By Brianna M. Jetz
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Orchard Manor Nursing Home was where I met Him. As a well-meaning fourth-grade teacher’s pet who was just starting to understand that life ends just as easily as it begins, I did not realize that ageism is and was a prevalent issue in our society nor did I know that the splendor of a life’s experience can be confined within four palely painted, floral wallpapered walls. I imagined that the nursing home would be a cheerful place where card-betting grannies and gramps happily chatted away the day with their friends and family, discussing politics and drinking scotch. I guess I thought of it as a prolonged vacation – the kind of relaxing vacation, complete with servants to serve the dinner and without the kids to make too much noise, the vacation that my parents always hoped they could take. Instead I was met with the smell of sanitizer, wheelchairs, blood pressure cuffs, and dentures. Beeps from heart monitors counted the seconds towards another day and made the home feel more like a hospital than a place of relaxation. The only difference was that the lobby was more aesthetically pleasing, like the decorators thought that the green rainforest theme would make the residents miss their former lives and homes less.
He was slumped over in a brown leather Laz-Y-Boy chair in a nap that looked like death. I had never seen a dead body before, but the way his head was bent over his chest and his hand hung over the edge of the chair made me think this was my first. Why was the nurse just standing there? Shouldn’t she be checking his pulse or covering him with a sheet? But she just stood there. My guidance counselor, who had organized this trip, said, “Just put the gift by his chair. He’ll get it when he wakes up.”
“Are you sure he’s … alive?” I said in a whispered hush. As I bent down to put the silver package near his untied leather shoe, a gasp of air leapt from his throat as if he was breaking the surface of a watery grave. Startled, I dropped the small package, and where I thought I would hear the crash of glass as it crumbled into smaller pieces, I heard him start to speak.
In a slurred rough and tough Clint Eastwood voice, he questioned, “Brittney? My Brittney?” The puffy gifts of time and knowledge that hung under his eyes seemed to shrink the very instance that his previously pursed lips parted into a charismatic smile. I, on the other hand, just stared.
My mother had always told me to be respectful to older people, but she never told me what to do if someone got my name wrong. Nervously tugging at my braid, I started to say, “I am sorry, but…”
I never got to finish that sentence.
There was a quiver in his jaw line, a subtle motion of his hand as he reached for mine. “No need to apologize dear. I know it isn’t your fault. Come here; give me a hug.” I instead stood motionless, fearing that I would disrupt the order of his pillows and magazines. Instead of realizing that my eyes were pleading for the guidance counselor to save me from this case of mistaken identity, he did not skip a beat and quickly broke into a friendly banter. “I am so glad you came. Did you get the birthday card I sent you? I wanted to come to your party, but your father said that it would be over before I could get a cab to your house. The nurses only let me leave this building on Sundays to go get ice cream at A&W. Do you still like ice cream?”
“Yes, chocolate is my favorite!”
“Really? The last time I saw you, you said mint was your favorite. Oh, well, people do change in a year.”
Even though he was not my biological grandfather, I started to feel guilty for never visiting. A sadness in his voice suggested that eating ice cream and jello, playing board games, and watching television all day is not as splendid as a child imagines it would be, especially if there is no one likeable or loveable to share the experience. For about five minutes, I went along with his fantasy. I described the fluffy black kitten on the home-farm, told him how my brother was (not) enjoying school, and discussed my frustration with math. We both agreed the metric system was the bees’ knees because it all dealt with 10s. We talked as if he was actually my grandfather. I found out that he had served as a military doctor during the Korean War before returning to his parents’ farm to start a family of his own. Strange, a forgotten man from a forgotten war.
“Brittney, do you remember that collie? Nelly, I think her name was. She was my favorite dog, but I think you like her puppies better. While Nelly rested her head on my knee, you would run up and down the lane being chased by those sassy mutts. Later in the day, you and I would bring your grandmother a bundle of lilac flowers from the trees in the back pasture.” I could almost hear the wind whoosh by my ears as he swung me higher and higher on the rickety old swing set and taste the smoothness of ‘my’ grandfather’s homemade raspberry lemonade on a hot summer day picnic. It sounded perfect, and I wished I could be there.
The perfect family exists in a vacuum where age cannot be used as a factor to disregard someone like an imaginary friend a child out grew. The perfect family is not simply defined by blood. It is defined by actions, inclusion, and love. There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. But what happens after that child grows up, after that child has helped the village raise another child, after that child’s hip breaks and he cannot take care of himself? Then that child is placed in a nursing home, in a bedroom with one television, one dresser, and one table.
Despite all the nurses and the all the other residents, it is still a solitary existence for the child-at-heart. There is no universal village to raise an old person. Nothing is said about how to foster the advancement of the elderly. Instead the most experienced who have withstood the so-called test of time are divorced from society and hidden away by the best deceivers wearing scrubs.
It’s not that nursing homes are not necessary. There a many good reasons that they exist. Those who would love to personally care for their aged relatives and/or friends may not have the economic means, the medical knowledge, or the accommodations to do so. The problem with nursing homes is the solitary confinement. Too many see these “homes” as an ending place, as a sentence too close to death, a place of no escape. And then, the inhabitants are forgotten and only remembered as someone drives by the lonely brown, concrete building just off the highway in a furious 60 miles per hour, thinking I should visit him sometime.
The next day was Thanksgiving, and he said it was also his 85th birthday. I’m not sure if it actually was or if he just wanted it to be, but I politely wished him a joyous day. His yellow-patchy purple-veined hand contrasted with the tissue paper as he shakily pulled the paper off of the small package. Amongst the snow white tissue paper lay a silver snowflake. As he clasped the string and held it up, it twinkled as the dull nursing home light bounced off its overly-glittered surface.
Eventually, I did end up telling him that I was not his granddaughter Brittney, but he kept insisting that I had to be her. As I turned to leave, a single tear rolled from his grey eyes over the hill of his cheekbones. “Goodbye, Brittney.”
Recalling the hug I had refused him earlier, I ran back to his chair and laid my head on his shoulder. His plaid shirt smelled like a mixture of sterile air and an overdose of Avon cologne, just like a grandpa should.
“Happy Birthday again. I hope your family brings you cake.”
“Doesn’t matter. Maybe the nurses will take me to get ice cream.”
Originally from Bloomington, Wisconsin, Brianna M. Jentz is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where she correctly chose to major in both history and English literature.