Strange Encounters of the Geriatric Kind
As I headed out for a spin today, Al was coming in from lunch. I didn’t catch the name of the restaurant, but he said the mackerel was good.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “I keep wanting to call you Bob, but I don’t think that’s it.”
I told him my name is Tom. Then he asked where I was from, and I gave him the Readers’ Digest condensed version of the journey that began in Bethel – the Park was added later – and has now brought be to Columbus.
“I was born here, and I grew up here,” Al said. “Then I went into the military, and I was stationed here a few times. Now I’m back here. I should have gone to Savannah or Fiji. Fiji’s an island in the Pacific. I always wanted to go there. Maybe I will go there. Everything I need will fit in one bag, and I’ll just leave the rest of my stuff in the room. Somebody else can clean it out.”
He laughed and then asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to do a couple laps around the building. “Be careful,” he said. “And don’t be going down the drive all the way to the road.” I said I wouldn’t. But I lied.
I sat with Herman and Joyce at dinner the other night. Herman is 86, and Joyce can’t be far behind. A retired cop, Herman is tall and looks younger than his years. Even now, he wouldn’t look out of place a policeman’s uniform. But most of the time he’s confused and isn’t sure where he is. Joyce was the head of the Columbus recreation department when she retired. She is in a wheelchair, and she seems to be shrinking even as she sits there. But she is alert and likes to laugh.
“Are we going home tomorrow?” Herman asked.
“We are home,” Joyce said.
“We’re home? I thought we were on the ship.”
After waiting a minute or so, Joyce turned to me and said, “He thinks he’s on a cruise.”
I asked her if they’d ever taken a cruise. She said they had gone on ten, maybe twelve over the years. I said I’d never been on one. She said I didn’t know what I was missing; they really enjoyed theirs.
“Did you like the cruises?” she asked Herman.
“Yes,” he said.
“What did you like best about them?”
“I could take them or leave them.”
“I said, ‘what did you like best about them?’”
Joyce laughed half-heartedly. You could see it in her eyes; she appreciated the humor in the situation, but she also knew the most important person in her life, the man she loves, her best friend was slipping away.
After I finished my meal and was headed out of the dining room, I stopped to say hello to Evelyn and her tablemates.
“How are you?” I asked Evelyn.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been better.”
“How bad can it be? You’ve got your chocolate ice cream.”
Evelyn loves chocolate ice cream. Everyone knows she loves chocolate ice cream. Her preferred dessert is two scoops of chocolate ice cream. The waiters don’t bother to ask Evelyn what she wants for dessert unless – heaven forbid – there is no chocolate ice cream.
“Let me tell you something,” Evelyn said. “My momma didn’t like chocolate. We never had any chocolate in the house: no chocolate candy, no chocolate cake, no chocolate ice cream. Nothing. The only time I could have chocolate was when we went to my grandmother’s. I never lived in a house where there was chocolate until I was over twenty years old and living on my own.”
And that’s why Evelyn has two scoops of chocolate ice cream every night.
Realizing that someday I too will be old, I try to adhere to Mom’s admonition to treat my elders with respect. Sometimes it’s difficult. I was in the laundry room the other day, listening to the washer ca-chunka, ca-chunka its way through the cycle when a woman with the facial features of Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies walked in. There are four washers in the laundry room; two of them were in use. The woman looked over the situation and announced that the washer I was using was her favorite, and she wanted to use it.
Being the patient man I am, I said it would be available in a few minutes. Being the impatient woman she is, she cozied up to the washer and drummed her fingers on it. After several minutes of drumming, she turned to me with a look of concern and said, “I’ve never known this machine to take this long.” I told her a watched washer never completes the spin cycle. Then she started to lift the lid of the washer. “Please leave that alone,” I said. “It’s almost done.”
A few minutes later, it was done, and she stood by the washer as though to make sure I didn’t get up and put my underwear through another cycle just for the heck of it. “I need to get up there to get my wash out,” I said. She stood still. I told her again, this time with an unaccustomed sharpness in my voice. She moped her way to a chair while I emptied the washer and dumped my unmentionables in the dryer. Then she put her laundry in the washer she’d been waiting so long for and went back to her room. She must have realized the error of her ways. When she returned it was with some donuts, and she offered one to me. That night at dinner, she made a point of saying “hi” to me as I was going out.
Monday evening I went to a performance of the Columbus Community Orchestra. The orchestra, which is sponsored in part by the school district, is a mixture of high school kids and older musicians, many of them doctors by day, from the area. Twelve doctors from the group call themselves DNR and they did the last third of the show by themselves. And just two of them, one playing saxophone and the other the guitar, did “Here, There and Everywhere.” If you closed your eyes, you would have sworn you were in a smoky club somewhere.
I sat next to Helga. She was raised in New York City and has been just about everywhere in her eighty-plus years. She’s lived in Europe and Africa. Her stories were a little disjointed, and I had to struggle to make sense of what she was saying, but she certainly has led a fascinating life.