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My friend has entered a retirement home, a pleasant enough place. Still, I confess I drive away from there at top speed. It’s all the old eyes around the reception area that ask: “Are you here for me?”
Lunchtime is a good time to visit. The food is the best thing about retirement homes, and everyone shows up on schedule at their numbered table in the elegant dining room.
Walkers are set to the side. I join my friend and a few other women, and unwrap my homemade sandwich while they struggle with the soup du jour. The ever-smiling server offers me coffee. Conversation stays general.
I try to be gentle in my attempts to pull out the stories from behind the faces. At some point in life, it seems, it becomes difficult to remember where one once worked and the names of places. It is mostly women populating these institutions. Once, they were mothers, nurses, teachers and civil servants. Once, they owned this town.
So many retirement homes locate in the middle of nowhere, and this one is no exception. It’s as if they think the elderly need peace and quiet. Won’t there be time enough for that? I imagine this scenario: An old lady executes an escape; she is found, not down at the local tavern having a beer, but lying in a farmer’s ditch.
Not that my friend has beer money. Her children exercised financial power of attorney and confiscated her debit card. A lifetime of working and saving, and now my friend knows a form of penury.
I tell myself not to be hard on the children. They have families, jobs and households to run. My friend is in this predicament because she has crippling osteoporosis and a progressively failing memory. This is the modern world. They can’t care for her.
At the same time, I am reminded of how I have been happy, mostly, with my child-free status. These days I am downright grateful for it. It will take my nieces a certain amount of time to discover their auntie is neglecting herself, living in one corner of her dusty apartment. And, for now (lucky me), I have a husband to lean on. My friend is a real ball-buster. She and her husband parted company years ago.
But I must speak to her positive characteristics, too. She had, and still has, a veritable shout for a laugh. Though feeble and at times confused, she still sees the great irony of life, its funniness as well as its sadness.
She is her old self when she grumbles about “the people around here.” She used to say the same thing about the neighbours in her condominium.
“We’ve been friends for a very long time,” she also says. This is what sustains me, that she remembers me. And she remembers a man, now deceased, who wrote poetry and was her travelling companion.
My friend is proud, private and easily provoked, so she is not one who will do well in a place like this.
All who wish to ward off loneliness and forge new friendships must wear the hail-fellow-well-met mantle. The Calendar of Events and the shuttle bus are for them. They possess that personality that walks into a room and gets everyone singing.
Complicity is more my friend’s cup of tea. Who now, I wonder, will there be to lend a sympathetic ear? How can someone here get to know, at this late stage, my unaffected fellow wanderer of art galleries, my romantic of the third degree? (John Bell-Smith, she thought, had to be smitten to paint Miss Amelia Boddy the way he did. And she agonized over Daumier’s Third-Class Carriage.)
Though she lacked a really good education, my friend was always intellectually curious. At one time I might find her at the back of the National Library, behind a stack of books on Ireland’s history. Or, dressed in Gore-Tex, for she was a great walker, sitting in a coffee shop reading newspapers. She no longer has the mental stamina to read.
My friend’s book collection has been donated to the retirement home’s library. Her apartment has been sold. Furniture and possessions gathered over a long life have gone to the four winds. There are but a few salvaged pictures to remind her of her old environment.
Her present home is a sort of hotel suite with her name on the door. It contains a bed and dresser, a small table and a wing chair. The closet is jammed with mostly inappropriate clothing.
This is where my friend waits for God.
It is left to me, now, to acknowledge what my friend had and has not. And so I will not put a positive spin on things. I am here to send up a howl on her behalf.
Naturally, I contrast my happy life with hers. If I’m lucky, I will wait for God in my old neighbourhood with its familiar streets. My back will stay straight and I will remember the necessary things.
If I’m lucky, I will dine at my own table with my chosen companion until the very last day. Living until the end was how Simone de Beauvoir put it.
Kerry-Lynne Wilson lives in Ottawa.
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