Waiting to Die

Nursing homes, assisted living, hospice, etc. are depressing. It’s hard to tell if it’s the occupants or their families that are waiting patiently for death. Sometimes they welcome it, as in the case of JFB’s grandmother [who is currently pissed off at God because she’s tired and done and ready to go, but he won’t take her]. Sometimes they don’t understand it’s coming [Alzheimer’s], are fighting it off, or are forgotten because their family left them alone to deal with it. Even if you don’t have someone you know in one of these situations, you should walk through a nursing home and remember… remember that they’re there, remember that they lived, and remember that you’ll eventually be one of them.

For Christmas, Thanksgiving, family dinners, or just because, my grandmother escapes her nursing home and spends time with all of us. She goes to the casino with her sister and shopping with old friends. She’s still living, which doesn’t shock me. This is the woman that came to our house after her all-night date with an older man [she was in her late 70s at the time and he was almost 90!] early one morning while I was heading out the door on my way to college. She smiled as she informed me she hadn’t been home yet. She’s really only there because she’s been having these tiny little strokes and forgets her meds afterwards—she can’t live alone. But her neighbors? Her roommate? They tell a different story.

There’s a woman that sits in a chair at the front window every day waiting for her son to show up. My first concern [and because I think with my mouth open, first question] was “Does he?” Thankfully he does, but it didn’t help the vision of her sitting there. On the walk down the hall to Nana’s room, there are people wailing behind closed doors, others sleeping in wheelchairs in the hallways, and a few that smile like children at you—their eyes full of hope that you may be someone they know and are there to visit them. My mother and I smiled at all of them as we went.

They all have a few things in common. For whatever reason [medical, emotional, lack of family, etc.] they’re in this shared space together. And while it may be necessary and/or the best place for them to be, it’s depressing. I said that and mom nodded. Mom told me about a woman who always waves at her. This woman is always dressed, always has her makeup on, and has her hair done up nicely [I imagine someone brings her to the hairdresser on a regular basis]. My mom always tells her how pretty she looks. That’s obviously all this woman wants—for someone to notice her and all the work she puts into her appearance.

But it doesn’t make it any less depressing. When we were done bringing Nana the items she had requested and were leaving the building, I watched the expressions of the doomed and dying. I imagined the lives they once led. These people had careers and hobbies and friends and nights out on the town. These people laughed and cried and loved. They walked on beaches and shopped in stores. They made dinner and did dishes. They lived, however that word is defined by each individual.

And now they were just waiting to die.

Some fight it, like my Nana, who refuses to sit still [though she’s definitely starting to slow down]. Some welcome it, like JFB’s grandmother. Some don’t know it’s coming [Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.]. And the rest… The rest know it’s there and know there’s nothing they can do about it and just want someone to visit them, talk to them, wave to them or tell them they’re pretty while they watch television and sit in their chairs and eat and sleep and breathe but no longer actually live.

Live while you can or wait to die. These are our options. Sort of. Because eventually, we’ll all be waiting to die. Eventually just doesn’t have to be today…

I fear Alzheimer’s. I think it’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to a person. My great aunt went on a trip down the Nile when I was a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of someone doing. Someone that I knew. A month later she was wearing her bra outside her shirts and wandering about confused. My sister worked in a home as a teen and I’ll always remember her tales of Mattie, the old woman who roamed the halls chanting her own name because she’d forgotten everything else and didn’t want to forget that.  To have done something so cool and then not remember it… to not remember you?

We joke in my family about forced memories [“Go with your father to cut down the tree—it’s a memory, damn it!”], but at the end of it all, when we’re sitting in the chair staring out the window waiting for someone to visit, all we have is those memories. Make some. And if your memory really sucks, start a journal so that you can revisit them with a little prodding. Live—however you may define that. Play with your children, talk to your friends, laugh, love, cry, try something new or walk on a beach… Because someday you won’t have any friends left. Someday you may not remember your own family. And walkers just aren’t designed for strolls on wet sand.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go live. Maybe after work I’ll build a snowman and surprise the kids when they get home Wednesday. Because I hate winter but will remember that I did this. At least for a while…

0 Responses to Waiting to Die

  • Such a great point to bring up whether people want to face it or not.

    My wife has worked in a nursing home here for five years now. I’ve seen her laugh, cry, and ultimately remember all those she interacts with there. When I stop in myself, I find that my own mind focuses upon the residents’ various lives and what they have seen and experienced. Sometimes that is invigorating and sometimes it is sad; but always memorable.

    I suppose we all need a swift kick in the arse to remind us from time to time to get out there an experience what we can–while we can–lest we be left wondering “what happened?”, ourselves.

    Now, I’m hopping off here and going to go make a memory as best I can.

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