A continuation of the Roanoke story: down, almost gone, but not finished.
The Activity Director and her staff did a terrific job of scheduling creative activities for the residents of the home. There were dry erase boards at two of the nurses’ stations that listed the activities by day and by hour. Given that most of the residents were elderly and either physically or mentally limited, the list of weekly activities included the old folks’ home stand-bys like Bingo or Bible Study class. But not all the residents were so restricted, such as myself, so thank goodness there were other things to do to pass the day. Wheelchair pick-up basketball and Wii bowling tournaments.
The Activity Director was a middle-aged Black woman with a pleasant demeanor, but always seemed to be more caught up in the administrative end of her job than being a real people person. She spoke to me on a regular basis as we passed in the hallway and would mention the day’s activities in which I might be interested, presented in a subdued friendly manner.
On the opposite end of the happiness spectrum was her right-hand woman, a beautiful black woman in her mid-twenties named BJ. The flip-side of her boss, she was a bubbly ball of smiles and outgoing positive personality. She worked the hallways like a nightclub entertainer, a glow of life-giving energy that you’d look forward to seeing each day.
Both ladies had reminded me more than once one morning that at 10AM there would be Live Music in the cafeteria, with Trivia questions relating to the songs and prizes for correct answers. This was early-on in my rehabilitation and I had yet to socialize with any of my roomies thus far. So, I showed up fashionably late and took a seat at the rear of the room.
This was the first time that I saw a true cross-section of the demographics of the population with which I’d be spending the next month of my life. There were a handful of others like myself that were recovering from serious injury or illness. You could see a sparkle of light in their hopeful eyes. In contrast, the clear majority of the residents were older folks. Catatonic stares and expressionless faces dressed in unflattering robes and casualwear. Lastly, sprinkled among the crowd were a few youthful individuals.
The gentleman playing and singing that morning was quite good, but he was working with a difficult crowd. I don’t know what he was paid being for his hour of work, but he earned every penny. Fans of Wayne Newton pay good money to go see his show in Vegas, but most of this crowd were unaffected by this guy’s enthusiastic attempt at entertainment. It was just plain hard for him playing to the older crowd, some of whose personalities had resorted to a child-like mentality, versus the ‘normal people’ and myself who actually responded to the Trivia questions. BJ, her coworkers, and the nursing staff did an excellent job of trying to keep everyone involved. The prizes awarded were silly, little trinkets. No cash prizes.
I noticed one woman, sitting up front near the singer, who was constantly smiling in my direction. She looked like a small, thin Golda Meir, her long gray hair unrestrained. Between songs, she made her way across the room through the maze of cafeteria tables and approached my table carrying a stuffed purple elephant, one of the game prizes awarded. She handed me the toy, gesturing for me to keep it while never saying a word. She was insistent as she beamed a big smile of happiness, excitedly talking with only her eyes and hand movements.
I later learned from an Aide that her name was Maggie. She had the ability to speak but only knew her native tongue from India and kept vocally to herself. She appeared to have her facilities about her, but according to the Aide, had this obsession of giving gifts to people that she liked, which I took as a compliment. She was a constant in the hallways, slowly shuffling behind her metal walker.
Maggie would stop by my room to deliver gifts every other day or so. The first unexpected delivery came as quite the head-scratching, welcomed surprise. I was watching TV, bored out of my mind, and craving something chocolate. My door was half cracked as she knocked and poked in her head. She shuffled towards my bed and handed me a small, disposable cup of chocolate ice cream and a little plastic spoon. I thanked her over and over as she nodded repeatedly, smiling her way back the hallway to finish her rounds. She brought other things on other days, cheese crackers or a soda, but it was thankfully, usually ice cream.
After a delivery of ice cream one evening, something puzzling finally dawned on me. Where was she getting all these edible goodies? There was no vending machine or concession stand. Sure, the crackers and sodas could have come from a stash of her own, but where did the ice cream come from? And the ice cream was always frozen like a rock. The resident’s rooms had no refrigerators or freezers. And often the ice cream would show long after the kitchen staff had left for the day. But still it came. A little smiling ‘mime’ would appear at my door with a snack in her hand, the location of the warehouse never to be discovered.
The morning of the Music Trivia games was my first meeting with Nancy and Amanda. They were sitting to my left at the back of the room. Nancy was white, forty-plus, and looked to have led a hard life, probably a country girl. She was pleasant and outgoing despite the tracheostomy hole in her throat. She seemed to be a constant sidekick to Amanda, a calming influence on a troubled younger woman. Amanda was a twenty-something average-looking white woman with a pleasant smile, kind face, and confined to a wheelchair. She had been in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. But her biggest challenge became known to me between songs that morning as she began to cry uncontrollably for no apparent reason. Nancy wasn’t shocked and gave comfort with a gentle pat on Amanda’s thigh and then her shoulder, glancing up at me as if to say “she’ll be all right”. The medical staff didn’t react at all, unconcerned by the expected behavior. Later, I witnessed the tears on several occasions. Switch off. Switch on. Smiles, then rivers of tears.
I had started my convalescent stay restricted to a wheelchair, utilizing a walker only during therapy session exercises. But after hard work fueled by bullheadedness, I was quickly given the green light with a walker of my own and permission to prowl the hallways. Being let free to travel the square circuit of hallways opened my eyes to the daily operations of the facility, the pitiful existence of some fellow patients, and a chance to meet the other different personalities that roamed the halls.
There were the expected medical types and members of housekeeping always visible as I slowly walked about, but there was also a daily group of residents constantly prowling the halls. Some walked out of boredom, while others walked for self-improvement. Whatever the case, it was a bit of a social affair. It was like a slow-moving NASCAR circuit, where you knew each of the participants by name…Maggie, Amanda, Nancy, Marcy, Jack, David, and Leon.
Leon was forever restricted to a wheelchair, but I don’t know why because he only mumbled when he spoke. He looked the part of a Vietnam Veteran abandoned by his country, with a broken body, his mind left elsewhere, his now-gray scraggly hair always bound with a red bandana. At first, as we passed in the hall each day, we gave each other the man-mandatory nod of the head/what’s up? greeting. One day, he was wearing a Washington Redskins t-shirt.
“Redskins! Ah, geez. I can’t believe you, Leon. Get yourself a winning team!”
“Cowboys suck” Leon said clear as a bell.
Everyday thereafter, whenever we passed in the hallway, without even looking up in my direction as if he sensed me, Leon would mumble…
And so began my days doing my best imitation of Jack Nicholson’s “Cuckoo Nest”.