portrait of maude
she was tiny. at first look, frail. her silver hair was short and nappy, swept up in a tousled bun with fly-aways from laying in bed too long. her dark skin was smooth except for the deep crevices that outlined the corners of her eyes, her forehead and mouth. she had cat eye glasses with thick, coke bottle lenses. and her hands were gnarled and thin, with faint veins that hinted at a life … long ago.
her room was midway down the long hallway in ward 1. despite the nursing home’s idyllic name, “sunny acres,” the scene was far from rosy. it wasn’t wretched either, a “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” nightmare of a place, but rather there just seemed to be a subtle sense of sadness that permeated the space. odors, old-ness, patients, many with no family to speak of, lying in bed, tv on with volume low, barely audible, and eyes gazing out windows looking for an escape or maybe a return to days when they were husbands or wives or professionals or ordinary people…and not simply “patients.”
in high school, summer vacation for most of my friends involved lazy days lounging at home or odd jobs scooping ice cream at DQ or lifeguarding at the local pool. but for us, it was volunteering at the nursing home where my mom was a staff physician.
on monday, wednesday and friday mornings, i’d put on my crisp white blouse and red and white candy-cane striped jumper, and make the trek up the grassy, dandelion-spotted hill with my brother and the neighborhood twins. the daily routine started with a scan of the long list of patients we were slated to see that day.
i always looked for her name.
maude. room 126.
“i’ll take ward 1,” i said as i loaded up the wheeled cart with arts and crafts supplies: brightly colored tissue, pipe cleaners, tape, glue, and the odd assortment of beauty supplies: combs, hairbrushes, nail files and polish. i’d make my way down the hall, past the nurse’s station filled with overstuffed charts, orderlies in scrubs and white tennis shoes, patients getting bathed, and finally the section where the patients’ rooms were.
i pulled up to 126 and peeked in.
“oooohh! so good to see you honey!”
her whole face would break out into a giant, radiant smile. you could see her eyes light up—and well up—behind those thick, cloudy glasses. she’d reach out and pull you close, like she was about to reveal a delicious secret, then she’d stretch out her arms proudly to show you a fresh manicure, her bony hands brightened by a shiny new candy-colored hue. she’d giggle like a school girl yet with a deep, raspy voice, and periodically her dentures would slip out so she’d simultaneously tighten her lips, mid-sentence, to snap her teeth back into place, all without ever missing a beat.
“so what color do you fancy today?” i fanned the rainbow of brightly colored crepe paper before her.
her eyes would twinkle as she’d point. hot pink. purple. fire-engine red. throw in some yellow for good measure. i’d gather the chosen colors du jour and sit with her, talking and laughing, and making paper flowers that i’d leave in a vase when our visit was over.
we’d all spent many moments like this with maude.
and then one morning, her name wasn’t on the list.
there were others, too. ron. he was a big guy with a jerry curl and a soulful, stevie wonder voice. he was young, in his late 30s, and landed at sunny acres after a tragic swimming accident. he had gone to lake erie to spend the day at the beach with friends, and became paralyzed from the waist down after diving in too shallow water.
“over time, i’ve been building my castle of love…”
you could hear his rich, baritone voice booming down the halls as he zoomed toward you in his electric wheelchair. but his eyes, they were sad. on hot summer days, he’d ask for a chocolate-covered ice cream bar. i’d have to unwrap it and feed it to him because he couldn’t hold it himself. while he’d eat it, he’d sometimes talk. and other times, he’d just stare out the window in silence.
then there was mr. witherspoon. a little old bald man, toothless, wheelchair-bound, seemingly weak, but sassy as a whipper snapper. his eyes would tear up at the sight of any female that would cross his path: candystripers, nurses, even female doctors. he was rico suave of the senior set, full of compliments and comical, harmless little quips. if you smiled at him, you’d make his entire morning. and if you served him his peas and mashed potatoes, you won his heart forever.
unlike my mother, and eventually my brother, i never had a desire to pursue a career in medicine. but man did i learn a thing or two about life during those summers at sunny acres.
these weren’t merely “patients.” they were people. human beings. with unique stories. and simple wants. to laugh. to talk. to feel pretty. or special. to enjoy an ice cream bar on hot summer day. to be connected to another person. to feel such gratitude to be truly seen, even if just for a fleeting moment, versus looked over or looked through.
and just when you thought you were helping someone else, they ended up touching or even transforming you. they taught me that vulnerability is ok. that at the core, we’re not so different. here i was in high school with my whole life ahead of me, and yet i could feel and understand them in those moments. i realized that from whatever ends of the earth or experiences we come, we all want the same things.
i often see this meme shared on pinterest and facebook: “be kind. for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” in many ways, we’re no different than these characters i met long ago—only their afflictions, their pain was worn on the outside.
just because you can’t see it, we all have our stuff: insecurities, illness, dreams unrealized, uncertainty about the future. but don’t underestimate the power of sharing your truth and real moments with people, be it family, friends or whomever you come in contact.
those paper flowers we made were cheap little tchotchkes that were thrown away with the weekly room cleanings. but those moments of connectedness... they were beautiful, precious, pure.
i hope she took them with her when she left. because i did.