Yesterday in church, the preacher spoke of James 4:14 and reminded me of this piece I wrote in college. I hope you enjoy it.
"Vapor" By Elizabeth Grimes
I never liked nursing homes. There’s something in the heavy atmosphere, with the plastic lunch trays, worn out slippers, and 28 inch fuzzy TVs playing the same two rotated movies that breaks my heart for the elderly people with no choice but to live there. Maybe this feeling began when my best friend fainted in a nursing home on a Christmas caroling field trip in the fifth grade. She’d been wrinkling her nose at the smell through the whole first song when it finally got the better of her. Or maybe the feeling derived from watching movies like Fried Green Tomatoes, where resident’s rooms consisted of a twin sized bed with a metal bar around it, a table stand, and a possible window. I’ve heard horror stories about the treatment of some residents that I can't even repeat. And the smell is nauseating. My mom told me it was sterile, but my imagination concocted a mixture of unwashed bed sheets, three-day-old pudding, bedpans, and sponge baths.
“Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along. Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone?” The three part harmony back up singers repeated this on the radio as I sat in the passenger seat listening Liz chatter unceasingly about her granddaughter, the cheerleader, and the two new visitors that were at church last week. “One was about your age,” she said with a wink “Did you think he was kinda cute, or don’t you like red hair?” She skillfully maneuvered in and out of the heavy traffic while snacking on Cheetos, licking her orange fingers and searching for those napkins she just knew were somewhere in this car, if only she’d get around to cleaning it.
We were out making our monthly rounds to visit the church shut-ins. It was something I always looked forward to. I’d always loved the company of older folks more than those of my own age for some reason. The elderly possess some kind of mysterious, delightful, deepness in their eyes and stories too numerous to ever tell, but they always tried. Sometimes I wished I lived during their time; the days of white gloves and feathered hats, dirt roads, sirs and ma’ams, five cent ice cream cones, and record players. I’m entranced and in awe when I hear stories of my grandmother’s mother making bread and tortillas, or doing the laundry by hand, or when her older sister cut her hair the day of the family pictures so she had to wear a bonnet.
“Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone?” The song sang. I sat in the car dwelling on that thought. I remember in first grade how old the sixth graders seemed. And then in sixth grade, how old the eight graders were. Now high school is long gone and I think, “What happened to those years?” I caught a glimpse of what an elderly person must mean when they say to me, “I remember when I was that age.”
I thought about the people we had already visited that morning in their tiny apartments or small, perfectly organized homes. There were the Browns, an incredibly round, elderly woman with glasses bigger than my fists and a feeble old man with dark age spots covering his thin face and bony neck. And of course, who could forget Genie? She wore an interesting choice of make up and fed the squirrels by hand. She has a wedding picture on her wall and talks about what a knock out she used to be. She never had to wear any make up, just a little bit of lipstick when she was on stage. All of them have stories and wisdom written in their calluses, scars, and wrinkled hands and constantly look back and say, “remember when?” Years of Sunday school remind me of James 4:14, our life is like a vapor. Here one minute, gone the next.
When we arrived at the first nursing home of the day, we made our way through the minefield of puddles in the parking lot, trying to protect the bottoms of our pants. The all too dreaded smell of nursing home flooded my nostrils with the automatic opening of the sliding doors. A four-foot tall woman in pinstriped pajamas scooted past us, inch by inch, in a steel walker. Her eyes remained locked to the floor, deep in concentration. I kept watching her, hoping we would make eye contact so I could smile. How sad to live your whole life only to regress back to walkers, diapers, and being fed?
A man with blue eyes and a baseball cap to cover his bald head told us in the elevator that his job was to feed the fish every other day. A job, which he took quite seriously. He proceeded to list the names of each fish. I suppose every person who’s kept gold fish has named one of them Goldie. He was no different.
“Well, hello Bea!” Liz said bright and cheery as we reached our destination on the third floor at last. Times like this made me especially thankful for Liz. I don’t think I could ever walk into such a depressing place and act like everything’s hunky dory. I managed raised eyebrows, a wide smile, and a hug. Hugging Bea felt like hugging my Great Aunt Irene. I dreaded it when I was little, but my mom always forced me and my sisters. Her shoulder blades were so thin, I was afraid to break her if I applied too much pressure. Of course now that she’s passed on, I’m glad I hugged her so often.
Liz and I sat on the two faded chairs for visitors in the room, which reminded me of a cheap motel. I found myself again thankful for Liz and her remarkable talent for making small talk. I was able to chime in a word here and there, but my job on these visits was to be the “young lady” whom folks could ask, how old are you, and how’s school going? And then proceed to tell me how school was in their day. This was fine with me.
“We just finished up visiting a few people and thought we’d come over here and see how you’re doing.” Liz spoke loud and precise as if talking to a non-English speaking third grader.
“My daughter brought me these balloons.” Bea croaked and pointed her weak, shaky arm in the direction of a dying balloon in the corner, fighting to float, but rather sinking miserably to the seldom-vacuumed floor.
“Pretty color.” I said. Pretty color? I thought. There’s nothing pretty about it. If anything, it makes me want to cry.
“Did you know Elizabeth plays the piano, Bea? Liz bragged like a grandmother would. Bea just nodded and mouthed, “Oh.”
Bea was sitting upright on her bed, not a bend in her spine. The bed had a metal bar around it. Her head did not sit on her shoulders, but floated just above her neck slightly, unintentionally swaying. She had no teeth. Her thin lips had to be repeatedly wetted with her dry tongue. The lights were off, but a stream or two of daylight packed with dust came from beneath the heavy curtains which blocked the view of the dumpster in the back, illuminating the thin short, slightly curled strands of her white hair. Her hands were in her lap as she conversed with no trace of energy in her voice or body movements. “How old are you” She asked.
“Eighteen, I replied with as much energy as I could muster up, nodding my head. She took in a long breath as she slowly shook her head from side to side. She seemed surprised by my answer. I was just about to say when my birthday was to put an end to the deathly silence. As if in slow motion, she parted her dry lips which haven’t seen lipstick in ages. Her gray, dim eyes looked squarely into mine and she said to me in an emotional whisper, “You have a long way to go.” Silence. I wanted to nod, or shrug, or “yeah,” or something, but I could only watch her. Suddenly Liz carried on the conversation, but I couldn’t hear what was said. All I could hear was that woman’s soft, worn aged voice tell me in awe and warning, “You have a long way to go.” But how long does vapor last?