Summer school in a care home
What I learned from empty rooms and motionless bodies
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They told me I would lead bingo for the summer. Naturally, I expected a life lesson.
I wanted to be taught the wisdom of age on manicured lawns, by a hundred variations of Homer Simpson's father and ladies with neat white bobs who'd smirk at me for a week before we'd speak.
"Alright, kid. You pass. We deem you worthy of our knowledge. Screw our grandkids," I imagined they'd say.
But on the cloudy summer morning of my first day, I found no Simpsons, no smirks and no kernels of wisdom. Instead, I heard distant screams.
Those wails sounded a lot like the inside of my head after I realized this is where I'd be searching for my life lessons. I would learn in hallways with flickering lights (which smell like excrement, but is actually just another gassy senior) study through open doors leading, occasionally, to empty rooms and, more often, to motionless bodies.
Sleeping bodies, I told myself. Normal, non-metaphorical.
"Does everyone get their own room?" I asked my guide.
"Not usually. Half of them died last winter so a lot of them are missing roomies."
We passed by a white-eyed man in a wheelchair, his head thrown back to gaze at the ceiling. He was screaming. She patted his head.
"Looking good, monsieur," she said, before leading me through another pair of steel doors.
"So, you've been studying physio for how long?"
"I don't study physio."
My guide, a physiotherapist, stilled. "But you're the student?"
"Yeah," I said, embarrassed in the painful way that makes you feel like you've lost all motor function. "I'm a student of English lit."
Despite the disappointment in her voice, I was sure I could see hope in her eyes, which remained warm and crinkled as if she were smiling in amusement.
I would learn to crinkle my eyes in the same way, above my mask and under my visor, translating the pretence of safety into my stare. It's the most important thing to learn when you're working in a long-term care facility. It's not in the job description, but you're responsible for providing everyone around you with emotional sedatives, of assuring them that Everything's OK! Everything's great! without saying much at all.
"Maybe you could read them books or something," the physiotherapist eye-smiled.
Despite this initial encounter, most workers in the facility weren't surprised by my presence, or my lack of qualifications. A year of working in the midst of a pandemic had rendered them too overworked (and too underpaid) to care. The people who did have the energy to care pitied me, for the ignorance of my youth and for the burden of knowing that we didn't suffer quite like the residents.
We could wake up from the bad dream and go home. The residents couldn't wake up and they were already home. I can only guess at the full extent of their demons. My reality was of men in wheelchairs winking then sobbing, begging for my attention and cold apple juice, while women on walkers held my hands, cradling dolls and complaining of underwear on fire. The tape rewound.
When the cries echoing throughout the building started to sound as mundane as leftovers for lunch, I questioned my education. Did I know enough to know my lesson? I'd sat by bedsides, painted trembling nails pink, caught streams of drool and nodded along to the ramblings of senility, all while pretending that there was no dramatic irony in having a brown girl spoon-feed old white men who, perhaps even a generation earlier, might have successfully banished my presence (and its colour) from their final chapters.
Throughout that summer, I kept seeing my mom, my dad, my grandma, trapped in terrifying alternate universes where they, too, were residents here. Lonely travellers on distant planets, glimpsing masked aliens, while their own family is nowhere to be seen.
English lit had taught me the tropes. Sheltered teenagers dropped into unfamiliar settings, coached into enlightenment by wise old mentors. But there I was, immune to coming of age: the residents and workers too helpless to mentor, too tired to convey the meaning of King Lear.
English lit says we are born, we live, we die. But somewhere in between life and death, we're supposed to get a scoop. Where was the scoop?
On special occasions, the residents got ice cream. I walked from room to room, checking to see if anyone, confined to bed, wanted vanilla or chocolate. I wanted so badly to make them feel seen. I wanted so badly for them to look back at me.
Some wouldn't even open their eyes.
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