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After I helped my mother unpack that first day at her nursing home, I saw a sign and some tastefully arranged flowers on a table beside the elevator. It announced the death of a floor member and wished them a peaceful rest.
The sign’s prominence made me face the fact that this move was probably my mother’s last. Your mother’s going to die, the sign screamed to me, a message I had been determinedly avoiding.
The first time I walked into a nursing home to suss it out for Mom, I ignored the clench in my stomach and smiled tightly as I strode past the wheelchairs with slumped, drooling or snoring people. Those awake were staring at me with a gaze difficult to decipher: Threatening? Puzzled? Awestruck?
After Mom moved in, I wanted to just leave her there, thinking all would be okay. Our relationship had been fraught, but it didn’t take long to see the system prioritized her physical and medical needs. When it came to emotional care, people were mostly left alone, isolated from each other by cognitive, hearing and vision limitations. I realized I couldn’t just abandon Mom. I could see she was frightened and lonely. Reluctantly, I began to visit regularly.
I started to get to know her fellow residents and I began drawing them. For me, it was a natural way to cope with the edgy uneasiness of being in their company, not knowing how to act or what to say.
I like to sketch people interacting, talking to each other or to me, showing they have life and a unique personality still pulsing within tired bodies. Drawing by drawing, my fear of warped bodies and jumbled minds dissipated. And, clearly, they enjoyed the attention. I began to see friendly and curious faces willing to tell me their stories, interests and opinions, refreshingly unfiltered and frank.
One man, a middle-aged paraplegic, seeing my pity, played me. He talked me into buying him a vintage Johnny Cash CD for his collection. Another woman bragged endlessly about her kind-hearted tall husband and told me she’d love me to come back and draw her more but added, “If I’m still here. We die you know,” she warned. Another friendly face down the hall from Mom mentioned often that she wasn’t afraid of dying. Curious, I asked her if I could come and talk to her about it. She eagerly agreed, but by the time I got around to it, she was gone.
One day, I was struggling to find someone to sketch. After lunch, staff were on breaks and most of the residents were napping in wheelchairs or in bed. The hallways were empty.
I tried another floor, meandering down the long hall, glancing into rooms for someone who looked willing to talk.
But instead I saw someone well into the dying process. Sunlight streamed through the window onto a woman’s prone figure, making the snapshot in my mind look like a Vermeer. Her eyes were closed tight, her eyebrows high. Her neck was arched, head thrown back as far as it could go, mouth agape from nose to jaw. She had only wisps of white hair on her sunlit head and her body took up no more space than a small pile of laundry under the dark bedding. She had an IV. There was most likely a nurse in the room beyond the doorway. She wasn’t suffering, but she didn’t seem peaceful either.
Involuntarily, I turned and ran back to the elevator. Although I know full well people die here I’d never actually seen it before. I was jolted by its stark reality.
Death happens here every week.
Sara, one of the young recreation therapists at the home I like to draw at the most often told me she was surprised how she first felt scared of the elderly, but now loved her work: “Old people are just like us. There’s nothing bizarre that changes in your personality from when you’re young to when you’re old. You’re still the same person.”
She notices how residents dancing during live-music performances in the home remind her of teenagers at a concert. “Working here has made me more reflective. It makes me think deeply about my own life. They’ve taught me to cherish it. I’m very thankful.”
As time went on, to my surprise, I began to warm to my mother. Being there, and perhaps drawing her, helped me see her as a different person, someone with a past, a present and even a future shaped by her own uniqueness, a uniqueness I now recognized and catered to with gifts and by sharing her interests. Mom began to welcome me with a big grin as I walked down the hall and even started to brag about me to others, “This is my daughter. Isn’t she wonderful!” At 59, I hadn’t heard her pride in me before.
I wasn’t there when Mom died. When I arrived, I found her floor-mates genuinely moved and saddened. One resident, hugging me when she heard the news, said with surprise, “Your mother, dead? That’s happening a lot around here!”
Now, more than three years after Mom’s death, I still go to nursing homes to draw and talk to people. I post my sketches on Instagram. It’s my small way of showing that society need not be afraid of the old and the infirm, that they’re lively, they’re interesting, and that they want and deserve to be seen. You just need to slow down and open up.
But they do die.
Susan MacLeod lives in Halifax, N.S.