After her stroke, my mother-in-law required six weeks of rehab. Like her, many of the patients at the care facility have Alzheimer’s. The large room where the group activities—bingo, name that tune, coloring books—take place is filled with a heady mixture: the nobility of staff nurturing a spark of life, as well as visual proof that “the golden years” can be a misnomer of the highest order.
Lu and I had just endured a Bingo Marathon in Dining Room #1, and I wheeled her out for a hallway stroll. She asked for the 108th time: “Why am I here?” “You had a stroke.” “How do you get that?” “High blood pressure.” “How do you get that?” “Popcorn, too much popcorn as a kid.” Lu laughs at my silliness, and that’s reassuring. Her humor remains immune.
As we strolled along, I spied a calendar and noticed: “3 p.m. Wednesday—the Rosary, Dining Room #2.” It was 3:05 Wednesday. Lu is one happy Catholic, who thanks God for her faith several times a day. This is reassuring but can drive you nuts. We raced down the hallway toward Dining Room #2. As we got closer, we heard the lilting strains of a woman singing, “Come to us Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with love.”
Inside I saw about 20 elderly people in wheelchairs and five lying on gurneys. They surrounded a table with so many statues of saints it looked like an altar. A woman standing in front of the table held rosary beads above her head, moving her fingers in sync with the Hail Mary that Father Scallon on a CD, in a brogue you could pinch, prayed aloud. The woman worked her way through the field of wheelchairs and gurneys and gave Lu and me white rosaries. We were in: official members of the 3 p.m. Rosary Society.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
I looked around. Each person held a white rosary, but most were—oh my God!—asleep. What kind of society was this?
One woman on a gurney had no control of one arm, which went up and down in a slow, mesmerizing rhythm. Stretched over her ever-moving hand were white rosary beads. They went up and down, up and down—a holy sight.
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
I stared at the rising beads, I heard the priest, I watched the volunteer who was so accepting of the flawed followers of Christ, I heard the lilting voice of an Irish singer. I was captured in the holiness of it all. I glanced at Lu. She was asleep.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
After the last Hail Mary, the volunteer collected the white rosaries. She smiled at each person, awake or not. Her smile was the real final prayer.
I looked around: the nun on a gurney who needed a bib to catch the saliva from her mouth; the woman who prayed with such fervor that the presence of God felt nearer still; the nurse who came in early for her shift so she could be a part of this holy gathering. I was in awe of His presence.
We returned the following Wednesday. The same aura permeated the room. But then, God works in strange and humorous ways.
The woman in the wheelchair next to me had only one wheel locked. She was able to rotate her chair so she stared right at me. I tried on a fake smile. She stared back.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
The woman rotated again, this time slamming into the woman behind her. “What are you doing? Cut it out! What’s the matter with you?” The slammer delivered another holy slam.
I looked at the volunteer. She held the beads on high as the Irish singer sang, “Mary, Our Mother, bless us this day.” The sentiment was terrific, but the situation to my immediate right definitely required some human intervention.
“Cut it out! I’m warning you!”
I intervened, fully aware that rosary disputes are tricky. I pointed the feisty slammer toward the holy table with all the statues. As I began to lock both wheels of her wheelchair, she stared at me and whispered, “Put me on the high road.” I flinched. How does one respond to such a mandate?
Back to the safety of my chair I sought solace from my borrowed white rosary. Then a woman on the far side of the room started talking to herself. The woman next to her explained her position on this event. “Will you stop that? How can I pray when you’re jabbering away?"
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus.”
An elderly man wheeled in his elderly wife. She said loudly, “Get me a ham on rye with mayo.” The man walked to the back of the room where several cooks were preparing the evening meal. Then he returned. “What did you want?” “Ham on rye with mayo!” He headed back again, but stopped, hesitated and returned to his wife. “Mayo? Did you say ‘mayo’?” “Of course mayo! Fifty years and you don’t know I want mayo!"
“. . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
If we are made in God’s image, then laughter must be “of God.” I sometimes think God loves us so much because we are profoundly perfect goof balls.
Before I left I prayed to the Holy Spirit for inspiration as to how I might respond to the nun who had said, “Put me on the high road.” I went to her, bent down so we were at eye level and said, “Sister, you’re on the high road, and it’s heading straight to heaven.” I waited. Nothing. But then, there it was. A tiny nod, a tiny smile.
Ed Stubbing, who lives in Stony Point, New York, retired in 1999 and writes articles and screenplays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org:email@example.com.