The smells didn't bother me - antiseptic, urine, and cafeteria all intermingled.
Neither did the bald man moaning from his wheelchair next to the wall. My teenage girlfriend seemed a bit squeamish, but I had grown up around convalescent homes. For once in my adolescent life, I knew what I was doing. She, on the other hand, carried a grocery bag of goodies, all intended for her ailing great-grandmother, with a white-knuckled grip that spoke volumes.
Years earlier, I cut my teeth around hospitals. With the harsh realities of Multiple Sclerosis attacking her body, Granny had been loved and tenderly visited at least twice a week for years. Those visits burdened my mother for much of my early life - dressing us, packing up the car, driving across town, hauling us all inside, trying to keep us out of Granny's lotion and soaps and medicine, then washing our hands meticulously on the way out, and starting the trek home. One time, when we arrived, we realized some caretaker had pulled Granny's bed linens up so forcefully they had inadvertently broken her ankle. Another time, our little family stood at the nurse's station and my mother stood stiffly at the counter, carefully writing out the names and numbers of each shift manager.
Granny suffered the effects of Multiple Sclerosis for many years. Sometimes, she'd see us twin girls and reach out for us to climb carefully into her bed for a snuggle. Other times, she would see us and start to cry, knowing she should know who we were but not being able to place us exactly. Sometimes, she thought she was young, or that my mother was her sister, not her daughter. Her dimpled chin always seemed to quiver, always on the verge of a smile or a cry, as she was corrected. What joy to know she was a mother! Oh! She had twin grandbabies! But then the tears would follow. We would play hopscotch on the big, linoleum squares that made up the floor pattern, and try not to stare at her roommate who scared us with her spontaneous, unprompted screams.
Years later, walking into the convalescent home wasn't scary at all. If any little girl had been prepared for it, it was me. As my girlfriend visited with her grandma, I meandered down the hallway into the lounge area and visited with a World War II veteran who had lots of stories to tell. I'm pretty sure his elaborate details were a ploy to keep me firmly planted in the lounge chair next to him.
With Bonanza reruns playing loudly in the background, I asked him if he had any children or grandchildren. He showed me baseball pictures of his grandsons and told me of their amazing hitting prowess. "But they never come to see me. No one does."
Ahhh, here it was. The most sobering part about convalescent homes - worse than the smells or the dementia or the restlessness of many residents. It's why churches organize mid-week visits and choirs sing at Christmastime. Because deep down, we all feel like no one should age alone, forgotten except when guilt finally pushes a family member to visit or mail a package.
Then, before I could judge all of his friends and family or resolve to do it differently than they had, he interrupted my thinking.
"I've got no use for them all. A bunch of no-good money-grubbin' folk." His voice was gravelly and hard.
Loneliness goes two ways, I saw that day.
Now, years later, I see the temptation to tighten my circle of friends and family, to "write off" those on the fringe, those who see life differently than I, those who struggle with sins I cannot relate to or mental illness I cannot understand, those who question things I'd never thought to question and want to judge for the nerve of them. Surely, they want to run away from me for similar reasons. But then, there is love that buoys and beckons.
Family. Isn't this where you dig in with heels and tenaciously love, with a heart that is no longer your own, a heart that cannot write off another? I'm observing love this way, these days. There are disappointments and boundaries and requirements for basic daily living, but there is eyes-wide-open love that covers all, infuses seemingly hopeless situations.
That love covers sins, casts out fears. And coaxes me to join.
Is there any secret to avoiding life alone at the end? Is there any way to prevent loneliness, even the heart-wrenching loneliness of ammonia, bleach, and cafeteria food? I am not sure there are any guarantees. But I'm banking on love, His kind.
Resting in His Family,