The Game of Life


It’s not nice to make light of people who are trapped in the awfulness of a Long-Term Care Facility, but here’s a funny story.  The last of the Roanoke stories, quite maybe.  

Miss Barbara, the Activities Director, stopped me just short of Nurse’s Station #1 shortly after breakfast one morning.  I was out wheeling around on my daily scavenger hunt of unused decaf coffees from that morning’s food service carts, seeing as how patients weren’t served regular coffee and it takes a whole lot of decaf to reach a normal level of caffeine.

“Hey, Mr. Lambert!  Mr. Walker, down in 216, is insistent on playing chess with somebody.  Anybody.  Do you know how to play chess?”

As my over-competitive, over-aggressive mind was saying Yes!, the Realist in me was flashing back through my Chess Resume.  My Dad and I used to play chess after the dinner plates were cleared back in my high school days.  Then years later, I had regressed to having an online chess program beat me 99 out of 100 times on the average. But being the hardest-headed person on the entire Earth, I had continued to play against a computer over the years for the satisfaction of that one win out of one-hundred games.

So, yea, I knew how to play chess.

I was to meet-up with Mr. Walker at 10 AM in the cafeteria’s dining room.  I was early, as is usual, a jolt of anxiety fueling me in this apparent new role of caregiver-helper, rather than just a receiver of care from someone else.

I had seen Mr. Walker before by his room’s door on more than one occasion as I wheeled myself around the rectangular hallway of Avante’ at Roanoke.  He was a tall, thin, black gentleman, always dressed in a hospital gown, restricted to a wheelchair and breathing from an oxygen tube.  Kind of a sickly Morgan Freeman type, with an unkempt mop of hair and a salt and pepper beard.  But he was memorable from the other sad souls that withered behind their room’s open doorways.  His door’s entranceway gave-off the air of a New York City ghetto’s concrete front steps, with a constant streetwise chatter, as he flirted with the nurses and shared pleasantries with anyone passing his sentry’s lookout.

The table nearest the cafeteria’s front door was all set and ready for action.  A pitcher of iced water and three or four plastic glasses, the pieces of the chessboard already in place. Mr. Walker was wheeled in by BJ, the Assistant to the Activities Director.  If I had my option of choices, I would have had BJ stay and play games, a twenty-something beautiful blend of Puerto Rican and Afro-American parents, with a personality that lit-up the room.  Instead, she left us alone in the big empty dining room with a bubbly “Have a good game, guys!” and sashayed her way out the cafeteria doors.

The first game of the painfully long match got off to a screeching halt.  Seems that neither of us Chess Masters could agree on the legal first move of the pawn/was it forward or diagonal, one space or two?

Just as we were agreeing on a workable compromise, my eventual buddy David wheeled his chair into the room and right next to our table.  David was a fifty-something white guy, with a balding head and the perpetual unshaven look.  His soiled wife-beater t-shirt accentuated his belly that hung over his sweat bottoms.  But his biggest, obvious characteristic was the scarred hole in his throat from a tracheostomy.  He spoke with grunts and growls, and an elaborate series of hand gestures.  And early on this morning of first meeting him, I came to the understanding that he did indeed know of the game of chess.

So, there I was, trying to appease the older Mr. Walker while first attempting to interpret the incoherent grunts and growls of  David.  And as David calmly pointed to the board and gave a wheezing explanation of the correct rules of the game, Mr. Walker both agreed and disagreed with David, like he understood what David was saying, all the while using an increasing volume of voice, to the point where it all became quite hectic.

And a little weird.

Just as the conversation was coming to a boil, BJ walked into the cafeteria to check on us.

“How you guys doin?  Who’s winning?”

And then Mr. Walker looked directly at me and shook a long finger and said “I knows where I know you from. We played chess together in County lock-up here in Roanoke!  I know’d you looked familiar, boy”

Meanwhile, David was disgruntledly grunting something as he reset the chessboard for a fresh game as I was reassuredly thinking to myself “I’ve never played chess in County lock-up before.  In Roanoke.  With Mr. Walker”

In the meantime,  Mr. Walker’s chatter went from jive-talk to slurs, and BJ became concerned as she checked his Oxygen tank.

“Oh Boy, it’s no wonder.  Your tank’s empty!”

Seems that Mr. Walker had gone from a respiratory diet of pure O to Co2, which was causing his thoughts of delusion.  After a few minutes back on a full tank, he settled into a calmer, non-combative attitude.

But even still, the rules of the game were questioned by both David and Mr. Walker. Being the Master Strategist that I was, I asked David (without hesitation on his part) to take my place at the table as I went to ‘check on the Pawn confusion’.

Relieved of responsibility for a moment, I wheeled my way back to my room.  As I passed by the Nurse’s Station, Darlene, the Day Shift’s Head Nurse asked me with a toothy smile “Who’s winning the big chess game?”

“You know, I’m not really sure”


Just to bore ya, here’s a few other Roanoke stories…

Permanent Marker

Permanent Marker-The Sequel

Two Years after Long-Care Help

One thought on “Checkmate”

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