I’ve no idea why it's hitting me so hard, but I've been tossing and turning for hours. I finally gave up....as my head seems hell bent on spinning me into some sleepless frenzy.
Perhaps it was seeing Harry yesterday.
I volunteer at an old folk's home and Harry's one of my good friends there. He's in the hospital, not doing well, and everything that comes out of his mouth is sharpened by 93 years of wit. I asked him how his spirits were, and without skipping a beat, he told me...'The last bottle has been emptied.'
It was hard to know if some of what he said was the beginnings of dementia or if he was simply doing his best to tolerate his circumstances by living in his memory and imagination. He asked how I'd come to be there, adding that the train must be rather long and he couldn't imagine how I'd found his car.
He also told me there had been a grand fire the night before, right there...in that very building. He said it was quite a sight, with the children running up and down the halls...and so amusing to watch the instructors trying to corral them back to their rooms...'This is a school, you know.'
I sat with him for a couple hours. He was trying to eat his meal, with the shakiest of hands. I helped him hold a mug of coffee to his lips as his hands were too weak to manage without spilling. His eyelids seemed heavy...his eyes, sad. I asked if he struggled with boredom, and he said 'No, never. I'm just thinking of all the stories left untold.' When I asked if they were fiction or non, he said they were both....'I can twist two stories together and they can come visit me like brother and sister.'
I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and, again, quick as lightning, he said....'You can help me find a secret passageway outta here.'
I recently wrote a song for Harry called 'Pocket Diaries' and he requested that I write the lyrics on a piece of xerox paper for him. I did so while he watched me closely. I glanced at him and he acknowledged that I must be wondering what he was looking at. Then he told me that I needed to do a self-portrait and that my feathers were very becoming.
He started to fall asleep while I sat with him, so I left him and made my way down the hall to a room where another of my elderly friends has recently landed.
Her name is Vi...short for Violette. She's a spunky little woman from Quebec with the thickest of accents who can always be found walking with a strong, determined gait. She used to take as many as four walks a day, but sadly, she has taken a rapid turn for the worse. Though her body is healthier than any 90 year old I've ever met, her mind has finally given out.
As I approached her room, I saw her waddling towards me, a large bundle under one arm. She was trying to squeeze between a chair and another patient, in a hurry, as always....going somewhere that only she knows about.
She smiled when she saw me....a moment of recognition. She said something that sounded almost like my name, but not quite. It started with a 'z'...so I was grateful for that. I asked her where she was going....she told me 'home'. I gently guided her back to her room, where I found her bed, perfectly made, every pillow perfectly placed, the sheets folded back just so.
She was very busy....wrapping and re-wrapping a blanket...the bundle she'd been carrying, like a runaway child. She had several days worth of '24Hrs', a few magazines, a spit pan...a comb....diaper.....pencil......napkins......a bunched up hospital gown. She never stopped moving....caught in some invisible groove, babbling in some unintelligible mixture of French and English as she organized her bits and pieces.
She had a bus schedule.....something very important, and she couldn't decide where it should go. She began to fold it up in the corner of her perfectly creased bed sheets...folding, folding, unfolding....muttering all the while. She opened a drawer, stuffed the bundle inside, then thought better of it, pulled it out and started all over again.
I did my best to meet her where she was....talked to her about what she was doing.....agreed that it was of utmost importance. She had sharp, lucid moments, though fleeting. I told her I wanted to help and she looked at me, giggled and said...'I know! I love you!' I asked if she remembered my name....she grasped, reached, giggled and then smacked herself in the head for not knowing. Then she had another lucid moment...asked me when I was going traveling...but then she slipped right back into her solitary, busy world.
She seemed agitated...nothing was in its right place. She was looking for something........shoes. I helped her find them as they were hiding under the bed. By now she had pulled on her fleece coat, and she began to wedge her toes into one shoe. The fit was tight, as she was wearing thick, slip-proof socks, but she was determined. I asked her where she was going...'For a walk'....I gently reminded her that she didn't need her shoes for a walk inside, to which she responded...' I know...but they're all I've got.'
My heart was breaking as I watched her, once again refolding her things into a bundle. I asked her if she ever sat down...if she ever let herself relax. She stopped and looked at me like that was the silliest question she'd ever had to answer.....'no, no, no....never....' as she continued to busily arrange everything in sight, her secret language sounding sweet and beautiful, yet heart-wrenchingly incoherent.
It was almost as though her hands were desperately trying to reorganize her language.....to find structure...like she could simply open a drawer and find her missing words.
I gave her a deep hug, told her I'd visit again and wished her good luck with her busy work. I then returned to Harry's room to say goodbye, promising to return soon.
I suppose I didn't realize how deeply affected I was by both of these encounters until I laid my head on my pillow....
This life is precious. We gather bits of ourselves and bundle them up and we share what we can before we go. But, when we reach the end, however soon or late it comes......how do we find the grace to let go?
My time with Harry....and Vi...and Irma, and Art, and Flo, and the late Aileen and Sy......it has enriched my life in unimaginable ways. It simply cannot be measured. It has shown me the value of living in the present....of cherishing each blessing and loving those we can, while we can.
Tomorrow, I'll take my journal back to the hospital and read to Harry as he always read to me. And perhaps they'll let me take a walk around the ward with Vi...we'll do laps and chatter away in secret languages that only she understands.
These are things that my heart has need of....