Killing Time

”You leave that chair right there!” squawked one of the older ladies.

“I want to...I want to move it closer to the door!” protested the other.

“Stop it! Stop talking crazy! It goes there. It. Goes. THERE.”

“But...my son is going to come pick me up...and when he does...I want to be closer...”

In the end, the woman who wanted to move the chair in the recreation room was outgunned and outnumbered, and she left. “It takes all kinds, doesn't it?” crowed her triumphant scolder.

It was a strange scenario that I watched unfold in the nursing home on Saturday morning as we visited my Uncle Jerry, who could no longer live on his own after dementia-induced incidents such as accidentally driving to Staten Island or leaving a paper cup to catch fire on his stove. I felt like I was back in preschool watching the ladies bicker. My uncle was oblivious, just sitting and staring and occasionally taking a potato chip.

It's a strange situation when the mind goes first, especially to the extent it does with Alzheimer's or dementia. Your loved one is both gone and still there at the same time. I lost another uncle about 8 years ago to Alzheimer's, but when my aunt's husband passed away it was almost like he'd already been gone for years and we were finally having the service. In the end he was just a shell of the man he used to be.

A few years back my Uncle Jerry moved from his house to an assisted living apartment complex. My mom and my other uncle went through the arduous process of cleaning out the house, where they themselves had once lived in their youth. Our basement is still cluttered with all the furniture and other sentimental items my mom rescued. A lot was sold. A lot was thrown away. Now that my Uncle is in a nursing home, my mom is once again cleaning, this time his apartment. Some books and other items have been brought to his room. He has an array of paintings which I photographed this weekend and hope to keep. He always spoke about taking courses when he was younger and being told he had talent. Most of his work is abstract, and my folks keep asking me if any of my artist friends could reuse the canvases. Some of them are huge and would fill a wall, and we have no room for them, but I hate the idea of something that someone created being painted over, or thrown out. I rescued many of the more reasonably sized ones, and may bring them to my office rather than clutter up the basement even further. If they are ultimately destroyed or recycled, at least I have a digital record that they existed, that he created something.

It's funny how we accumulate so much in our life. My mom found a lot of old photo albums as well, pictures from her own youth as well as those of mine and my cousin’s. There are definitely some parallels between my Uncle's life and my own. Neither of us ever married. We both studied art, but he became a draftsman like his older brother while I went into graphic design rather than illustration. He nearly died from cancer and had several feet of intestine removed. I almost bled to death from a birth defect and lost a few inches of intestine to correct the problem. He was an alcoholic when he was younger, and would often forget where he parked his car. My mom and my grandmother would have to drive him around on Sunday mornings until they found his vehicle. I do get a little silly when I drink, but remembering stories of my uncle has kept me from overdoing things to the point of forgetting, and while he was doing it every week in his 20s I might go to bar only 5 or 6 times in the course of a year.

After stopping by his old apartment to shoot the paintings and figure out some more items to keep, sell, or trash, I took my parents to the nursing home. I had yet to visit him there since he moved in, but I remembered the place from when one of my dad's sisters stayed there. It has since been renovated, with new carpets and new walls and windows, and looks like a fancy hotel. It's way nicer than the place my dad spent a month in back in February. My uncle showed some recognition when we arrived, but he tends to not respond until you ask him things a few times. We had to knock for a while before he came to the door, and my mom coaxed him to come downstairs and sit out in the courtyard for a bit. There, he found a quarter on the ground which he threw to my mom. She tossed it back, and he smiled as a game of catch ensued. He then cradled it in both hands with a mischievous glint in his eye, blew on it, and threw it on the table like he was rolling dice in a casino.

We sat outside for a while before going inside, where my mom bought him a bag of potato chips with the quarter he'd found. The room was packed full of people of varying ages, including the bickering women I mentioned earlier. There was free soda and tea, and we mostly sat in silence as I observed. I realized that progress, to some degree, is an illusion. Whether we're in preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, an office, or a nursing home, they're all just places we go to kill time with other people who are at the same level and stage of life we're in. The surroundings and activities change, and we age, but really it's all just a distraction. Homework, office deadlines, and bingo as well as nice surroundings keep our minds off the passage of time, and the inevitable and depressing truth of existence.

In the end, the whole afternoon took me back to a Seinfeld bit which sums things up in a more humorous fashion. He spoke about going to the movie theater and buying his tickets from a teenager. A few feet away, an old man was waiting to rip up the ticket. To Jerry Seinfeld, that theater lobby was the alpha and omega of the life cycle. That kid would go out, get married, have a career and a family and retire, and eventually come back to the theater again to be the guy ripping up the stubs: “It took him 80 years to move 3 feet.”


Blogger Lorna said...


8/14/2009 12:09 AM  

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