Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two old ladies

As the school year has progressed in tandem with my relationship with Dreamy, it has become increasingly difficult to squeeze in visits to the nursing home where 97-year-old Celine, the Hospice patient I volunteer to spend time with, is living out her last days. Still, her bright smile, silly phrases ("Here comes my big doll! You're a doll, but not a crocodoll!"), and warm personality have motivated me to continue to find time for her, albeit not as much as I spent with her last summer when I had little else to do.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from my Hospice coordinator asking if I would be interested in taking on Celine's roommate, Midge, as well. I accepted reluctantly. Midge is, amazingly, even older than Celine, and will soon celebrate her 103rd birthday. Like Celine, she has Alzheimer's, but unlike Celine it has had a negative impact on her personality. She often yells at me, or bossily instructs the nurses to kick me out when I visit Celine. When she is in a kinder mood toward me, she beckons me to come over and warns me about other people who she is suspicious of. While I am sure she was once a lovely person, it is, frankly, enough to give one nightmares.

Still, I felt that I should accept because she and Celine are best friends, and because logistically it makes sense since they are together constantly. They have spent the past 13 years together, sharing a tiny room with parallel single beds, eating every meal together, and spending 90% (if not more) of every day together.

So it was with a bit of nervousness that I set off last Sunday to the nursing home, steeling myself for unpleasantness from Midge (most recently I was warned to keep my hair away from her as she has begun to grab hair) but looking forward to seeing Celine. When I arrived, I checked their usual hangout spots -- their bedroom, a small sitting room, and the dining room -- to no avail before heading to the front desk to inquire for their whereabouts. The woman at the desk looked stricken when I said their names, and informed me that Celine had passed away the prior evening.

I realize it's a bit ridiculous, but I was shocked. Yes, she's in a Hospice program, and yes, she wasn't able to keep down food the last time I saw her, two and a half weeks before (not to mention that she's 97 years old!). But I thought it was just the stomach flu. Over the summer, each time I went to visit I half-expected her to have passed, but eventually I began to think she might last a couple more years. Clearly, she was ready to go; she had little more to look forward to in life. Still, the way she managed to remain positive under such difficult circumstances was truly inspirational, and I felt her loss tremendously.

Midge, it turned out, was on another floor at a Christmas concert, so I headed down while wiping the tears from my eyes. Most of me wanted to turn around and leave, but I certainly didn't want to have to come back the following weekend, so I decided to stay for a little while and spend time with Midge. When I got there, she was hunched over a cold slice of pizza while a cheesy singer sang Christmas classics like "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" and "White Christmas."

"Let's get out of here," growled Midge when I asked if she was enjoying the concert, "QUICK." I hesitated, unsure what to do, then pulled Midge's wheelchair out and headed back to the 4th floor.

"Do you want to sit and chat?" I asked when we arrived at the sitting room, thinking nostalgically of my many long chats with Celine that mostly consisted of her telling me how happy she was that I had dropped by. "No!" she barked back, "Take me that way." She lifted a knobby hand and indicated a long hallway. Obediently, I started wheeling her down.

At the end, we came to a right hand turn. "Go left," Midge instructed. "L-E-F-T! Left!" she barked more insistently as she felt me turning her wheelchair the only direction I could go. "There is no left turn!" I replied as cheerily as possible. We walked by some people who were standing and chatting. "Get out of the way!" she shouted, and I smiled apologetically and waved.

After our fruitless walk around the building, a half hour had passed since my arrival. Usually I stay longer, but at that point I was done. I bid Midge goodbye, telling her I was sorry for the loss of her friend. I'm not sure she understands that Celine has died, but perhaps on some level she was sad. And, in the end, my loss is really nothing compared to hers.

Even if I weren't insanely busy it would be hard to face such unpleasantness. Given how full my calendar is, I'm not sure how much longer I can keep this up -- unless, of course, Midge moves on to a better place soon and I inherit a new Hospice patient!

Then again, I should probably just be grateful she didn't get ahold of my hair.

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