Aug 19, 2013

A wrinkle in time

There was a time when I had volunteered to take Rob and Ally, two residents of an old age home, to their house twice a week to feed their birds. They were sick, but they were confident that one day they would get well and go back to their homes. That is why they never sold or gave away their fives pretty little cockatoos. Twice a week we gave the birds feed, changed their water, and sometimes cleaned their cages.

But not everyone was as confident, or even as sane, as Ally and Rob.  One day at the TV room, one of the women was holding a big doll of an infant in her lap. She looked at me piteously. “I am about to be sick” she whined, “I would rather go to my room than stay here”
“Don’t worry, you will be fine,” I tried to comfort her.
“I am really feeling sick” she repeated, and made as if she was going to vomit into her napkin. I was really scared now.
“I’ll go get someone” I told her.
“Oh, don’t worry about her, she is just waiting for her turn” said the doctor who was examining another woman.
“I have been here for so long, and he has been with her for half an hour, and never comes to see meeee, I would rather go to my room” now the lady had begun whining, her pitch rising with each word. Just then Rob came along, and I waved goodbye to her.

Later, I found that this lady was in the habit of shouting in a very loud and singsong voice all evening. Her voice kept ringing in the background as I played cards with a few inmates.
“If I don’t go crazy in here listening to her voice, I will certainly go crazy when I go out” said Ally.
“Yes, I think so too, I’ll always be saying where’s that voice? And they will have to bring me back in here” said Cathy.

Many old people seemed to return to such childlike behavior as they lost their sanity.  I saw another lady clutching a big doll. I asked to have a look, but with a frown on her face, she turned away, hiding the doll. The next around though, she offered to let me have a look, and even told me the baby’s name. “How is she?” I asked. “Oh she’s growing up fine, she just got her teeth” the lady replied.

“Bryan, if my oxygen runs out while playing, will you please refill it?” Cathy requested. Bryan was the head nurse.
“Sure” said Bryan before leaving the room.
“If he keeps that up he will even be my favorite nurse” said Cathy.
“Nooooo” Ally wagged her finger at her as Cathy laughed.
“Why not?” I was confused.
“If you lived here, you would know!” Ally explained. “He is not the best nurse, he doesn’t really change my dressing when it’s supposed to be done!”
Later, I saw what they meant. When Cathy did ask for her oxygen refill, help was not so forthcoming. “They always get their way” she grumbled to Ally. “Always” Ally nodded in agreement.
The incident made me think of how we idealize the west as having perfect “systems,” but how, if you scratch the surface, you see that the system leaves much to be desired. The old age home was a government institution, and all the personnel were just doing their duty. They had no special passion for it, and I realized that no matter how good a system is, it can never substitute for genuine care that we give our near ones out of love.

But not all was glum in the home. Because they did not like the head nurse, the inmates seemed to enjoy ganging up against him.
“Sometimes we hide the assistants out” said Cathy.
“Hide them out? What do you mean, like in the closet or something?”
“Yup” Ally decided to take the joke further.
“What do they do in the closet? Make phone calls?”I was still not getting it.
“Oh no, they just come in here and close the door, they take a break and they know we won’t tell” Ally finally decided to put me out of my misery!
Right on cue, an assistant came bounding in. “Can I stay here for a while?” she questioned.
“Sure, we can hide you in the fishbowl!” said Rob.

John told us college kids come to entertain them twice a week. “Tuesday nights the white girls come, and Wednesday night the colored girls do,” said he.
“Well, boys come too, but he only notices the girls.” Ally teased him.

As we were about to leave the common room, Ally and Cathy hurriedly began to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.
“Do u like puzzles?” I asked them.
“No,” they both replied. “We spoiled John’s puzzle, and he is going to be mad at us, so we are trying to put it back together.” The women kept giggling as they worked.
“I’ll bring my hammer,” said Cathy.
“No no, let’s just glue it together,” giggled Ally.
“The monkey in the puzzle looks like John,” said Cathy. It was a jungle scene.
“It’s sitting on top of a Bible, shame on us,” said Ally.
“So now the puzzle is blessed,” said Cathy.
Thankfully, they managed to put the puzzle together before John came in frowning.

I got plenty of weird questions about Nepal. Ally wanted to know if we hunted tigers and rhinos, and Rob asked if we used elephants to lift the timber. Later I found Rob was a regular joker. ”Are you trying to be a cheerleader?” he asked me on day as I was skipping around the yard. “I couldn’t be a cheerleader, I never do anything physical” I replied. “You do the dishes, don’t you? That’s physical!” he told me. If doing the dishes could give me cheerleading skills, then washing clothes would make me fly!

The top knuckle of Rob’s middle finger was missing. It was an inch shorter than other fingers. “What happened to your finger?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, she got hungry” he pointed at his wife, who burst into peals of wild laughter. Only much later did he relent and admit that he had come across his father’s sickle when he was six months old.

“Once I was standing behind a gentleman, and he was toasting marshmallows over the fire” Rob began another story. “I hollered at him, and he turned around and hit me square on the nose with his hot marshmallow”
“Ouch” I commented.
“Yeah, I said Ouch, and I said a lot of other words!” Dan finished!

The inmates were invited to a lecture in which none of them were interested. “This woman talked about outer space. I don’t know much about going up there, but I know some people I'd like to kick that high” Rob said grumpily.

The last time I took Rob to his house, he was glum.  “The wife had a heart attack, so now I can’t risk annoying her. Doc told me that for now, she is always right.” I looked back at him glumly. “But that’s easy to do, coz that’s what she always was!” he finished with his customary cheer, and I had to smile back.

That day Rob and Ally decided to read the Bible instead of playing games. Ally said she went to church every Sunday. “I have been known to pray, though I don’t go to church regularly. I am not perfect” said Rob.
“Only one person is perfect, we know that,” said Ally.
“And that is God himself,” said Rob.
I the atheist had nothing to say about this God that gave them comfort when nothing else did. And that is how I always remember them, holding hands as they read and looked forward to a bright future together.


Ramesh Lal Nakarmi said...

Wonderful memoir. humorous yet sad. ended up making me sad.

curly locks said...

awww. im sorry. but thanks for reading

Mohan Khadka said...

Wonderful writing. Good to know that you are atheist.

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