The Nursing Home
There are more women than men in the nursing home and more men than old doctors. Staff doctors visit once a month. The few old men do very little but sleep. Two or three of them occasionally gather outside in clear weather for a smoke, which is allowed them. I suppose those in charge feel that it can make no difference now, and it brings the old men a little pleasure. I sit and chat with them sometimes. Perhaps "chat" is a bit too lively a word to describe what passes for conversation during these puffing sessions. A lot of low grunting goes on. There is one old man who is afflicted with bone cancer and who says, in high good humor, that his guarantees have run out. He was a travelling salesman in women's wear, and still remembers how much he loved women. Many of the women have become little girls again. They carry dolls about with them, mostly rag-dolls, I suppose so they can't injure themselves when they squeeze them. To see these toothless, balding old ladies, frail as twigs, clutching these dolls, is heartbreaking. Oh, to love something! It's still there. It has been in them since they were little and had dirty knees and bows in their hair. Some recognize me now, and, when I give them a wave, they wave back. It's a wonderful feeling to make contact, but it is difficult to tell how much they know. The care-givers are kind and efficient. They are mostly young, and apparently try to imbue the old with some of their zest for life, but of course the old know all that already--or knew and have forgotten it. I wonder, can the young reverse their situations with the old and see themselves looking up at such fresh faces from the vantage of bed or wheelchair or walker? I am too young to join the old here in the nursing home, this metaphor (or is it the tenor of a metaphor?) for the last days, but I am too old to feel the buoyancy of the young; so, at least for the context of the nursing home, I have arrived at yet another awkward age. After visiting my mother, who is only partly present, I go out and sit with the old men and have a smoke. We hope for clear days.
From The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 76, No. Three, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by E. M. Schorb. Used by permission. All rights reserved.