Sunday, August 3, 2008

When Is Goodbye?

This was not a place that I wanted to be...not today and actually, not any day. There is such a feeling of hopelessness in this place. The paint on the cinder block walls can't hide that fact that the walls are still impenetrable for most of those who are here. As cheerful as they try to make it appear, there is little cheer here.

I contemplated not coming. I could have just driven by and come up with a good excuse. The traffic was pretty heavy because of the Seafair activities out on the lake. It was getting close to dinner time and I really didn't want to interrupt the meal time. I signed in and walked up the stairs. Seeing the door handle at the top of the door, out of reach for those who live here caused my heart to tighten. I knew what it must feel like for those in here who can't reach the door handle...who can't get out of this place. While it doesn't say "prison" any place here, that's what many of these people are in.

I looked around as I passed through the doorway, pausing and glancing down where the chairs are but there was no one there. I turned and walked down the hallway, past the nurse's station and turned right up her hallway. As I passed one of the day rooms, I stuck my head in and saw only empty chairs. Continuing up the hallway, I found the door to the small room she shared with another woman. A old woman sat in her wheelchair outside the door of the room, looking at me with a sense of confusion in her eyes. "Who is this man?", she must have been thinking.

I turned and quietly went into the room...darkened by pulled shades and lights in the off position. In the darkness, I could see that one of the beds was occupied by a woman that looked like she must be in her eighties...perhaps her nineties. She was sleeping soundly and I chose not to bother her. The other bed was empty, the thin blanket pulled up over the pillows. I'd never been in this room before...I didn't know which bed was hers.

As I turned and walked out of the room, the old woman in the wheelchair called out...whether for me or someone else, I don't know. I kept walking. Perhaps she would be in the dining room or in the TV room. As I turned the corner toward the dining room, there was an old, grey-haired woman, slowly scooting in her wheelchair toward the sliding glass doors that seemingly offered a means of escape from this place only to dash the hopes of the would-escapees by being locked. One of the wheels on the chair were locked as the woman pulled herself along...constantly being pulled to one side only to push herself off the wall to straighten herself back out.

The shoulder of her pink sweat top had slid down over her bare shoulder, but she seemed not to care...or notice. I walked up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder.

"Hi", I said in a gently firm voice, knowing that she was deaf in one ear.

She paused and looked up at me.

I've been here before, and part of the reason I hate this place is that this woman I came to visit today often doesn't even recognize me. Though she carried me for nine months and went through the pain of labor and childbirth to deliver me, her mind struggles for recognition.

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, "The Lord of the Rings...Return of the King" (I've seen the trilogy over six times each) where one of the kings (one of the good guys) is laying on the battlefield, his body broken. His daughter comes to his side and throws her battle helmet off, tears streaming down her face. The king opens his eyes and focus on his daughter.

"I know that face!", he declares.

Today in the place that smells of disinfectant and bodily excretions, this old woman looks up at me. Suddenly, her face breaks into a smile larger than I've seen on her in many years.

"I know you!", she tells me. I can see the tears welling in her eyes as she sees this man and recognition comes to her brain.

I bend down and kiss her and she returns the kiss, her face still smiling through her toothless mouth.

"Who am I?", I ask.

"You're my brother!", she exclaims with great pride. I stood there and held her hand and smiled at her.

"I love you", I said.

Her face continued to shine as she looked up at me from the confines of her chair. I unlocked the wheel of her chair and pushed her to the corner where there were chairs where I could sit down and visit. Visit is a kind word for the conversation. With her mind gone, mom had her own language that only she can understand. I sit and nod in agreement with her. I hold her hand and tell her that I love her and how pretty she looks today. Her conversation continued to jump from what may have been Mars or Venus. But I just sat there and looked at this woman who seemed happier than I had seen her in years.

"I recognized you today, and I was right", she said again with a sense of deep pride. I could tell that it was important to her. I can't imagine the mental prison she must be in. Once a very intelligent woman now struggling to put a sentence together and more often than not even recognizing the faces of her own children. Her smile made me want to cry as I sat and smiled with her. Soon it was time for me to leave, and I gave her a final kiss and turned and walked away...toward that door that has the handle I know she can't reach, no matter how hard she tries. I didn't look back, knowing that I would have seen her pushing her chair frantically after me, not wanting a familiar face to leave.

When I got home that night, I went to my computer to check my e-mail and to see if my sister had blogged recently. Debbie is a gifted writer who writes with a passion that I can only hope for. No matter the topic of her writing, she finds a way to touch the reader...and that night she touched me.

She wrote about her cat. Not just any cat, but a cat that she had raised from birth. Her cat is now fifteen years old and it has disappeared. In a very poignant way, the title of her blog asks the question that I found myself asking about mom..."when is goodbye?" She had been searching for her beloved cat for a full week and he had not come home. In her heart, she was struggling with whether or not it was time to accept that Tabasco wasn't coming home...that he was gone. There would be no more cat sitting at the window...or laying on her bed...or sharing her dish with the other cats. Was it time to acknowledge 'the end.'

As much as I hate going to that place on Mercer Island with the door handles too high for the patients to reach and strong odor of disinfectant, I know I'll go back. This visit reminds me that the visit isn't about's about this woman whose name is "mom." My heart breaks that I will never truly know her or who she was. I'll never have questions answered about my own life that only she can answer. I'll never be able to ask her questions that I should have asked years ago, but my pride prevented me. Today reminds me that there is a possibility that if I walk into that place on another Saturday afternoon, I'll hear the words, "I know you!" On that day, I might be Geoff, or Frank, or Bob or Grandaddy or her brother...or perhaps her mind might allow her to connect all the dots and recognize me for who I am...her son.

When is Goodbye? Not quite yet.

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