I asked my friend Edna if she would like me to write a personal ad for her. She’s buried two husbands, said she’s not looking for another. But for a little fun? Why not?
“Let’s see,” I said, “It would be ‘S’ for single, ‘W’ for white, umm, seeking younger man. Must be at least 100.”
Edna laughed. “Oh, no. That’s too old. I want someone younger.”
“How about 80?” I said.
“No. Younger,” said Edna.
“Okay. How about 39?”
“What are you going to do with a 39-year-old?” I said.
“I’ll tell you later,” Edna said, her hazel eyes eager with humor.
This could be a chat between any two 30-something women. But it wasn’t. Edna is 101.
My age is irrelevant.
What is relevant is that in the not-too-distant past, I had thought about writing a novel where everyone, when turning 80, is put to sleep. Permanently. That plot, unoriginal at best, would help ease the country’s and a family’s financial woes, erase the pain and suffering of those crippled in mind and body and relegated to nursing homes, and end the agony of those like my father, whose body lasted longer than his mind and will to live.
My father spent the last seven years of his life wishing he were dead. Sometimes he acted on those wishes, taking a bowl full of pills, trying to drown himself in a garbage can. But he never succeeded. Love, medication, psychiatric counsel: None of that helped. The only person who could save him from himself, my mother, was dead.
As I numbly walked through the halls of the nursing home where he lived his last few years of life, I was certain that, like my father, most of the other residents there, if given the chance, would pull their own plug.
But then in the fall of last year, while pedaling on a golden- and crimson-strewn bike trail near my home, I decided I wanted to go back to that nursing home to read the newspaper to the residents. I wasn’t sure if the driving force was a heart filled with the desire to do a good deed or a heart that had an empty spot that needed to be filled.
It makes me tremble with humility and guilt when I now think of the plot I wanted to turn into a best seller, a plot that inherently reeked of anger and judgment. It came from the creative soul of a person who believed, because of a personal yet limited experience, that life in a less-than-perfect state wasn’t worth living.
Nursing homes conjure visions of people who checked their heart and desire to live at the door. “Nursing homes give me the willies,” I’ve heard people say. “They smell,” some say. So unless visiting a parent or relative, most people stay as far from a nursing home as they can, perhaps fearing the disease of old age might be contagious.
I am here to tell you I have found more life and love in a nursing home than I’ve found in ages. Beneath the wrinkled exteriors are hearts and minds and love longing to be shared.
This last month I told my group about how when I was in college I stuffed my bra with tissue paper and headed uptown to the bars, where I sat with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. They loved it. When I asked if any of them had ever had a hickey, several guffawed. A former nurse blushed and admitted she had been given one, against her will, of course.
I read an article about how England was going to permit same-sex unions, which precipitated a discussion of whether they thought a person was born a homosexual or it was a behavioral choice. We discussed events in the news. Who would vote for a woman for president? Most hands went up. Last time I asked that question the answer was the opposite. Talk about flexibility.
Yesterday we began to plan a talent show. Edna has a Mae West line she performs wearing a black boa. Cletis, one of the two men in our group, still wears the Mardi Gras beads I gave him at our Fat Tuesday party. For Cletis, every day is Mardi Gras. One lady burst into song. By the last chorus everyone was singing. Estelle told us she would regale us with a few limericks. Dirty ones.
A couple of women said they didn’t believe they had a talent. I pooh-poohed that idea. They could be ta-da girls. When someone finishes their act, they would hold their arm out and say “Ta-da!”
At the end of an hour, with a hug and a kiss, I was on my way. “I don’t want to let you go,” Vivian said as she held her arms around my neck.
When my dad was in the nursing home, and I watched him drift away from me, I couldn’t wait to leave. Now, on Tuesday mornings when it’s time to go, I am delighted to say, “I’ll be back.”
Susan DeBow’s work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Poets & Writers, and Sasee, among other publications.