Plate Full O’ Lettuce
My friend, Melissa, is good with old people. She always has been. She has had a long career as a speech pathologist in a nursing home, dealing with people who, from what I can determine, mostly just choke on rice.
But speech pathology is not where she spends most of her time these days. These days, we are of the age where our parents are the old ones. So Melissa spends a lot of unpaid time in her mother’s nursing home. She lost her dad to Covid in July. Her mom, Myrna, who has been duking it out with dementia since 2008, now lives in a memory care facility with the likes of Carolyn, Leo, Kay, Francis, Mary, a guy who plays a mad harmonica, and Pauline. On any given afternoon, you can find Kay wandering the halls and disappearing into any room with an open door.
I am not good with old people. I wish I were better, but they scare me. They are unpredictable in all the wrong ways. Like—will they be wearing pants and do they have any teeth and will they walk into the wrong room and use the bathroom where there is no actual toilet? They ask unanswerable questions. They fall and can’t afford to. And the younger folk have to be ready to react.
Lately I’ve been trying to build some muscles in areas where I have none. I’d like to be more helpful with some of the older people, so I’ve been tagging along with Melissa when I can and trying to improve my reaction times and caretaking skills.
I’ve gone several times now and twice I was on my own with them. I tried not to wear my fear like the flashing strobe it is. But Pauline is special. Pauline knows. I don’t know what she was like before she began to fight with her memory, but I know who she is now. Pauline can read your soul. She could have told you I was a spoiled baby before I showed my true colors. Her dark blue eyes are wide open and seem to consistently penetrate beyond the surface answer I try to give her. I don’t know where my relationship with Pauline is going, but I know she’ll redirect it if she doesn’t like what she sees.
Pauline is the most lucid of all the residents I have met and spent time with. She hadn’t seen me in a week and remembered my name. We are good on my name now, but she still gets foggy about everything else, so we run through the same routine every time I come in.
“So you’re Missy, right?” she asks.
“That’s right,” I always say. “Hi Pauline.” And we exchange pleasantries. Eventually, she comes around to kids and families. She has one son, Brett. He visits every Sunday.
“So, Missy,” she always begins an exchange with my name. And she always has my attention. “What do you do for a living?”
We’ve been through this before. I don’t know why this question always embarrasses me, but it almost always does. I think it’s because I haven’t been gainfully employed since 2002, when Andrew was 10 months old and confined to a play yard in my upstairs loft. I quit when I couldn’t do both. I never regretted that decision, but I often regret the way my answers sound coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I try rewording it to see if it flies better in different winds.
“I don’t do anything that makes me any money,” I said to Pauline yesterday.
“Oh, that’s not what I asked you,” she retorted quickly. Does this woman really need to be in memory care? I look around to see if anyone else is wondering the same thing. “I didn’t ask you about money. I asked what you do.”
“Well,” I thought through it for a bit. “I raise kids for a living.”
“Well, ok. And how many kids do you have?” She followed. This was the same conversation we had a few days ago.
“Four,” I answered. It was good for me to be reminded.
“Wow! Four! Boys or girls?” She asked.
“Two and two,” I replied.
“Two boys. Two girls. You lucky bum!”
She was shaking her head at my situation, almost in awe of the information she had consumed that would filter through her before lunch was served.
“I am a lucky bum,” I said. “I’ve been lucky.”
“Actually, luck has nothing to do with it,” she decided. “The Lord blessed you.”
At this point, an old woman across the table, Mary, piped up. I didn’t know this woman yet. She was carefully bent over her plate and pushed a silver wisp of her perfect helmet of hair away from her face. She still had a bite of cake in her mouth.
“The Lord! Well. He did a LOUSY job with me!” Melissa and I were both wearing masks so it was easier to laugh undetected. When Melissa finished laughing, she decided to seek clarification.
“Why do you say that, Mary?”
I was still laughing. I almost couldn’t get it back at that point. Mary looked angry.
“Because someone broke in my room and stole my teeth! I had a nice set of teeth! They were expensive! People are so mean.” Her eyes roved from us to her cake plate again. I was ready with my alibi for the window where her teeth went missing, I half expected her to come after me.
At the next table, Francis was bent over a salad, trying to keep pace with the other residents and finish her dinner. Every other resident in the room had moved on to dessert. Francis, hunched over, was eye level to the food in front of her and finally took inventory of her situation. She spoke up in a quiet, raspy voice.
“Why does everyone else have chocolate cake and all I got was lettuce?”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve wondered this, I would have just that one nickel. But some variation of this question has passed my brain 100 times. And that’s like 5 dollars.
Some days are like this.
You end up with a plate full of lettuce while the rest of the world eats cake.