stream of staff, other residents and visitors walked by and she made no indication she was aware of them as they disturbed the air surrounding her. Her eyes continued to stare at her hands and her feet continued to shoosh. Nothing caught her attention until a large man came around the corner and walked past her. As he began to pass, her face shot up and she looked at him expectantly, with a slight smile on her face. He was oblivious to her attention and kept walking towards the exit. She watched his back for a few seconds, visibly sighed, then lowered her head back down to continue studying the mysterious hands she'd found resting on her lap.

Later that day, as I waited for Dad to finish his dinner, I had the chance to observe the woman again. I watched as she went through what seemed to be a random routine to me, but to her was evidently predictable and comforting. Staring at her lap, shooshing her shoes and occasionally looking up as certain people passed her by.

In about fifteen minutes I watched her acknowledge two passers-by. She continued to ignore everyone who walked past, except for two different men with nothing in common except their large frames. I couldn't tell how she differentiated between these two men and everyone else. Was it the size of the shadow they cast, the weight of their footsteps, the cadence of their step? Both times, her head raised, her lips curved up slightly and she followed the man with her eyes, until she realized he wasn't approaching her. As soon as she understood he wasn't headed towards her, she lowered her head and went back to her meditation.

Like my Dad, most of the care center residents previously lived in the surrounding retirement community, so many residents knew each other before they moved into the care center. Wanting to know her story, I asked Dad about her. He didn't know her, had never met her. Sadly though, he told me there were several women who sat throughout the complex, seemingly unaware of their surroundings.

I will never know what it was about those 3 men that brought this woman out of her reverie and back among the living, at least for a moment. Perhaps she had grown sons and hoped they were visiting. Perhaps her mind wasn't in this time or this year. She may have expected to raise her head and see her dead husband, an ex-lover, an ex-employer or just an old friend.

The next time I go see Dad, I think I will try and engage her, even though he tells me he doesn't think she can be engaged. I would like to know what periodically pulls her out of storage and back into the life she once lived.


Nixy Valentine said...

Wow this was remarkable. I loved it!

Iain Martin said...

A very impressive piece of writing, Lulu. You do a good job of developing the scene and bringing the reader "on board" with you.

Chris said...

Very interesting and sad piece. Best wishes to your father.

J. M. Strother said...

This is an excellent essay. It really connected with me - it was not all that long ago that my mother lived in a nursing home. Their are many sad and lonely lives in nursing homes. And many unexpected joys. I encourage you to try to engage her. If she can be engaged it will mean the world to her.

Best to you and your father.

Sharon Donovan said...

Lulu, this is very moving with a hint of mystery and drama. How interesting it would be to be able to connect with this woman and find out her secret. You might find the makings of a wonderful and heart warming story. Best of luck with your Dad.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Lulu, this was beautiful. I,too, wonder about living so long. As my 90 year old grandmother says, "Who knew people lived this long?"

Wonderful piece of writing!

Lulu said...

Thanks for all the kind words. I appreciate it. This was kind of personal. A little hard to write.