In the days following the spring equinox on the earth calendar and leading into Easter on the Christian calendar, we sit on the edge of the explosion into new life. We wait, we watch, for signs of the metamorphosis.
Last week, on a warm sunny day wedged between cold rainy ones, I pulled the winter weeds and the worn out strawberry plants from my garden and planted the first cool weather seeds: greens, carrots, peas. And now I wait.
In the life cycle of the woods, the trillium and toothwort are beginning their bloom and the last of the brown leaves of winter are falling away.
March saw the birth anniversaries of my father (101) and his brother (109), and my mother’s mother (129); and the first year death anniversaries of another uncle, my aunt, and our neighbor. The cycle of human life.
As I walk at the edge of lives in the Manor, I’m a keen observer of those who struggle toward death as life stubbornly keeps a pinched grasp. Sometimes I feel like I should volunteer in a neonatal unit for balance, willing tiny beings to live rather than diminished ones to let go.
In the fourteen months since my mother took up residence, many of her neighbors have left. Some, I know, have died; others, I know, have moved—either for more care or to live closer to family. Most are just gone, their names removed from the door without explanation.
I greet those we meet in the hall as Mama and I walk our loops, speaking their names in that particular way we have of honoring humans as well as plants, birds, animals. “I see you.” Mama, who can’t see, asks their names too. I observe them in the dining room and learn their personalities and peculiarities—those traits that make us unique.
Bernice is a mite of woman, hunched over in the child-size wheel chair she propels down the hall with her feet at a snail’s pace, cheerfully refusing my offers to push her to the dining room. “I have lots of time,” she says. Does she? She is the most cheerful person on the hall, her strong voice a contrast to her frail body. “Stellajoe is coming around the corner,” she brightly announced to all who were gathered near the dining room door yesterday as she rounded the curve just ahead of us.
Lona is one of the younger more able-bodied residents and is the primary helper to those who need it—after Beverly moved away—including Mama. She has her friends to whom she is unfailingly kind; but not to Fern with whom she seems to be engaged in a cross-dining room feud for no reason I can see. She is a great help and comfort to my mother. And she is moving to Seattle in a couple of months to live with her daughter.
I’m not sure what the relationship is between Sharon and Donald, perhaps siblings. Donald, a very large man with a small fedora always atop his head, gets around in a motorized wheel chair and lives directly across the hall from Mama. They are quiet, doing their word search puzzles as they wait for their meals. They greet me sweetly and smile when I reach out to touch a shoulder, but are also the butt of evil cross-dining room comments, including from my mother’s table mate, Lorrayne. “He’s so fat,” she says; derisively adding, “they’ll eat anything.”
Lorrayne drives me and Rebecca bat-shit crazy as we sit at the table with Mama. She is unable to talk at normal volume, not loudly enough for Mama to hear her, but she hears keenly and carries on a conversation with everyone in the room, though they are unaware of it. She knows everyone’s business and insinuates herself into it. She speaks on Mama’s behalf, even when I am sitting right there, telling me what Mama likes. She has her own table rituals that I find interesting. I’ve decided her napkin and crocheted doily collection, carefully—if oddly—set for each meal, is her attempt to de-institutionalize the table, perhaps to connect to a past when she was in control.
Rebel, one of my favorites (maybe it’s her name), is not living at the Manor due to age. I don’t know her particulars so I make them up. I’m guessing she has a progressive debilitating condition, perhaps MS. She looks to be in great pain sometimes, her large dark eyes pools of sadness, as if she can’t quite believe this is where her life has come. When I smile at her, her face lights up. She rarely speaks.
Sandy was one of Mama’s helpers in the early months, but she has visibly declined in recent weeks, losing weight and becoming bent, wobbly, and pale. I don’t know what happened.
Marie, a rotund woman with a crocheted hat always covering her sparse hair, sits in her wheelchair, her head bent forward leaving no space between chin and torso. She speaks only in single words but with expressive eyebrows. She is a bit acerbic and wicked funny. And I haven’t seen her for many days. On my walks with Mama around the halls, I check her door for her name to disappear, but it’s still there.
Marjorie and Jack have left. She is the woman with Alzheimer’s I found in Mama’s bed a few weeks ago. Soon after that they were gone. I miss Jack, a former music teacher. He never spoke to me, but in his Mr. Roger’s sweater, buttoned up shirt and ramrod straight spine supported by a cane, he lent an air of dapper class to the hall.
I don’t know what happened to Carmen and her cute little dog Peaches. She’s just gone. Mama is probably glad. She doesn’t like the pets in the hall and often spoke harshly to Peaches, just because she could. The hall-wandering pets are all gone now.
I also don’t know what became of Mama’s original table mates. I think Bob moved to be near family. He had a grumpy wit that Mama enjoyed. Mert had no teeth, and was connected to the oxygen tank attached to his wheelchair. He was a silent, sweet man whose rheumy eyes smiled back at me when I spoke. I suspect he died.
Noreen, Rebecca’s and my high school English teacher whose presence at the Manor was instrumental in persuading Mama to move there, died. As did Cecil, the cheerful, seriously demented man who was the only other resident whose child regularly attended to him. I miss her.
Even the staff cycles in and out of employment. Sonia and Dacon, two med techs who met and fell in love at the Manor, or maybe in nursing school, just departed. They finished school and are hoping for employment at the hospital. And Athena, the director moved on this week. I’m wondering if that story will be in the next newsletter or if it was not an amiable parting.
This morning, as I sat at my regular cafe writing this post, I finally spoke to another of the regulars. Bob and Judy are here each week (I suspect more often than that), playing Uno and Rummikub. We always greet one another with a smile, but this morning Bob spoke to me as they were leaving. I asked him about the couple that used to sit at the corner booth rubbing off their lottery cards and reading the paper. About six months ago, she began coming alone. The week I was determined to inquire after her husband, she wasn’t there. I haven’t seen her since. “Did he die?” I asked Bob this morning. “Yes,” he said, “and Barbara,” in her elder years, “had to return to work.”
That is the cycle of things, sometimes—as in nature—with regularity you can read the calendar by; sometimes—as in human cycles—sure but unpredictable. And sometimes in never-to-be-revealed mystery.
I am sad that people who are in pain, whose bodies can no longer function, who are ready to leave, linger. This is life. There are no guarantees, no promises, there is only what is. And so we wait, and walk with them. I hope I am doing that at the Manor.
Last weekend, as spring struggles to win out over winter and I anticipate adventure season, I replaced my beloved 20-year-old Honda. My CuRVy has a new companion: Flutterby (winner of the unintended but welcome Facebook naming contest—thank you Pam), a Monarch Orange Nissan Rogue. Even inanimate objects have their cycles.
“Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
And the seasons they go round and round…
In the Circle Game.