This Might Be Unremarkable
They assign all the volunteers at High Hills to different wings and today I have been sent to the Alzheimer’s unit, a place I normally don’t go. I’m the only volunteer from the college who comes even during breaks, since I am one of the only students who stays on campus. Most weeks I do crafts or paint nails for chatty women in the TV room. They let me stray today. For some reason it makes me nervous.
The Alzheimer unit is through two swinging doors that the nurse pushes through with a certain aplomb. It’s bright in there from the overhead sun windows, it smells of mashed potatoes, and the display that greets you is a wall-sized bulletin board covered with Valentine’s hearts made from pink paper, the pictures and names of the residents pinned atop them, a celebratory display of color and glitter to announce their last days with the same immodest glee expressed for newly arrived infants. Looking at these pictures, as the nurse dips into a room and tells me to wait right there, I think of the popular proverb: We are once grown and twice a child. Something said often to make sense of aging, to soften the witness we must bear to our people floating away from their own eyes and desires, to ease seeing loved ones or even strangers drop deep and irrevocably into their own interiors, limbs inert and creaking, tongues inflamed. But then to frame those dripping faces in doilies with construction hearts, paper suns, dog paws? Imana Horowitz, Doris Dadsy, Bill Corteau, to name a few chosen residents, look so unappealing that it seems like a vulgar misstep to place them there, not disrespectful exactly, but off the mark at least, indelicate. When my mouth drops below my chin, I think, I do not want proof of it to be printed off a Hewlett Packard and pinned on a wall below my name in Crayola block letters.
We are once grown and twice a child.
Something said often to make sense of aging, to soften the witness we must bear to our people floating away from their own eyes and desires, to ease seeing loved ones or even strangers drop deep and irrevocably into their own interiors,
The nurse comes out of the room and snaps her fingers and I follow her, a short woman in grey striped scrubs and Crocs with small hairs falling from her clip to the nape of her neck. She points and nods to a woman sitting in a wheelchair at the very end of the hallway. “That’s your target for the day,” she tells me. “She’s called Sophie.”
In the hallways of the Alzheimer’s unit, music blasts, and it seems to get louder and louder as I walk towards Sophie. It’s classical, of course, because classical is believed to control moods, the music made from or into nostalgia and tenderness and anxiety, the music that allows feelings to recognize themselves. Play Neil Young, for Christ sake, I think, some reggae, something heart-lifting or calm tempoed. The classical is too loud, too immense; like the doily framed portraits of the residents, it seems patronizing, even sinister. But maybe the strong volume is simply because these elderly bodies need the vibration, loudness being the only way the music might penetrate the slow aura-obscuring presence of death that hangs around, blurring the edges of these bodies with the air, and in Sophie’s case, as she sits near a window, the sunlight that comes through, making her skin and self also seem like rays.
I love her because of this immediately, as I sit across from her in a folding chair with a stained cushioned seat, that she is evaporating into light. Her hair, stone white, apparently still curled habitually, has the thin wisp of whipped cream, like her head has been frosted. All of her skin is thin and visibly soft, I so want to touch her protruding veins through it, the way I do with my own elderly female family members, move the looseness over her knuckles, trace and gently, gently pinch the little rivers of loose neck that flow from her jaw to her clavicle. Her eyes are sleepy, glad slits, her hands placed on her lap. She wears a cashmere sweater, pink, with small beads of pearl, a line of fold down the sleeves. I love the elderly people who take such incredible care of their clothes, as it is a miracle and enigma as to how it happens. There must be someone who loves her who continues this care, I think. Or maybe her hands remember nothing but how to place and fold the sweaters she wears over a thin sheet of white anti-cling paper, and how to zip these articles in bags to save them from moths. There is no suggestion of moths, though. Sophie smells like gardenia powder.
Another nurse comes behind us and parks a man beside Sophie. Are they lovers? I wonder. He is asleep, with a news cap dropped over his eyes so I can barely see them, so I address only her.
“Sophie?” She looks at me and doesn’t smile just gently cocks her head, then nods, yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
She licks her lips. She closes her eyes for long pauses and opens them. She smiles. She smiles again. She nods to me. After awhile, she begins to speak. She begins to speak back to me when I say her name and ask her in a gentle hum how she is, and if she thinks today is beautiful, like I do. Sophie answers me in another language, a language that stays in her mouth, that sounds through the momentary pauses in music, like Polish. She asks me questions and opens her eyes with the lift of her brows and wants to know my answers. I smile at her. I imagine she must be profoundly lonesome, at least sometimes, speaking in this language no one can speak back to. Always in the process of forgetting.
At the same time we are together today, Sophie and I, my own grandmother is in the process of dying. How saccharin and poignant this could make my time with Sophie. Corinne, my grandmother, has a tumor in her brain that has tentacles and roots that mix up and tangle the pathways of her memory and motor skills. She lives across the country from me, so my last visit to her was brief and intense. I could not bear to touch or smell her when I first saw her, or to look at the scar that made its way halfway around her head, and was sewn and stapled carelessly. I saw her touch the scar with her lovely fingers, trying to cover it with her hair. She became frustrated. Her beauty was a point of pride.
When I sat with my grandmother in her hospital room, she went to the bathroom on her own and she fell onto the seat and screamed out,“Oh, Judas Priest!” It was something that would have made me laugh under normal circumstances, but it just scared me then. She called out to me but called me Meg, the name of her high-school best friend, and asked that I come wipe her. When she did, my grandpa, a large, tan man quick to anger, burst into a paroxysm of weeping and swears. I sat still and then entered the bathroom, where she had shit between her thighs, which I tenderly wiped with a wet paper towel. We had never known each other well.
Sophie and I sit without speaking, and after awhile of this, she reaches out her hand and begins to touch my face with her fingertips. Quite gently, her fingernails along my nose, her thumb wiping the curve under my eyes. I look at her as she traces my cheek, and then, shyly, out the tall window next to us into the only small forest patch that surrounds High Hills. Just beyond the first three lines of trees you can see other buildings, the arc of the highway, but if you don’t look too far, if you keep your eyes on the first row of pine, you can imagine you are in the forest.
When I look back at her, now both of Sophie’s hands are up to my forehead and her lips are parted. So tender, you can’t imagine. She could melt my skull or turn it to happy dust. Her fingers come to my cheek and cup my jaw. She brings me close to her and kisses where my hairline begins, guides me to bow so she can kiss the crown of my head. She takes my ears in her fingers. I reach out my hand and place it on her knee. I am surprised at the comfort I find in her touch, in touching her, how it feels like the only thing that makes sense for us to do.
I wonder again if the sleeping man next to her is her lover, her husband, but I find it hard to believe, his dry hands, the muddy stink he emits. And how she looks at and touches my face so tenderly, I am not sure she isn’t a real lover of women in some way. I imagine she must be having a moment with a lover of some kind, right now, in fact. That as she touches and looks at me she is seeing someone else in my face, and they are close again, they are finally, once again, close up. Someone she loves and lost. Yeah, a lover maybe, or her kid, perhaps, a friend, her mother.
That as she touches and looks at me she is seeing someone else in my face, and they are close again, they are finally, once again, close up.
Or, then again, maybe it is me she sees. Maybe she can just see me entirely. And maybe if I go ahead and see her entirely, too, we can leave here. Float easily away, or burst through the roof of this one floor oldies home, out of the cream white walls stinking of death and cleaning and cleaning death, warm air always, cheap ceilings, long spit, bad toilet paper, soft food, gnarly mattresses. We can emerge into sparkling pink clouds, woods of rushing light, explosive cold-fire sea waves, we can eat huge spreads of holiday fare, sleep deeply entwined in a soft bed with posters the size of cannons, we can snort lines, roll in thick mud, laugh, laugh, laugh until we puke, dance hard in a neon dirty Eurotrash nightclub to anything other than this classical music.