“She’s doing much better today, dear,” the portly woman behind the desk tells me as I sign my name on the guest registry. This marks my eighth time here in four weeks. I have signed and dated this page eight times, each time wishing it would be the last. You might think I wouldn’t have the chills by now, but I haven’t yet mastered how to implement serenity over my nerves when I’m in this place. It has been more than two months since she was brought here from the hospital, three weeks past the mark for when the doctor said Gram would be healthy enough to be released.
The same woman is at the reception desk every time I’ve come to visit. Her name badge says “Lucy,” but I have yet to call that. I don’t feel so bad, because she reciprocates my lack of formal address. I sign my name clear as day each and every time I check in, but she still just calls me “dear.” It is not like me to do it, but after I put the little pen that’s tied to the clipboard back on the sheet, I look straight at her and say what’s been bubbling in my frustrated mind since I started coming here. “When will she get out of this place?”
Lucy returns my gaze with misted, blue eyes I haven’t noticed until this moment. She takes up the clipboard in her hands and sets it next to a pile of folders on the desk. “My dear,” she says, beckoning me to lean closer, “if you look through those windows to your left, you will see a man sitting with one of our long-term residents. He is likely feeding her or wiping from her chin what didn’t make its target from the last bite.”
I slowly turn and look into the small cafeteria area adjacent to Lucy’s desk. Seated next to a wheelchair-bound woman with a blanket over her lap is a middle-aged man holding a spoon and a container of soup.
“That man comes here every Sunday afternoon from almost two hours away to feed his mother lunch. He goes to her room, wheels her to a table and feeds her, takes her for walks outside, shows her pictures of her grandchildren, reads to her, sings with her, and brings her back to her room. He has been doing this for nearly six years.”
I watch as the man uses the spoon to skim a dribble of soup from the corner of the woman’s mouth. I recognize him. He held the door for me when I was walking in last week. He was chatting up a nurse in the hall when I was here for that dreaded first visit. “I thought he worked here,” I say without turning from where the two sat.
Lucy chuckles. “He is here so often that we often joke that he should be put on payroll. More than once I’ve seen a visitor confuse him as a staff member and ask him for directions around the building, which he’ll provide without correcting their mistake and telling them that he, too, is a visitor here. Granted, we stopped making him sign in and out about three years ago.”
I turn back to her, readjusting the purse strap over my shoulder and looking up at the face of the clock on the wall behind her. This is touching and all, but I want to know when Gram will be released and I really can’t stand it here. I start to tap my foot.
“He does a great deal for his mother,” she continues, ignoring my little act. “Perhaps more than I have seen anyone do for one of our residents in all the years I have been sitting behind this desk. There is one thing he has never done. He has never asked when she will get out of this place.”
The sharpness with which she says this last line snaps my attention from the clock back to her.
“He very well may have pondered the question to himself, but he has never said it aloud. You see, this man knows, as do the family members of the majority of our residents, that after you are admitted here there is really only one condition under which you leave. None of us, not the patients, not the staff, not the doctors, and certainly not the family members, get to make that decision.
“Now, your grandmother is in E-wing, which is the only wing of our facility devoted to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation patients account for only a small fraction of the total community here. Your grandmother is a bit of an anomaly then, isn’t she? She is being healed. While it has taken a slight bit longer than you were originally told, she will be released from here, likely healthier than she was before she was admitted. You will have her back. That man’s mother, well her situation aligns more with most of our long-term residents. She is in the late stages of dementia. During the majority of his visits over the past six years, it is likely she has made the mistake of those lost visitors who have asked him for directions. Each week he is more a member of our staff and less her son. He is aware of this and he comes anyway. He returns each and every week, wielding an unwavering devotion that can only be explained as unconditional love.
“My dear, I know it is hard to see someone you have known as a figure of strength for so many years staying in a place like this. All I can tell you is to keep coming back. Keep coming back until the day you can take her with you on your way out. You might think a place like would be a cesspool for despair, but next time you come, think about that man and his mother.”
I look at her, thrown off by the intimacy in her words. The pessimism within me speaks before I can stop it. “So, you’re saying that it could always be worse?”
“No, my dear,” she says, her deep blue eyes locking with mine. “I am saying that you always have the power to make it better.”