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Joseph E Bird

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nursing home

how did i get here?

you may ask yourself

Sunday, October 27. Mingo County, West Virginia.

We’re visiting my brother-in-law, Paul, at the nursing home on top of the mountain in Williamson. It’s a typical visit. We bring Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. Not Pepsi. Not Sprite. Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. We drop them off at the dining hall where a local gospel group is beginning to play. Two men, two women. An acoustic guitar wired to a little Fender amp. They sing loudly, all feeling, no nuance. Gathered around are the usual assortment of residents in wheelchairs.

Paul is there but he has no interest in staying so we go back to his room to visit a little. After a while, it’s time to leave. We hear the music from the dining hall so we go back to listen for a bit.

The music is as country gospel as you can get, full of twang and southern West Virginia. They’re singing a song I’ve never heard.

I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand.

Of course not like the video I just linked, but it’s the same song.

And there’s a lady lying horizontal in a wheelchair, clutching her sippy cup, her eyes closed. And she’s singing along.

In the back is another lady mouthing the words.

Gertrude, who says she’s ready to be with the Lord, is singing too.

John Michael looks to be in his thirties. He wheels up and asks for a microphone and one of the ladies obliges. John Michael sings his heart out, even if his voice is not what he wants it to be.

It’s hard not to be touched.

We finally leave and make our usual stop at Mickey D’s for coffee for the long ride home. Over the sound system, the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, is playing.

I remember the quirky alternative-rock song from so many years ago and it gets stuck in my head. I can’t remember all the words and when I get home I find it and play it.

you may ask yourself,
well, how did i get here?

David Byrne’s philosophical musings about how life blazes by and here we are. How did we get here?

Most folks in the nursing home are probably not prone to introspection, but there a few. I’ve talked with a veteran with no legs and he may ask himself.

Larry has family issues that haunt him. He may ask himself.

Our friend Peggy would. My God, what have I done? Not a question she would ask in vain, but a sincere pleading.

And so it goes.

Same as it ever was.

Tales from the home.

We were sitting in my grandfather’s room at the nursing home, talking about nothing, as you tend to do.

She walked in like a scary Joan Crawford, glancing at us before looking elsewhere as she made her way to the other side of the room.

“Are you looking for someone?” one of us asked.

She stopped cold. Her eyes widened. “Maybe I am.”

It was chilling. And later, funny. A short story that would be told often.

Her name was Joanne. She hadn’t meant to be scary. She hadn’t meant to offend. She was just disoriented. As are most people in the nursing home. That might not be an accurate statement. It’s just my casual observation.

I don’t know when nursing home visits became part of our routine, but they’ve been a fairly steady occurrence for the last twenty years or so.

My great uncle was a country preacher back in the day. A stern-looking man, very conservative, but with a good sense of humor. His last months were spent in the nursing home. He did not go gentle into that good night. He would lay in his bed and yell. And curse. At the top of his lungs.

It was scary. It was funny. But most of all, it was sad. It makes you realize that life is a struggle to be the kind of person you know you should be.

My grandmother, his sister, was in the same facility, although I’m not sure if it was the same time. She spent two years there after her stroke and was as quiet and gentle as she had been at home. My grandfather and two of his sons visited her almost every day. We would talk to her, tell her about the garden, the weather, and her great-grandchildren. Most times, there was no response. The visits were more for the visitors.

There have been more relatives, friends, and neighbors.

It can be heart-breaking, especially if you think about it too much. It helps when you realize that most of the residents are living in the moment. They all want to be someplace else. We all wish they could be.

This year, we’ve visited a friend who really doesn’t want to be there. When we would show up, she wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t even look at us. This continued for weeks.

Still, we tried.

Finally, she started to warm up. And though she’s far from normal, she at least welcomes our visits. We don’t know what brought about the change, whether it was meds (or lack of meds) or just an attitude adjustment. And we know it could go back to being icy on our next visit. Even if it does, we’ll go back.

Not because we get anything out of it ourselves. It can be taxing.

Not because we’re making the lives of those we see that much better. Most of the time they’ll forget we were even there.

Do you remember the last time someone smiled when they saw you? Do you remember how that smile made you feel? Just for that moment?

That’s it.

It’s just a better moment. For everybody.

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