Real Life

These times we’re living in feel loomingly significant and deafeningly heavy. We repeat this to each other so solemnly, over and over, and I’m sure it’s true. Yet so many little human oddities carry on not above the fray, but beneath it: lives, deaths, wrong turns, wet rain boots, dog-eared pages, uncontrollable, hiccuping laughter.

When I took the job at the care home this summer it was partly, of course, because I needed work, but also because I had a hunch that I’d get to spend my days there inundated by human reality. I suspected that nothing there didn’t matter. And I was right, I think. For a place in which, by definition, everyone was pretty obviously dying, it was so full of life.

My first day, practically before I stepped through the front doors of the place I was informed of the current crisis: the cat was missing. He was named after a tropical fruit (as apparently all cats should be) and in his adventuring outside the bounds of the property had been rescued by a too-good Samaritan and brought all the way to the SPCA across town, from which he now needed to be retrieved. Operations were thrown into chaos by this development.

Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining a series I could one day write based on my time in that place. It would be a series not of blogs or short stories, but of children’s chapter books reminiscent somehow of both Junie B. Jones and The Boxcar Children. It could include Charles and the Email He Wanted Me to Send about the Denture Cream and Ice Cream Social: Why Even Bother with Flavors Other Than Butterscotch? as well as Marilyn Thinks Her Daughter Has Stolen Her Ring, Vol 17, Part 3, and the particularly well-beloved It’s Two O’Clock and Walter Is Asking How Long Till Supper! But even such illustrious works as these could not do justice to all the tiny moving pieces.

Most of the things that mattered there, that were funny or sad or both, like most things that matter everywhere, were just so small. They were moments and ends and bits that just seemed to fit in the palm of your hand.

There was Jean, who spent everyday in the lobby with a resting facial expression halfway between a grimace and wink, who couldn’t ever seem to control her decibel level, and who could often be overheard making woeful pronouncements such as “I’m so old. I never thought I’d see you again,” or “It’s awful having to go to the toilet all the time!” 

Or there was Doreen, well under five feet tall, who giggled with mischief and threatened to punch you as a sign of affection.

Rose, who wouldn’t leave her room to see her daughter till she found out she’d brought lipstick.

James, who always wore a helmet, calling out earnestly to me once down the hallway: “Are you married? You’re tall like me!”

Or Aileen, with whom I had a daily conversation about our matching brown eyes and how we liked them.

John, who would inch down the hall clinging to his walker and his quiet dignity while I followed behind holding his oversized sweatpants up for him.

Or Sophia, who once responded to my “See you later,” by clutching my hand and asking urgently, “Why later? Why not sooner?”

Of course there was the incomparable Barbara with her sharp sense of humor and room piled full of papers and books and projects, who once suspiciously asked me if I was warm enough. When I promised her that I was, she pinched my shirt between her thumb and forefinger, exclaimed, “Thick, my arse!” and immediately began to remove her own sweater to donate to my cause.

And there was Ruby with her careful up-do and red lipstick who told me firmly one morning from her bed, “They blame it on me because they think that I’m old. And it’s true I’m very, very old. But I’m not very, very stupid.”

Much of the above is straight from my memory, but much of it is also from notes I made in real time in my journal during my shifts. One day I wrote down a quote, but something must have demanded my attention because I left it unattributed, and I have no recollection now of the circumstances. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” it says. I suspect it was during a family visit, but I could not for the life of me tell you whether it was a parent speaking to a child or a child speaking to a parent. But it was life, the realest of life, either way. 

One family visit I oversaw ended with tiny Lamberta tearfully hugging her own arms because she could not embrace her daughter and repeating, “Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho. Te quiero mucho!” So if we watch, in the end it’s the littlest bits of grit and glory that make up the whole foundation of our long lives, no matter what storm rages over our heads.

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