Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you have not committed.
– Anthony Powell
A hospital room is very awkward. Ditto for rest homes and other healthcare facilities that cater to the elderly. You know you should visit your friend or relative, but you just don’t know what to say. You don’t want to keep staring at them during those painful silences, so you scan the walls and oxygen tanks for inspiration. Whomever proclaimed that “the art of conversation is lost”, must have spent a lot of time in sickbay. The chitchat is idle talk about the family, the weather, and the unrelenting price of gasoline. And you ask about lunch and how dinner was last night, and what flavor the pudding was, and what time is physical therapy, and all the mundane questions you can possibly muster. Even though you probably already know that lunch was lousy, and dinner was limp pasta, there was no pudding, and physical therapy has been cancelled for that day. But what you really want to ask is aren’t you just sick and tired of all the poking and prodding, the wheelchairs, the embarrassing peek-a-boo gowns, the crap food, and hey, would you like me to smuggle in a cheeseburger from McDonald’s?
Despite all our toil and progress, the art of medicine still falls somewhere between trout casting and spook writing. – Ben Hecht, Miracle of the Fifteen Murderers
My grandmother spent the last few months of her 93-year life in a rehab facility. It’s not that they’re bad places, they’re just, well, uncomfortable. I can’t imagine anything scarier than waking up one day in a completely strange bedroom (okay, maybe in my 20’s, but that was a long time ago). Suddenly, you have nothing of your own, especially your dignity. It doesn’t feel like home, it doesn’t look like home, and it certainly doesn’t smell like home. And you’re not alone – some unfamiliar woman is sharing this new sanitary space with you, and the only thing separating you is a 1975-era print curtain. The air conditioner is blasting on the paper-thin blanket at your feet, the nurses wake you at 3:00 a.m. to take a sleeping pill, and you need an escort just to visit the can. Despite your wordy protestations, freakishly cheerful women in matching med outfits and Crocs keep dropping by every five minutes to drain your arm of blood. What are they, charter members of some bizarre caffeine-overloaded Valley of the Dolls-esque vampire club? “Hi! I�m Kathy, and I’lll be taking your sample today! Won’t that be fun?” “Well hello there! I’m Vanessa..the good doctor wants a few more drops!” “Hey, I’m Doris…I’m here to collect what’s left.” Sheesh people, just take it all and leave me the hell alone. I’ve got your sample RIGHT HERE…see that bag hanging under the bed, that’s ALL for you…and don’t worry…I’ve got lots more…
One of the good things about getting older is you find you’re more interesting than most of the people you meet.
– Lee Marvin
I have to say that in spite of her circumstances, my Gram miraculously managed to keep an amazing sense of humor about the whole situation. After all, this was a woman who savored a naughty joke, gave me doggie doo for XMAS one year, and owned a pair of “anatomically correct” ceramic frogs. Upon asking an unsuspecting visitor if they could distinguish the sexes, she delighted in flipping their green bodies over to reveal the shocking truth. I sometimes think I inherited that same sense of absurdity from Gram. I remember the last conversation my sister Jill and I had with her at the rehab house, as she turned up her nose at the ugly smelling fish dinner served that evening. She took a couple bites, pronounced it inedible, and threatened to feed it to the resident cat, “Mocha.” I think Mocha would have preferred take-out. I never knew what to talk about during my visits, so I was always happy to see that my dad or other family member was already in the room. That way, I could easily slip into the exchange, without having to wrack my brain for a subject: “Um, yeah, I just love all those Snapple flavors…wow, you’re right about that new bedding store…man, this hangnail of mine really sucks…my stupid pants shrunk again…oh, have you seen my new flip flops?” I bet Gram thought to herself sometimes, wow, would you people just bag the generic banter and let me get some frickin’ sleep already!?
If you should die before me, ask if you can bring a friend.
– Stone Temple Pilots
After she passed away, a small group of us gathered to begin the long, arduous task of cleaning out Grams’ condo. My parents, sister, aunt and uncle…all of us joined by a sense of sadness, but also relief. How could we possibly go through all of Grams’ treasures? How long would it take? Who would get what? It was all too much to bear. That is, until about 3 hours into the first day, when we were knee-deep in a myriad of zippered sandwich bags, rubber band piles, notecard collections, matchbooks, light bulbs, half-empty aspirin bottles, jam jars, jelly jars, plastic forks, potholders, petrified potatoes, dried flower arrangements, and more Tupperware than could possibly be crammed into one kitchen. And that’s not even counting the 47 birdhouses to be distributed. I think it was right around the time we held the ceremonial “pill flushing”, where at least 25 bottles of meds met their demise, that we began to crack. And laugh. And have fun. Thanks to Jill, who began sneaking “special presents” into our car trunks when we weren’t looking, things began to lighten up. Or maybe it was all the dust, birdseed, and traces of potpourri up our noses. All I know is that I discovered some various and sundry bonus items tucked into my haul of sheets, towels, and blankets. The real question is, where does one actually display a terrarium of silk plants? A lacy basket of mini-bears? A fake flowering fuchsia? A 70’s wall hanging? A REAL bird’s nest on a mossy twig? Hmmm, I’m thinking they would make wonderful stocking stuffers for a special someone…
When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.
– Mark Twain
The most amazing thing about Gram was that even though she suffered from painful feet, aching hands, a debilitating stroke and several other annoying ailments, was that she could remember absolutely every single solitary thing. I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday, and she could recall what pair of shoes she was wearing on her 4th birthday. She was able to recollect any old camping trip to the coast – the day, the weather, the mileage, the number of clams in the chowder, and how many times she yelled at my dad. She grew up dirt poor, toiling on the family farm, and had no problem regaling you with a story or two about her colorful childhood. And you certainly didn’t entertain the idea of questioning her on a specific date, as she’d whip out her trusty pocket calendar, and always prove you wrong. She married, raised kids, worked, crocheted, sewed, square-danced, and cooked with gusto. And in a world where youth is revered, and age is fought back tooth and nail, Gram was never shy about proclaiming her age. Her mind remained an open book, even though her body eventually closed down. Still, it was her memory that never failed, never once faltered, even toward the very end. She had no trouble reminiscing about the earliest years of her life, and I can’t even tell you what I had on my bagel this morning. Maybe I need a couple frogs.
Mrs. Allonby: “She told me yesterday, and in quite a loud voice too, that she was only
eighteen. It was most annoying.”
Lord Illingworth: “One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who
would tell one that, would tell one anything