Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him,
and let none of his words fall to the ground.
1 Samuel 3:19
As I rounded the corner into her room with a red poinsettia in hand, the gold foil in which it was wrapped crinkled in my grip. Here, there was no smell to get used to. Both the nursing home and the senior housing project, my two previous visits, had rancid air that clung on me for several minutes after stepping outside into the crisp snowfall. In the hospital, nothing stayed around long enough to get rancid—a new bed, a spongebath, fresh sheets, then off to a new ward. Yet when left to themselves, the elderly do not change unless they have to. It is a survival mechanism, I think. At times I wonder if the only reason some people live so long is that dying would disrupt their routine.
For instance, I had called Larry (the one in the project) the night before to let him know I would be coming; the neutral voice of the phone lady informed me that 3-1-2-2-5-6-2-7-5-6 had been disconnected and that no further information was available. The only two possibilities quickly crystallized: a protracted stay at the VA precluded his usual timely bill payment, or the chronic pulmonary obstruction had finally asphyxiated him. Larry doesn't skip on his bills; quite the contrary. I have a hard time convincing him that I can't take any money from him when I run little errands he can't do himself. This time, I bought him a smaller poinsettia and didn’t buy him a box of chocolates like I did for the others, figuring that either way he’d be in no condition to enjoy them. The attendant at the door informed me he was still around, 313, same as usual. As I pounded on his door, hardly wanting to open my mouth for the taste of the air, there was no response, and the door was locked. I assumed I’d just missed him, until one of the neighbors stepped out and informed me he’d moved up to 413 two days earlier, and the phone company hadn’t hooked up his new line yet. (Apparently there was a third possibility.) I found him in 413 with his headphones on, leering into the TV set, and his pale eyes filled the lenses of his glasses as he tried to recognize the sound of my voice. I sat as he griped and cursed and laughed at my jibes, just like old times.
The elderly do not change unless they have to.
Ruth had sounded horrible on the phone the evening before, but she seemed happy about my promise to visit the next day so I assumed the subdued tone was because she had her teeth out. Seven hours after our conversation, a neighbor heard her shrieking for help and the paramedics brought her to the nearby hospital to recover from massive dizziness and pain from her recent falls. She had shrunken visibly since I saw her five months ago, now bent nearly double in her bed, the crown of each knob of bone whitening the skin along the horseshoe curve of her spine; speechless with pain and horrendous vertigo, unable to lift her head for more than a few moments to acknowledge that she recognized me—and in so doing she revealed through the neck of her shift bowls of skin hung around impossibly thin bones whose arrangement I did not recognize. Her chin sunk back to her breast, and she whimpered for the dizziness. As I greeted her son, who had driven many days to be with his mother during what may well be her last days, every word we exchanged in the vicinity of this contorted woman had the tone of a blasphemy.
There was not much time, as several inches of impending snow and a good portion of Chicago still lay between me and evening Mass. Ruth was insensible so we chatted for a few minutes as if she was not there, and the abyss gaped wider. This woman was in a sorrowfully shrunken world of her own, isolated from us, and we from her. I was as desperate as I was unable. When I took my leave, I put the beads that had slipped into a crease in the sheets back into her hand, and told her that he would be with her; keep fighting, it would be better soon.
As I uttered them my words rebounded back into my face as if I were speaking alone in a silent room with my nose against a plaster wall.
They dribbled off my lips and ran down my chin, splattering on the bedrail and running along the leg of the bed into a puddle on the floor, unnoticed, forgotten, dull, worthless, absurd, like the red poinsettia wrapped in gold foil that sat beside her, out of the range of her crippled vision, on the bed tray.