Thursday, August 14, 2008

5th Avenue

The Beve and I have come over to Sequim (WA), where Grampie and his wife live in an apartment at 5th Avenue, a retirement complex.  Grampie came home from the hospital yesterday so we're here to help.  Beve will do the heavy lifting, and I'll do what I do best--boss everyone around.  I am an oldest sister who became a mother--telling people what to do is written in my DNA.

So here's what life looks like at 5th Avenue.  Meals are promptly at 8, noon and 5.  And God forbid that a person be late.  There have been times when I've been on the phone with Grampie or Thyrza, and am cut off mid-sentence because they look at the clock.  And once sitting at the carefully set tables at a meal, it's forbidden that one leaves her seat, no matter what.  After all, you might get in the way of a server carrying a giant tray.   So we sit there, wishing we'd gotten a little tea, or more salad, but those are the breaks here at 5th Avenue. Looking around the room, with all those curious eyes on us, I'm aware of how well they all know each other, this community.  Beve and I are interlopers.  Not Grampie, though.  He's always been a larger than life personality--at 6'8" he could hardly disappear in a crowd.  You should have seen it last night when Grampie walked in after 8 days in the hospital.  First a whisper, then a murmur swept through the room: "R is back!" and then a man stood up, spoke those words aloud, and they all cheered. At their age, it's more common that people leave in an aid car and never return, so it was a wonderful, sweet moment.  Through the entire meal, folks waved, and on their way out, stopped by our table to welcome him home.  But leaving--let me tell you--it's like a parade of walkers.  During the meal, myriad walkers are crowded outside the dining room, like a bunch of aliens, waiting for their turn, but afterwards we walk down the hall in slow motion, lined up behind the slowest one, who somehow manages to be first to leave--every time.  Beve and I have to practically walk standing still, so we don't step on the heels of those in front of us.

Then we come back to their apartment and sit around, watching Grampie try to navigate life after the hospital.  He's under the mistaken impression that his release means that he's back to 100%.  Just looking at him I know how far  that is from the truth. His eyes are drawn, his hair mussed, his legs shaky enough when he tries to stand, that Beve has to help him stand.  I just told him he couldn't take a nap in his chair, but had to lie down completely, and he obeyed me. As I said, that's what I'm here for.  It's pretty warm today, and these apartments are seem tight.  The elderly have poor circulation--shoot, Thyrza was wearing a turtleneck and sweater vest yesterday, and was slightly appalled at my bare shoulders.  She couldn't imagine I was cold.  But I've been without my replacement hormones for the last week, so I'm telling you I'm the opposite of cold--especially at unexpected moments through the day.

Last night Beve and I stayed in an empty apartment--which co-incidentally used to be Grampie and Thyrza's.  It seems a whole lot bigger now that it's empty.  We opened the roll-away bed for me to sleep on, and it hadn't been changed from the last person who used it.  Yuck!  I'm a person who changes her sheets twice a week, so sleeping on a bed used by a stranger is more than a pet peeve, it actually grosses me out. But I shook out the sheets, re-made it and climbed in.  This morning when Beve told the head of housekeeping, she was as horrified as I felt.  She runs a tight ship around here, and it reflects badly.

We survive all these things, though.  Slow walkers, rules about eating, the closed up, warm rooms, unmade beds. It's a picture of what is in front of us, though.  There are only two choices, after all.  Dying young (I suppose my kids might say 'youngish' at this point, since we seem pretty old to them already) or living long enough that our backs bend, our legs weaken and our balance tips.  Beve's  hair is already gray, my face is wrinkling more by the month. It's coming, people.  For all of us.  These relationships, this kind of community.  Living out the end together.  And I can learn from them.  From the grace of my in-laws, the spirit of hope his return signaled for those around him, the joy they all feel in each other.  What it looks like to me is that at the end of their days, these people have let go of the things that isolate us from each other--the idea that doing life alone is ideal.  They've let go of one thing after another--jobs, homes, cars, cooking.  And now what they have left is what counts in life--each other.  It's a rich life here at 5th Avenue, and I'm inspired by it.  It gives me hope.

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