The nursing home I work in tries to project the image of a fine hospital: clean, brightly lit corridors, buffed floors, flower arrangements in the public areas. But in the rooms where I rotate elderly people in bed, or adjust gurneys to suitable heights, no one waits to receive discharge papers signed by a doctor. Like the Roach Motel, you check in, but don’t check out.
When I’m around the floors, I sometimes see family members sitting in silence, putting their time in with an unresponsive mother or father. Out of boredom, conversations are attempted, but they rarely last. Neither do the visits.
I’m a porter at the home, and wheeling new residents from the lobby to their rooms, and then back and forth to the second floor cafeteria are among my duties.
Louie is my co-worker, one of the people I depend on to keep me in touch with the real world. But Louie’s world can be trying in its own way. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t complain or editorialize about the work we do or people we do it for. He sees his job as a way to pay the rent, but I think he’d vote to eliminate these places if he could, and then maybe go back to being a janitor.
“A lot going on in 504,” Louie says with a smirk, after we watch Bill Stewart refusing to make eye contact with his daughter feeding him apple sauce. “Ask the pharmacy if they keep arsenic in stock.”
“What are you gonna do? It’s the way things are,” I say, leading him toward the laundry room. “You’ll be there, too, soon enough.”
“Yeah, well, keep a loaded gun on my end table. I’ll figure out the rest.”
“You’re so screwed up, Louie.”
“At least I won’t bankrupt my family when I’m useless.”
A call comes over the speaker to go to Rosalie Clark. She needs assistance getting to the bathroom. I tell Louie I’ll handle it, and when I get to her room I watch the nurse moving her wheelchair so we can put her in it. Rosalie had a stroke two years ago, and it appears her family has given up on her. She hasn’t had a visitor in months.
“How are you feeling, Rosalie?” I say as we lift her into the chair.
She’s staring at the ceiling, and I wonder what’s going on behind those eyes.
Louie’s comments run around my mind, but I try to dismiss them. I’m just happy he’s not here with one of his, “What did I tell you?” looks.
After Rosalie finishes with the bathroom, I come back in the room and wheel her to the elevator. Eight other residents are already waiting in line for lunch. It beats the other thing they’re waiting for.
With everyone settled in for an hour, Louie and I get trays and try not to gravitate to the menu items. Most afternoons we just grab a couple of chocolate milks and some rolls with butter. Neither of us is in need of a stool softener.
“How’s things with Rosalie?” Louie says. “She try to contact the living?”
“I feel bad for her. She’s all alone. A shame when you’re at third base.”
“Listen, she’s out of it anyway, so don’t worry about her.”
After lunch, we’re at the elevators again with Rosalie and seven of the other residents. Henry Johnson lingered a bit with his lunch, so we have to return to the cafeteria to get him. When we get back, a front wheel from Henry’s wheelchair breaks. His body is listing like a damaged ship. Louie takes out his cell phone and calls the supply room to get another chair sent up to the cafeteria floor. He’s told it’ll take 20 minutes.
Henry is only five feet from the elevator. We don’t want to hold everybody up, so we try lifting him. But the weight is more than we figured, and we have to put him back down. It’s becoming a challenge to us, Louie’s jaw tightening with determination, as I focus on him to give it another try. After I get a firm grip on the chair, I see Rosalie forming words through a crooked mouth: “Be careful.”
We finally manage to lug Henry onto the elevator. Louie and I are breathing heavily, but we’re feeling satisfied at having accomplished a small feat. I turn and notice that Rosalie is leaning forward in her chair. She’s nodding her head, and her eyes are smiling brightly with approval. I smile back and give her a big thumbs up.
Today, Rosalie is my mother.
Melore is a member of the Watchung and Princeton Writers Groups and is retired after 40 years in law enforcement as a transit policeman and a New York State court officer in Manhattan.