I ask her if she’d like a hand massage today but she can’t hear. She lifts her head and fumbles with her hearing aid, which has been giving her a lot of trouble lately. I repeat my message with a progressively rising cadence and I can tell when understanding penetrates because she smiles. I think, looking at her, how isolated she must feel from so much of the rest of the world. She pushes her dry hand out to me and I cradle it, thinking how lucky I am to do so. I haven’t touched a hand that feels like this in a long time. I feel very aware of the delicate bones just underneath its papery surface. I rub lotion into my own hands first, trying to warm it just a bit and then begin to smooth it over the skin of hers. There are purple blotches haphazardly spread out over this skin and tentatively, I rub them, too. I’m relieved to see that it doesn’t hurt her. I chat inconsequentially as I rub and I can see, though she doesn’t say so, that she loves it. I don’t want you to go she says and I assure her that I’ve got no immediate plans to do so. Her hands are a microcosm of herself. They are so helpless and unable to salve themselves and yet in such dire need of the very things they can’t do on their own. I feel a surge of satisfaction to smooth the unscented lotion into her dry skin and see it transformed for a time.
I ask her about her husband, who has been gone now from her life for far too long. Ah. I loved him. He was a good man. He didn’t like to talk much, though. We were married for 34 or 43 years. I can’t remember which one. She then proceeds to tell me about the circumstances of his death, which happened at home while he was alone with her. Listening to her story, it occurs to me that each day with my own husband is a gift and that I’m wise to view these individual days together in that light.
As I look on, ignorantly and from the sidelines, it seems to me that old age is largely about the looking back upon life. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of present-tense sort of existence there in the senior’s home. The happiest elderly people I encounter are the ones who have nice things to look back upon, the ones who enjoyed nice relationships with nice people, the ones who have colored their lives with more primary yellow and less depleting gray. The ones who seem brittle and sad are the ones whose younger lives could probably have been described in the same way. Brittle and sad. Watching it all makes me know in my bones that I want to be one of the yellow ones. Clearly this means that I’d better be sure to color my current life in the same way. These are the salad days that I’ll be looking back upon with fondness. I’m going to try to make them as bright as possible, for I see now that they’ll need to last me for decades.