Saturday, April 10, 2010

What do I think I can do?

I'll be honest, I was was grateful to find Mr. N. asleep in his room when I arrived at the nursing home last week.

I saw the Hospice nurse at the door on my way into the facility. Although she cheerfully told me that Mr. N. would be happy to see me if I woke him up, I was not inclined to do so. This not just because I didn't want to disturb him, but more because when he is awake, I am not quite sure what to say to him.

Since I started seeing him several months ago, Mr. N. has never been what I would call coherent. For example, when I first met him, he was visiting with his daughters in his room on a Sunday morning. Having never met me, the daughters greeted me with some understandable circumspection, but Mr. N. had no such reservations.

He smiled broadly and took my offered hand. "Well," he said, "It's sure been a while since I've seen you!"

Now, to this assertion I could only agree. "Indeed!" I said, "It's a pleasure to see you!"

The daughters looked at me quizzically. I quickly assured them that this was in fact our first meeting. I introduced myself, of course, and soon left them with a promise to return to visit Mr. N. on a weekly basis.

Each visit has been marked by a visible bit of decline in Mr. N. Though not unexpected, it does limit the interaction we've had. Try though I might have to talk about the weather, or to ask about his family, he's never really answered any of my questions. And try though he might have to respond to my queries, nothing approaching a coherent conversation has emerged from our visits.

At least until last week.

Thinking--hoping--that I would find him in repose when I arrived, I brought my book. I soon sat relieved in the big chair in the corner, watching him snore while I pretended to read. But, not a moment after I sat down, I was startled by the sound of an old woman's voice. She was loudly calling for help.

"Someone please help me!"

I sat up. The voice was coming from across the hall.

"Please, someone help me."

I started to get up.

"I need to get off the train!" she said, in a very matter-of-fact tone. I stopped to listen some more. It was not so much what she said, but the volume of her voice and the anxiousness therein that caught my attention. She was calling out as though to someone whom she could see but who couldn't hear her. it was as if she were calling to someone through the window of a train.

"I need to get off the train." Her voice was insistent and impatient. She went on and on.

"I need to get off in Chicago. Do you know if this train goes to Chicago? I need to get on the train so I can get off the train. I need to know if this is the right train. Is this the train to Chicago? If so, I need to get off, in Chicago. If not, I need to get on the train to Chicago so I can get off in Chicago. So, I need to get on the train so I can get off the train. Please, someone help me. Help me get off the train."

All this she said without taking a breath it seemed. I sat on the very edge of my chair, book folded over my hand, eager to move and satisfy my curiosity, but at the same time, paralyzed by the tenor of her voice.

I began to wonder. Was there someone in the room with her? Or, was she just calling out to anyone who might hear? She was talking so loudly that it seemed unlikely anyone was with her, but I was becoming more and more curious. Why had no one come to calm her down? Would anyone ever come?

My curiosity overtook me. I got up and slowly crept out of Mr. N's room to have a look. There was no one in the hall and no one coming to check on her, so I angled over to the point where I could see into her room.

The old woman was lying quite alone in her bed, with eyes closed and arms folded across her chest in a corpse position. Her hands were balled into fists and she was still talking at the top of her lungs to no one at all.

But, no sooner than I crossed into her field of view, her eyes popped open and she turned to look at me.

"Who's there?"

Like a six-year old child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, I felt the hot flush of embarrassment and I fled back to the quiet safety of Mr. N's room. I jumped back into the chair and opened the book, though I had no illusions about being able to read.

"I need to get off the train. Please, someone, help me get on the train so I can get off the train in Chicago."

And so it went, for another twenty minutes. I sat on the edge of the chair, paralyzed byt the metaphor and watched the shadows cross the wall. I listed to Mr. N's soft snores under the constant railing from the lost traveler across the hall. I thought of Lynda, who employed the very same metaphor when she at last realized that she was dying. And, I thought of Mr. N., who couldn't ask to get off even if he wanted to. Or so I thought.

At 4:20, two young attendants came in to wake Mr. N for dinner and get him into his wheelchair. In less than twenty seconds, they woke him up, sat him up and transfered him to his chair. When I first saw this procedure several weeks ago, I thought it was rude to say the least. But this time it seemed more efficient than undignified.

After one of the attendants wiped his eyes and put on his glasses, I stepped up to say hello.

In spite of his condition, Mr. N. has never failed to greet me with a smile, and this time was no exception. Today, however, perhaps because he was just freshly awakened, he seemed to be a bit more present. His eyes focused on me as I took a seat on the bed next to him.

"We'll have to see what we can do," he said, quite clearly as he looked at me, "In terms of the company."

I had no idea what he meant by this at first, but it quickly occurred to me that he might be interviewing me for a job.

Now, up till this point, I had never considered what I would say if I could actually understand Mr. N. I took it for granted that we would never have a meaningful conversation of any sort.

Yet, in this brief moment, Mr. N. seemed so lucid that it would have been disrespectful to remind him that I was a Hospice volunteer, not a job applicant at the company for which he used to work. Why not play along?

So I did. I said simply, "Thanks, I appreciate the opportunity."

He said, smiling again, "Where do you live?"

"South Austin. Brodie and William Cannon. It's very convenient."

"Good," he said, studying me with soft pearlescent grey eyes.

"So, what do you think you can do?"

Suddenly the game became a serious one. What a question! And from such a source! What could I say that would make sense? To him or me? I found myself in a gravity well, spinning round with the force of falling. Down the rabbit hole. Suddenly I was the one who wanted off the train.

Fortunately, I was saved by the attendant, who returned to take Mr. N. to dinner.

"4:30! Time for your dinner Mr. N!"

She smiled at me but had no idea why I had that conflicted look on my face. I shook Mr. N's hand and wished him an enjoyable dinner. He looked at me blankly again, caught back up in the quotidian world as she rolled him away.

I was left wondering, as I am still. "What do I think I can do?"


d2 said...


bc said...

Indeed, "What can I/you/they do?" Month after month our harmonica band plays for nursing homes and care centers and hospice centers and we watch those who are getting on or off "the train." If you learn of answers to that eternal question please let me know. Meanwhile, I will continue to try to brighten the corner where I am.
Proud of you for keeping involved in Hospice! bc