When I was young, we called them old folks homes. People use more enlightened terminology these days. Retirement Homes. Assisted Living. Convalescent Homes. Unfortunately, these places are still quite often used as warehouses for the elderly and the inconvenient.
Having chosen not to have children, I often worry about my future. I don’t fear death. What I fear is winding up in one of those human warehouses, my body being indifferently maintained by strangers. That, to me, would be hell on earth.
I come by that feeling honestly. There’s an image embedded deep in my brain that I will carry with me for as long as I live. It is of an old, emaciated man, in a dimly lit room, and he’s crying.
I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. I was on a field trip. We had spent several days hand making Christmas cards in class in preparation for our visit to an old folks home nearby. We sang Christmas carols, and we gave out these cards.
I was a shy, quiet, chronically depressed child. All this activity and noise had me really intimidated. I hung back and watched as the other kids gave out their cards, with mixed results. Many of the patients were unresponsive. One ate a card as if it were a Christmas cookie. The attendants seemed unconcerned.
Other residents were, if anything, overly responsive, shouting with delight and giving bear hugs. They scared me most of all. I don’t come from a demonstrative household, and I wasn’t comfortable with this kind of behavior from total strangers. I didn’t want to give my card to one of them. It would take some research to find the perfect nonintrusive and yet mentally present elderly person to interact with.
One advantage to being the most quiet child in a group is that you get to fly under the radar. That’s how I found myself wandering all alone down a deserted side hall. It was quiet there. What a relief.
At the end of the hall I saw a partially opened door. I peeked inside. The shades were closed and the lights were low. It was really hard to see, but I could tell that there was someone lying in a bed. I thought this person was sleeping. Maybe I could sneak in and leave the card on the nightstand and then make a break for it, having fulfilled my obligation.
So I went inside, approaching the bed as quietly as I could. But before I could put the card down, a claw-like hand reached out and took it. I turned to look at the man, and was instantly terrified. He had tubes and wires coming from all directions, and he was so skeletally thin that he barely looked alive. And yet there he was, gazing at my card. My heart was pounding out of my chest.
And then he started to cry. I hate it when men cry, because many of them do it so rarely that it means they really, really feel it. It makes me feel helpless.
He said, “Nobody ever comes to visit me. Thank you so much.”
I said, “You’re welcome. I have to go now.” And I backed out of the room.
The adult me wishes I had done more. I wish I had stayed and talked. I wish I had touched his hand. I wish I had wished him a Merry Christmas. Something. But I was just a scared kid who was entirely out of her element.
I haven’t always been able to afford fancy gifts at this time of year. But sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to just show up. Ever since that long ago day, I’ve done my best to at least show up for the people in my life. It’s not much, but sometimes it can be everything.
Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. Equal amounts of love and respect to those who don’t.