I have another sweet friend who’s fading. Her husband of decades and decades recently died and I’m chagrined to see her grow more transparent each week she lives on without him.
My prayer is that she’ll rally and grow strong again, but my fear is that this might be the beginning of her earthly end. She’s devolved from being a woman who was noteworthy in her ability to be independent to being this quiet frail thing sitting under the ubiquitous folds of an afghan.
In a place chock full of things like wheelchairs and walkers jamming up the corridors, she was elegant in her independance. She would gracefully walk her myriad visitors to and from the front entrance as they came and went. She was dressed impeccably and it was a point of pride for her to don something pink as her sweetly cheeky signature. When her husband died, it seemed as though her independance did too. There is no longer someone who needs her, rising up hugely to fill her days. In the early days I spent at the home, the only thing she ever asked me for were little comforts she could use to minister to her husband. It was never she who needed a glass of apple juice, it was the quietly fading man in the easychair who did. I still have a picture in my brain that shows her lovingly holding the juice up to his uncooperative lips. She was slow and painstaking in her ministrations. And now the love that fueled her seems to have shrivelled up and blown away. You hear of this happening: healthy people dying shortly after their loved ones do. And now here it is – this dynamic splayed out before me – so that I can see it unfold with my own sad eyes. Cliche though it sounds, she seems to have lost the will to live.
Each week I see her now, she seems less of herself. It’s as though she’s dying by degrees. Now she sits in a wheelchair and the addition of this contraption to her life saps her of some of her dignity. Her eyes are always pink-rimmed and it takes her longer and longer now to recognize me. It’s as though she slowly makes her way through a messy, cluttered, cobwebby living room in order to answer the front door. My greeting is the clanging doorbell. Understanding eventually lights up her eyes but I notice sadly that each week it takes longer. I realize that I’ve come to love her in some superficial way. What I feel for her is no doubt vastly inferior to the ways in which her children and their children think of her, but in my own peripheral, stranger-esque way, I love this woman.
Alongside this realization comes a corresponding insurgency. I find that I’m uncomfortable with loving her and with acknowledging this love to myself. I know I won’t have her in my life for very much longer and I scramble for some emotional barrier to shove between she and I so as to preserve my pathetic, narcissistic self. The recreation director at the senior’s home originally asked that I visit a group of seven women, and I find now that my list dwindles to two.
Though I’m not sure what I expected, somehow, naievely, it wasn’t this. I suppose I thought I would be Susie-Sunshine liberally peppering the paths of cheerful seniors with joy and love and ethereal laughter, skipping along her merry, fairy-tale way. I suppose if I’m being honest with myself, I patted myself on the proverbial back as I imagined my selfless ministrations lighting up their lives and their faces. Now that I think of it, it was something out of a ridiculous Mike Myers movie. I don’t know what I thought and I feel a stab of irritation with myself as I reflect upon my lack of understanding. I guess what I wasn’t expecting was that I would come to view some of the people here as genuine friends and that they would then proceed to die or to move on to palliative care units located vastly elsewhere. I guess I wasn’t expecting that these people would end up giving me far more than I could give them.
And so my friend sits there in her wheelchair, hour after hour. She’s a wispy little thing who shuffles herself around ineffectively at the best of times. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s easier to just sit there, rather than to summon the energy to make your voice rise up loudly enough to make yourself heard. The lethargy overtakes them when they’re like this and then you know they won’t last long, here in this world. Soon, the rigors of the wheelchair itself prove to be too much for them and they find themselves needing to lay down in bed for portions of their days. And so it goes.