My Job at the Nursing Home
The retirement community at which I worked consisted of independent living quarters, sheltered-care apartments, and the health center, which was the last stop before death.
“Have you been on the second floor, yet?” a nurse’s aide asked me my first day. Even this, the last stop, was tiered. Second floor was for those totally incapacitated by either physical or mental illness. On getting out of the elevator for my first visit, I encountered a woman propelling herself in a wheelchair, singing what I imagined were hymns. Impressed with her cheerfulness, I mentioned her to a coworker.
“Oh, that was Rosie. She always sings. Listen to her words next time.”
So on my next trip I listened to Rosie sing. And this is what she sang: “I’m in so much pain. Why doesn’t someone help me? Get me the hell out of here!” When she was angry, she sang in higher tones, but still just as melodically.
Each morning I delivered the newspapers. Each morning I said hello to a woman strapped into a wheelchair. She leaned to one side, drooling, her face raw red. But her wide blue eyes followed me. And one morning, long after I had given up on a reply, she said “Hello” back, and did every day after that. Once she even said, “You’re pretty,” and it was one of the nicest compliments I remember ever receiving.
Soon I was acquainted with the “Stamp Lady,” a petite, bewigged woman. Some of the girls in the office called her that because she had a daily output of five or six letters and was always in need of a stamp. Gradually I could tell who was coming into the lobby just by the way the door opened. When the door opened slowly but steadily, I expected Myra. She walked up to the desk, keeping her hands out in case of a fall.
“I’ve got a letter written. But I’ve got no stamps.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’ve got to go to the post office to get stamps.”
“We have stamps here, Myra.”
“Do you? Do you really?” She took my hands and held them to her. “Oh, thank you. And can you help me put them on the envelopes?” Her hands shook so much that her handwriting was illegible. Her recipients probably couldn’t read what she wrote. But then, it was her only communication with the outside world.
One morning, inspired both by the radio and by three cups of coffee, I danced a brief waltz with Oscar, who donned his Cubs hat probably before anything else in the morning. His wife, Amy, was eight years his senior. At 82 and 90, the difference was not so conspicuous.
“Smiley,” he said, after we exchanged bows, “when you grow up, you’ll have lots of boyfriends.” Despite fifty years in the U.S., he still spoke with the heavy Swedish accent of his youth.
“But I’m not ever going to grow up.” My parents repeatedly accused me of that very intention, but I meant height-wise. Having by then maintained my short stature for about six years, I was skeptical of it ever changing.
“No, you have lots of time,” Oscar reassured me, patting my head.
Marie was all mixed up. She thought it was her birthday. I told her no — it was in January and this was March. She said, "That's what so confusing.”
She thought about it for awhile, then asked, “How old do you think I am?”
I said, “85?” though I knew she was 91.
She laughed and said, "That's what I was going to guess, too. But I wasn't sure."
Elsa lived on the second floor. She was deaf and blind, "but not dumb," as she pointed out. She could only hear through a little microphone she wore around her neck like a stopwatch. Sometimes it whistled so badly that she had to shut it off. When I first met her, she asked me my name. But no matter how often I repeated it, she thought I was saying, "Helen Campbell." Afterwards, I would say into the microphone, "Helen's here."
Elsa was 39 reversed.
"Do you know what I mean by that?" she asked.
"That's 93 backwards. It sounds much better, saying you're 39 reversed. Only, I aged 10 years when I went from 29 reversed to 39.”
Two sisters lived in our nursing home, the last of 13 siblings. Esther, plump and jolly, wore a blonde wig at a rakish angle. Ellen, thin and rather anxious, went for the layered look, piling on up to five sweaters. Sometimes they sat out in the lobby. They either read the papers or gossiped about their family—it must have been their Swedish stamina that fortified them, for they both had recuperated from long bouts with death. Inevitably Esther’s wig wound up on her lap, where it was sometimes mistaken for our office dog. The wig and the dog were roughly the same size, color, and temperament.
“How old is Esther, anyway?” I asked the girl who shared my office.
“Not that old,” she replied. “Only 87.”
I used to consider middle age the span between 30 and 40. Now I refer to octogenarians as middle aged. And indeed they are, at least in the context of a nursing home.
Everyone liked Esther. One felt very clever talking to her, as she would laugh uproariously at any witticism, even one so mundane as “Hi.” She usually approached my desk once a day, where she would drum her fingers until I looked up.
“Oh, joy,” she said, her mouth twitching as she suppressed a laugh. Exactly what she was laughing at, I don’t know, but when you were around her, everything suddenly seemed funny; just as when you were around Evangeline, another lady whom I haven’t yet mentioned, everything seemed sad.
“I’m going home today,” she said. She looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to set her up for the punch line. I obliged.
“We’ll miss you if you go, Esther. But you know you can always stay here.”
“I can?” She looked around the lobby. “It is nice here. But would they feed me?”
“Sure. Dinner is in a few minutes, in fact. They’re having pork chops.”
“Hmmm. Maybe I’ll stay tonight, then. I like pork chops.” She chuckled. “That’s that, then.” And she waddled off, clutching at the diapers underneath her dress.
Everyday she said she was going home. And everyday she decided to stay after I assured her that a nice room was available, or that dinner was about to be served.
Once I visited Esther and her roommate, Dorothy, a forthright Scot who careened around in her wheelchair and pinched the bottoms of unsuspecting young men visiting their grandparents. She had snow-white hair that she wore in a long braid down her back, and behind each ear sprang a fake flower. She motioned to me and whispered, “Hey, did you bring the whiskey?”
“Oh, rats. I forgot.”
“Shucks,” she said, snapping her fingers. “So much for our party.”
As she adjusted her wig, Esther said, “I couldn’t have come, anyway. They say I’m going home today.”
“Who says?” Dorothy objected. “I didn’t hear anyone say that.”
Esther shrugged. “Actually, I said it.” She laughed. “But I’m often wrong.”