Here's a story I came up with while visiting my wife's grandmother in a nursing home. Aging is something we all fear in one form or another.
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“Mama?” the voice asked me. The hand was scaly and flaked, the bones in the knuckles and wrist bulging from the nearly translucent skin. The women’s eyes were rimmed in red. “Mama,” this time it was not a question but a plead. I passed her but she didn’t seem to notice. “Mama,” she said to no one at all. Her mother was long dead. I’m not sure why the elderly cry out for their mothers but they all do. Perhaps it is the last regression of their speech, returning to their earliest thoughts and the first word they probably ever spoke.
e passed another man. His bony knees stuck out from below his hospital johnny. His tongue hung out of this mouth like a pink steak. He turned towards us, sucked in his tongue and raised his hands to his mouth.
“Drop dead!” he howled in a husky low voice that was difficult to understand. “Drop dead!” His yell echoed down the hallway and seemed to rouse some of the other residents. A woman snapped out of her fixed stair and responded to the booming howl.
“Yes, yes,” she yelled up at the ceiling although it seemed directed at the elderly man. “You drop dead, right this minute! None of us can stand your horrible voice,” she cackled.
“Oh just drop dead,” the woman responded. “Drop dead.” She lapsed into silence. I looked for some sign of life in the man but his eyes were vacant. His tongue fell back out until the next time he decided to shake the hallway again.
If there was a hell on earth, this was it to me. I tried hard not to think such thoughts. They seemed mean and petty but I couldn’t help it. How else could it be described? The looks on the poor people said that they felt the same way themselves, even if they couldn’t say it.
The smell was a sour mixture of processed food and soiled linens. Voices screamed and pleaded for a response that would never be returned. Lined up on either side of the hallway were figures stooped over in wheelchairs. The groaning, the smell - it came from them. They were ghostly figures, apparitions of their past selves. We began walking down the hallway and a bony hand stretched out towards me. I looked at the rheumy eyes that pleaded for some type of response.
Finally we spotted the correct wheelchair. It was towards the end of the line of wheelchairs. Sitting quietly, hopefully oblivious to the world was my wife’s grandmother. A wonderful woman I was told.
Time had taken its toll on Bettie.
She sat in her wheelchair, her hair a tangled mess, her head lolling to the side. Her eyes were closed and her chin seemed to rise and fall ever so slightly every time she breathed. I always expected her next breathe to be her last. She looked so fragile and ephemeral. Her limbs were twigs and her skin had that milky, translucent appearance which appears on dying people. My wife Alice stepped forward and put a hand on her arm.
“Nana,” she said quietly. Bettie’s eyes opened slowly and she looked up at us. What did she see, I wondered? What was going on in her mind? Her mouth moved but she could not speak. Instead she smiled; she recognized a familiar figure.
“Nana, it’s good to see you, you look pretty,” my wife said. I smiled. She tried to speak but only succeeded in letting a stream of saliva slide down her cheek. Finally, she was able to stammer a word.
“Goot, goot.” She was trying to say good. She concentrated on Alice and then banged her hand against the wheelchair. “Goot,” was all she could say. I watched Alice brush her hair and reach out to touch her face. I reached out to caress her hand. I looked outside and noticed how beautiful it was. The sun was shining and a small brook outside the home was sparkling. Across the street I could see an arboretum and the visitors walking back and forth through the trees. I looked at Nana, smelled the stink, listened to the din around me and couldn’t help as much as I tried from having a thought:
Thank God I could walk out.
My wife combed her hair and Nana looked back and forth at us. Once again, I wondered what was occurring in her mind. Was she remembering something from her childhood? What was she thinking? Her hair combed and her clothes straightened, we decided to bring her down to the cafeteria for lunch. I wheeled her down the hallway, avoiding the outstretched hands of the other patients.
“Help me,” one woman pleaded softly. I dodged her arm and pivoted Nana in front of the door. The door opened and I began to wheel her through. As the door was closing, a resident began to follow us out.
“I’m going home,” she said simply. I tried to smile but I didn’t think the residents were allowed to leave unsupervised.
“Do you belong out here?” I asked.
“Take me home,” she demanded. She was a short woman who appeared to be in better shape than the rest of the residents. She wore a white shirt with pretty gold medallion around her neck. In the center of it appeared to be a ruby or an amethyst. She clutched it in her hand.
“I don’t think I can, I don’t even know who you are.” The doors tried to swing shut but I awkwardly bent over to keep it propped open. My wife was up ahead with her mother. The woman started to look agitated.
“Take me home. I live down the street. I just came here yesterday. Please, I need to leave. It’s a mistake that I’m here!” she screamed. I looked around for an orderly but the hallway was empty other than the line of wheelchairs.
“I’m sorry I can’t.” The woman’s demeanor shifted from agitated to angry.
“Listen you son of a bitch. Take me home now!” she screamed. “I shouldn’t be here! You son of a bitch!” An orderly finally noticed and I could see her approaching as I tried to pull the door shut without hurting the woman. She had wedged herself in between the doorframe, preventing me from closing it.
The nurse grabbed her arm and started pulling her back. To prevent herself from being pulled out she grabbed my arm with a surprisingly vice like grip, using my body as an anchor. She looked up at me and I could see hate and malice in her eyes.
“I curse you!” she shrieked. I curse you for not helping me! You wait, you’ll grow old soon enough!” I worked furiously to pry her spindly fingers off my arm. One, two, three, finally I managed to loosen them and she lurched backwards. The doors started to close and even as she was pulled backwards she was staring at me. Her medallion seemed to flash at me and then the door closed completely. I could still hear her screaming.
“Curse you! Curse you for being young! I want to go home!” I could still dimly hear the screams as I walked down the rest of the hallway to the cafeteria.
Throughout Bettie’s lunch I couldn’t forget about the incident. I tried to put it out of my mind but her anger had made an impression on me. I watched Alice raise a sandwich to Nana’s mouth. She took a bite and began gumming it. After a few seconds, she decided she did not like the sandwich and regurgitated it onto her bib.
“Aren’t you hungry Nana?” Alice asked while she wiped tuna fish from around her lips. Getting old was terrible. I never wanted to be old. I looked down at my hands and rolled them into a ball. I tensed the muscles in my leg. I would be old but thank God again it was many years away.
I had once thought that after a certain point, a person begins to regress back to a baby. After all, the residents in the home shared many traits of a baby. They couldn’t eat on their own, go to the bathroom on their own, or sleep on their own. Most of them communicated through crying or screaming and most lacked the ability to walk. In many ways, growing old was simply growing young. Except that it wasn’t. Aging is about decay and I wanted nothing to do with it. I watched Nana’s expressionless eyes and suddenly I needed to get out of the Home and into the fresh air. I was going to do something the poor people inside couldn’t do - leave.
“Honey, I need to get some fresh air. Can you take care of her?” Alice nodded and I walked down the hallway, praying that I wouldn’t see the crazy woman again. I reached the stairwell and bounded down the stairs to the ground level. I held my breathe as I walked through a patient hallway and came eventually to the lobby. I felt dizzy and a nurse must have noticed.
“Are you okay?” she asked as I ignored her and walked briskly by and out the doors. The air was frigid, the wind bit against my skin but I left my coat open. I smiled and concentrated on the sensation. I listened to the trees and paid attention to the sounds of children playing in a park next to the Home. I walked over to a tree and ran my fingers over the bark. It was hard and wonderful, full of life. I stretched my legs and ran as fast as I could through Home grounds. I ran around and around until my lungs burnt and I was gasping lungfulls of the frigid air. It was wonderful. And finally I replied to the nurse:
“I feel fine.”
My wife saw me running on her way out and finally asked me about it on the ride home.
“Dave, why were you running in a circle in the middle of the yard? The residents must have thought you were crazy.”
“I just wanted to get some exercise.” That night I went to bed feeling the wonderful ache in my muscles, remembering the feeling of running my fingers over the bark. I never want to forget that feeling, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. Before sleep totally came, I remembered the woman in the hallway and the glint of her necklace. Poor woman, I thought, she’ll never feel the bark again…
…I awoke from the dream feeling pain, terrible pain. It was down there in my side. The running cramp seemed to have grown into an all consuming throb. I tried to move but I couldn’t. I wanted to reach down and touch the area but my arm felt numb. I opened my eyes and looked for Alice. I couldn’t see her or much of anything else for that matter. Dimly, I could see shadows. The room looked strange and unfamiliar. Confused, I called out:
“Alice?” My voice sounded rough, unfamiliar, alien. “Alice?” I called again waiting for my voice to clear. “Where are you, where am I?” My voice didn’t clear. I tried to roll over but my body wouldn’t move. The pain in my side was still there and I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom. I moved the covers aside and tried to swing my legs across the bed. This time, my body did move and I felt the floor beneath my bare feet. I planted my weight and felt something in my knee pop. There was an excruciating pain before I felt my head bounce off the bed and onto the floor. I lay there for a moment, shaken and unsure of what was going on. It was still too dark to see but I realized this had to be some nightmare. I closed my eyes and waited to reopen them on the world that I knew. I blinked and the room was still dark. The pain was growing in my side and now my head throbbed from the fall. Where was I? I remembered the same lost sensation when I was a child; the same feeling of utter helplessness. Was I still a child? Had the majority of my life been a dream?
“Mom?” I cried out. “Mother, help me!” I yelled at the top of my creaky voice. There was no answer. Instead, the room grew imperceptibly lighter as morning slowly dawned on the world. Outside, I could hear the birds chirping and the sound of traffic appearing on the streets as the city awoke. I would be out there soon, as soon as I got myself out of this dream and into the real world.
The light allowed me to see myself. My hands were old and wrinkled, the fingers bony and shriveled. Worst of all, they were that ghastly white color. So white, that the veins of my hands protruded like the ancient tributaries of rivers. I stared at my hands and realized it had to be a dream. What had happened to me? I was young, I had my whole life before me.
“No,” I whispered, or sighed, feeling the energy ebb away. I looked out at the brightening window and started to sob. I sobbed like I had as a child when my parents would leave me with my sister while they went out with friends. I sobbed like I had as a child when I was scared and something wasn’t right. I reached my hand for the window to touch the day but it wouldn’t reach. I stretched and stretched and eventually fell back onto the pillow. The bark, the trees, the running, and fresh air had all moved beyond my grasp in a night.
“Mother,” was the only thing I could say as the night became day and I grew both closer and further away from the baby I had been born.
- If you never have dreams, they'll never some true.