A college friend of ours, Dani Clark, wrote this reflection about her experiences visiting a nursing home. We asked her if we could reprint it here.
I had to laugh out loud when I read about the smuggled “cafeteria booty”. As I write this I have here on my desk (compliments of Parklands) two packs of cheesy crackers, some oreos, and two of those restaurant-style jelly packets with the peel-back foil lid (one grape, one mixed fruit). I almost always accept gifts from nursing home residents, because they don’t often get to experience the joy of giving. — Steve
A Visit With Dee, by Dani Clark
It’s another Sunday afternoon at the nursing home.
My friend Dee is waiting for me at the entrance, bouncing her birdlike frame from foot to foot, impatient for the cigarettes I promised to bring. Newport 100s, as always.
I got you a present, she says, handing me a trash bag as I slip her the contraband cigarettes. Inside is cafeteria booty: two sodas, a Nutrigrain bar and a plastic fruit cup. Her wizened, nearly toothless face looks at me with expectation. Will you use it? I hope you can use it.
This is our routine.
Yes, yes, I will use it. Thank you so much.
We sit outside while she smokes. The weather is fair and snow water drips from bushes nearby. She’s happy, she tells me, that her youngest child surprised her with a visit the other day.
Michael is 40 now, a janitor in a Virginia Beach motel. He was 12 when his father died and things fell apart. When Dee became addicted to Valium and lost the house. When she lost him, and his four siblings. When she took to the streets and then they lost her—for 20 years.
Maybe I can finally get my own place by Easter, Dee says, sucking in smoke. Michael can visit and I can cook for him. We can do what we used to do in the old days: take a trip to McDonald’s and go to the mall.
This dream is Dee’s obsession, and I’ve heard it a million times. I never know what to say. It’s clear she can’t take care of herself physically. She’s lucky to be in the nursing home.
But something else is on her mind today. Yesterday, someone died.
Dee didn’t know her too well. But the death, when she reports it, prompts a serious look, and a confiding, low voice. Dani, is there such a thing as a shot to make you live longer? Her eyes search mine, reminding me of a child. I tell her there are many medicines for many different types of diseases, but there’s no magic shot.
Her chin drops and carries her head down with it. Dee is 69 years old. Someone told her there was a shot.
We all have to die, she says, nodding now, and resigned. But what happens then, Dani? Is it real that we go to heaven? I don’t want to die here.
My answer is wanting and incomplete, exactly how I feel. But Dee seems so relieved of it, of the clichés I repeat, harkening things the nuns told us in grade school. My hands feel so empty, my heart so poor.
The cigarette is a stub. It’s time to go inside.
Before leaving I make the rounds of the dining room and run into William. He wants to talk. I haven’t known him that long, but there’s a connection between us, a spark of recognition shining from the eyes.
Who this elderly black man was or what he did before he was confined to an electric wheel chair is still a mystery to me. But I do know that he is lucid and wise, and that he thinks deeply about things—rare attributes, in the nursing home.
He’s worried about the residents, he says, they all seem so down because of the death. He plans to purposefully lose a game of chess with Maurice, just to make Maurice feel better. He knows everyone thinks about death, especially in the nursing home, especially when you get older, he says, but he doesn’t worry about it anymore.
No. If you pay attention, if you pay deep attention, William says, you will realize something. Heaven is right here too. It always has been and always will be. Heaven is happening now.
My heart leaps. I know what he is saying is true. And I grab a pen so I don’t forget it.