Everything seemed so calm on Wednesday at the nursing home, little did I know it would just be a facade. I arrived a short time before dinner did, which always means I have a few minutes to "work the room." It's taken me some time to become comfortable enough to walk around from person to person, asking each how they're doing, giving them a little shoulder squeeze. Even now I don't feel completely natural doing it, but I just worry that the only people these folks see regularly are nurses and that maybe they can use some outside interaction.
When the food finally arrived I sat between Angie and Mary, as usual, and proceeded to alternate feeding them pureed taco salads and apple sauce. They both had pretty good appetites and Angie smiled a lot and pointed to her only teeth - the six or eight on the bottom - business as usual. When Inez's food arrived, she was fidgety and, also as usual, pushed her tray away and refused to eat. This is pretty much par for the course for Inez so I just gently pushed the tray back and encouraged her to eat. Since she is deaf and mute, I'm not sure what she's getting out of my commentary, but it's all I know to do. Inez continued to push her tray away, which then hit other trays on the crowded table, which agitated the girls. Mattie, my Tina Turner look-a-like, even attempted to feed Inez, which freaked me out. Here was a woman with dementia feeding another woman with dementia as if only one of them suffered from it. Still Inez refused and, before I knew what was going on, she pulled off her cheap, black suede shoe and sent it flying across the Muzak-filled room. It sailed through the air for what seemed like a full minute of hang time until it landed squarely on Ruthie's shoulder and fell to the floor. Ruthie was simply sitting there, waiting patiently for her meal like she does every day, when this flying shoe came out of nowhere and almost conked her on the head, and she didn't even flinch. It was like it never happened. I got up and picked up the shoe and handed it back to Inez, trying to demonstrate with my hands that the shoe goes back on her foot, not into the air. It worked, but Inez never settled down and pretty soon one of the nurses had to remove her from the dining room. Inez was slapping herself and rapping on the table top and disturbing everyone. She seemed happy to leave, and so did everyone remaining at the dinner table.
After I had helped clear trays and told the ladies to be good till next week, which usually makes them smile, I walked down the hall to leave. Out of the corner of my eye I saw skinny Bernice sitting in her wheelchair with her head poking out of the door to her room. Since I didn't see her at dinner and she's always good for a chuckle, I thought I'd stop and say hello before I left. When I reached her, she looked like she was trying to roll out of her room, so I asked if she needed any help. She said she needed help getting into bed. Even though tiny Bernice can't weigh more than ninety pounds, I am not trained to assist a person from a wheelchair to a bed, so I told her I'd go get the nurse. Suddenly, without warning, Bernice started to cry. "What's wrong, Bernice?" I asked gently. "The nurses won't help me, they don't like me," she sobbed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, I'd never seen Bernice sad before and it broke my heart. I tried to convince her that not only did the nurses not dislike her, they really loved her quite a lot, that they thought she was funny and sweet, but Bernice wouldn't hear it. She continued bawling until her eyes were beet red and her face was soaked with a combination of hot tears and snot.
Since it would take a few minutes for a nurse to come as they were busy finishing up the dinner service, I thought I would try to diffuse Bernice's sadness by distracting her. I walked into her room, expecting to see lots of personal effects I could comment on, things like Hummel figurines and fake flowers and framed photos of cute children. But there was almost nothing in the room except for a television, a green teddy bear and a framed head shot of a chubby woman obviously taken many years ago. As Bernice sat agonizing in her wheelchair about how the staff hates her, I asked her about the woman in the framed photo. She told me it was a picture of her from high school. The woman in the photo was probably Bernice, with several more pounds and many fewer years than now, but I highly doubt it went as far back as high school. Nonetheless I told her she looked really pretty as she blew her nose and then, when it was clear she wasn't going to stop crying and out of complete desperation, I complimented her little flat screen television. Through her sobs she managed to squeak out, "It cost $300," which made me smile a little on the inside, if not the outside. I didn't know what else I could say to Bernice to make her stop crying, I'd pretty much surveyed her entire life in less than sixty seconds and had nothing else to comment on in the room. If you think that little piece of information won't stick with an outsider like me for a long time, think again. Finally I told Bernice that a nurse would be happy to help her into bed and I walked down the hall to get one. The nurse shook his head when I told him what Bernice said and told me that of course he likes her. I told him I knew that, but at the moment Bernice didn't. The female nurse put down the meal trays and followed me back to Bernice's room and, once she saw her distraught state, went to get a washcloth that she wetted with warm water and used to wash away Bernice's endless tears.
Once the nurse was there to help, Bernice seemed to let go of her sadness and allowed the nurse to assist her into bed. I told Bernice I'd see her next week and I walked to the elevator, glad that she could forget her sudden sadness so quickly and wishing with all my might that I could do the same.