Counting down the days in God’s waiting room
An 82-year-old writer spends his final years in a retirement home surrounded by the sick and the sorry – and finds it hard to hold back the tears. – By Richard Roe*
The Age Good weekend, November 17, 2018 17 November 2018
We sit in our allotted places for breakfast. For every meal. Alfredo* is to my right, Alice eyeballing me from across the table, Theresa on my left. My mother’s stricture, “A place for everything and everything in its place”, comes to mind. The table’s not much larger than a card table, so finding a space for all our plates, jugs, cutlery, cups and glasses, containers for butter, salt, jams and spreads provokes a silent battle of shifty placement.
Before I can sit down, Alice moans, “There’s not enough milk.” She clutches the plastic jug to her breast and repeats her protest several times. She does this every meal. The jug holds about a litre of milk. Alice only uses it in her coffee, a couple of thimblefuls. She seems to have a lactose problem. After a month of calling the place my home, I realise she would demand more milk if none of us used it. It’s a psychological imperative. She’d be hollering for milk if a mob of Jersey cows with overflowing udders filled the dining room.
“I’m going out with a song on my old cracked lips, a spring in my limp.”Credit:Getty Images
As Alice protests, Alfredo takes his place. Alfredo is an Italian of my age who has been in Australia since he was 12, but the Mediterranean runs deep in his veins. He shakes hands every morning and evening and, sometimes, in between. He has a shock of white hair and a fervent manner. When the food arrives he begins saying grace, sometimes silently, sometimes in a low-key mumble. It can take several minutes and multiple signs of the cross, and he doesn’t miss a beat as he pours his coffee mid-way through. Theresa has now joined us.
Theresa could break your heart. She’s a little mouse, European, about 50, who has lost her way in the world. Theresa cannot get through a meal, or anything, without help. She confuses her knife and her fork. Or her knife and her spoon. She looks lost when one or another of us guides her through each meal. She says a humble “thank you” after every helping hand and sometimes, “You are very kind.”
Some residents will tell you Theresa is retarded. I don’t think that’s the case. She’s a woman, I believe, who has suffered some deep trauma that’s closed down her mind. We hang around after we’ve finished eating to make sure Theresa doesn’t start spooning with a knife again. She could easily gash her mouth. I go to my room and hold back a tear.
I shouldn’t be crying. I’ve just moved into an aged care home in Sydney. One of the good ones, run by caring people who smile and laugh a lot. I don’t think it is put on, though some of the residents would demoralise a saint. They sit in the garden, staring into space. They’re in some other world, cut off from communication. Unapproachable, unresponsive, mostly men. They sit in the lounge room watching television, a row of metal-framed walkers parked in front of them.
There are some sorry cases among the residents, men bent over, almost doubling on themselves, women whose legs and feet are so bad they can barely shuffle along. But it’s the silent ones I find disturbing.
I moved in here on an emotional high. It’s time, I told myself. I’m 82 and multiple vital parts of the body are starting to fail. Parkinson’s has slowed my gait, my reactions, my mind. I’m beginning to grasp for the right word, my voice has softened and often comes out confused. My eyes are failing through macular degeneration and glaucoma. My hearing has been shot for years. The doctors have told me of other failings: Barrett’s oesophagus, hiatus hernia, swollen legs and a whole list of conditions I don’t understand and really don’t want to.
I’m a cocky old coot. The night I began calling the home my home, I sent out an email to friends and former colleagues to keep them in the loop. Forget my former name, I told them, forget the byline I used all my working life, from now on I wished to be known as the Dalliance Alarma. Don’t be alarmed if you can’t reach me, I’ll probably be in deep meditation. I mean no disrespect for the Dalai Lama, whom I admire. I just want my mates to recognise that I’ve slipped into another phase, the last of Shakespeare’s seven. I’m going out with a song on my old cracked lips, a spring in my limp
So, how’s it going? I’m at the start of my seventh week and life is closing in on me. We catch the same creaky lift down to the dining room, make the same jokes with the same people about it crashing one day. That’s with the people who talk to me. Some residents have remained mute from day one. After a sustained campaign of hello-ing them cheerfully for four or five weeks, I’ve given up. If they want to be miserable, that’s their problem.
I’m trapped in the minutiae of life. What’s coming up for lunch, what for dinner? Is Alfredo going for a walk today? Will he get wet? That’s of course if it rains. There are various competing opinions expressed on that possibility.
There are some sorry cases among the residents, men bent over, women whose legs are bad. But it’s the silent ones I find disturbing.
We have a crucial conversation about the butter. For weeks it’s been on the table in those little wrapped pats you find in hotel-room fridges. It’s cold and hard but there are strategies to soften it, to make it more spreadable. My tactic is to trap one little pat between the two pieces of warm toast I always have. There’s nothing I can do at the top of the pile, though; just soldier on, ramming hard butter against soft toast.
Three days ago there was a butter revolution: a different brand of pat that spreads like water on a flood plain. Our joy is matched only by the disappointment of today: back to hard butter, not even wrapped … they’re tiny squares hacked from a big lump of the stuff. Hard. And cold as charity.
I almost lost it with Alice at lunch today. Went within a whisker of reaching across the table, grabbing her by her turkey throat and squeezing the life out of her. Never have I met anyone so self-absorbed. “Tania,” she cries, when the nurse wheels the medications trolley into the dining room. “Tania, I’ve finished eating.” As if Tania hasn’t enough on her plate, dealing with 50 people with varied pills, capsules, drops and liquids. “Tania, I’ve finished eating.”
Alice switches her attack to Stella, who is ladling out the minestrone. “Stella, I haven’t got my soup.” And when Stella responds with a plateful, “I don’t eat that soup. I want my soup.” Nearly all of Alice’s diet is Alice-specific. Her special soup. And eggs at almost every meal: pallid scrambled eggs. Sometimes she shovels them all down, sometimes abandons the task after a spoonful.
I’d like to know more about Alice but I’m wary about becoming a confidant. She hints of a murky past. She knew Lenny McPherson, onetime crime king of Sydney, and she speaks of working around the club scene. She sometimes visits the cemetery where one of her husbands and two of her infant children were cremated.
Alice has a tragic face, which possibly might once have been beautiful. To get around she uses a walker, which precludes her from going out; she’s afraid it might take off with her down a slope. She’s a smoker who frequently runs out of cigarettes. In my second week here she asked me to buy her a single cigarette – that’s right, one lonely little fag – from a supermarket down the road. It hasn’t helped that I turned her down.
Today she turns her attention on Matilda, who is sitting at a neighbouring table in direct line of fire. “Matilda, will you go and buy me a packet of cigarettes?” Matilda tries to ignore her, but Alice is relentless. She repeats her request maybe a dozen times before Matilda capitulates. It makes no difference. Alice continues to nag her even though Matilda has buckled.
Alice turns on Theresa. That’s what almost tips me over the edge. Alice does help Theresa, there’s no denying, but it’s the help you might give to an irritating pet dog.
“Now eat your bread, Theresa.” “Put your cup down.” “Not with the knife, Theresa. With the spoon, Theresa, not the knife.” “Tuck your napkin into the top of your blouse.” “Put the glass down, Theresa.”
For god’s sake, shut up, Alice. Shut up and become a silent helper like the rest of us. Alice looks at me malevolently across the dirty dishes. I’m sure she knows what I’m thinking. All of this may be very unfair to Alice and to the sad-faced silent men who watch me pass every day without a flicker of recognition. Some of these people have been here for years, waiting out their time on earth.
How will I be in five years if Parkinson’s or some other stealthy malady hasn’t claimed me, if I’m immobilised, bitter and resent my fate? I wish I could answer that question. I want to remain stoic and good-humoured no matter what. I’ll do my best but there are no guarantees. The black dog can creep up on you unawares. I think that furtive, depressive animal is chained permanently to many of the men who lie in the sun on recliner chairs for hours on end every day. Their lives have become a waiting game. They’re not waiting for friends and relatives to drop in. It’s bigger than that. It’s their endgame and they don’t wish to be distracted.
When I moved in, I asked a staff member about visiting hours. The question caught her off-guard. “Oh, we don’t have visiting times,” she said. “We’re not a prison. We welcome visitors at any time. We love to see them.” So do the old folk. All too often they wait in vain. It’s a long, long time since some of them saw a friendly face from the outside. When they do, it’s often a fleeting appearance and a source of embarrassment for both parties.
Occasionally, a ray of sunshine breaks through. There’s a little bloke on level three whom I’ve mentally labelled the Jockey. He never speaks because he can’t. He points to his throat; something’s wrong there which has sentenced him to permanent silence. He grins and waves his arms, c’est la vie. He’s the Jockey because he’s small, thin and wiry, strong in the arms, as all jockeys must be.
He reminds me of Mel Schumacher, the audacious rider I interviewed many years ago. I watched the Jockey in the dining room a few days ago guiding another resident into his walking frame. The man was huge and made clumsy by his medical condition. The Jockey patiently stood him up and fussed over him until he was sure his friend was secure. They stood side by side for a moment, one towering over the other, David and Goliath united in friendship.
I’ve reviewed my life many, many times. I’ve found that the result of my musings has varied in line with my mood of the moment.
For the moment, I make comparisons with other oldies and count my blessings. Will I be able to do that when I’m on the wrong side of the ledger?
I’ve been thinking about old age, how I will handle it, for 10 years or more. I guess most people would say I’ve been in denial; that starting at 72 I’m already there, now at 82 I’m past it. As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said, “Old age is like flying through a storm: once you’re aboard there’s nothing you can do.” Many notable, and not so notable, people have weighed into the debate.
I’ve come across some of them in my research. Bette Davis, the tough-talking actor, said: “Old age is no place for sissies.” That quintessential Frenchman Charles de Gaulle seemed to be agreeing with her when he described old age as “a shipwreck”. American writer Philip Roth was on the same wavelength: “Old age,” he said, “isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.” Bette’s Hollywood contemporary Marilyn Monroe mused that sometimes she thought “it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know you.” As it turned out, she had no choice in the matter. Leon Trotsky shared Monroe’s misfortune. The runaway Russian revolutionary labelled old age as “the most unexpected of all things”.
He died in Mexico when a sneaky assassin drove an ice pick though his skull. He was 60. My thoughts on how to handle advanced age have swung through a wild arc, from the dismal to the absurd. I’d like to think I could live up to US literary critic Louis Kronenberger’s goal “to say or do at least one outrageous thing every week”. On a real high, I see myself in the same light as science-fantasy writer Roger Zelazny, who explained: “While I had often said that I wanted to die in bed, what I really meant was that in my old age I wanted to be stepped on by an elephant while making love.” Socrates said that an “unexamined life is not worth living”. I don’t know that he’s right. The old Greek philosopher was a bit of an elitist. Only male citizens came under his scrutiny. Women and slaves, of whom there were many, didn’t count.
When I look back at the people I have known, those in amiable, good-humoured relationships seem the most contented. They haven’t necessarily sat around and examined their good fortune. Most of them have taken their lot as the way it’s meant to be.
Self-scrutiny, in any case, can be a chancy business. I’ve reviewed my life many, many times. I’ve found that the result of my musings has varied in line with my mood of the moment. Like Kronenberger, I’ve had times of outstanding stupidity, incidents that have sent my career, or whatever, into a nosedive. But then, they have been the memorable events of my life. The bottom line is you can’t beat your nature, you can only try to curb it a little. Socrates in the end took a draught of poison hemlock rather than be banished from his country. Was it a decision based on an examination of his life? I wonder what Mrs Socrates had to say about it?
Lately my satisfaction pendulum has been swinging more often to the bottom of the arc, to Shakespeare’s assessment of the seventh, and last, age of man as “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. It’s troubling that Shakespeare was right about so many things.
For the moment, I know I’m in better shape than Moira, a lifelong friend who has creeping dementia, and knows that the disease is cannibalising her brain. She’s had a good mind which was mostly engaged in helping other people. She’s only 18 months older than me and what she feels most sharply is mortification. “Who would have thought it would happen to me?” she says.
* Names have been changed, including that of the author.
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