Many years ago, I found a picture of my godfather giving me a gift.
It’s weird, because it isn’t a book. He and his wife always gave me books. She was a librarian, he was a teacher. The book I most remember, because I read it roughly 50,000 times, and because I still own it today, its edges worn and frayed, its hard cover that maybe used to be black now some sort of greenish-grey, was Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic.
My godfather was pretty excellent. I know that because even though I didn’t see him for about twenty years, I never stopped thinking he was excellent. To be honest, it’s got a lot to do with me. The not seeing him, that is. My life hasn’t been marked by my uncanny ability to keep in touch, especially with grown-ups more grown-up than me.
I think that when we’re born, it would be an awfully great idea if somebody could just give us a simple little list: the top ten people you should definitely try harder to keep in touch with than anybody else. My godfather would have been on mine.
Today was a hard day at the retirement home. Well, it sort of started earlier than that. Mme D came over and rang the bell. I knew something was wrong when she started apologizing for ringing the bell at 4:45 in the afternoon. M. D was in the hospital – he’d fallen down.
Just to bring anybody up to speed who might have missed a few previous posts – or maybe if you’ve forgotten…or even if you stumbled across this post and are wondering what on earth I’m on about: Mme D is my neighbor. Her husband is in the medium-late stages of Alzheimer’s. She heard I fancied a volunteering gig and told me about her husband’s wing of the local retirement home, where they always need extra hands at dinner time. Most of the time I help M. D eat, but sometimes he manages to manage on his own. When he does that, I try to nip away and help somebody else because the more he does on his own the better.
Let’s take a quick step back. Saturday was the family lunch at the retirement home. It was perfect. Everybody had family there except one lady – Mme H – and I’m not certain she realized all the people there were related to the people who lived there anyway. She seemed to enjoy herself, and there were smiles and chatter all around, if a few passing moments of blatant bewilderment. Lunch was served (booze too!), and people were really happy. After lunch there were accordion players ranging in age from 8 to 50 or so, but they were a little late so Mme D’s grandsons, ages 8 and 9, who had already been helping with serving the food and who were so freaking cute and French it was ridiculous, sang to stall. When the accordion players arrived, we danced – even tried some traditional folk dancing – and it was just lovely.
But while we were all having such a nice time, Mme R – another resident – was stuck. I could say she was stuck in her wheelchair, but the truth is that after a stroke last week, she’s really stuck in her body. She was, until recently, the resident comedian. She was lucid enough to talk a fair amount of trash and to keep all of us giggling. It wasn’t always that way. She broke her arm not long before I arrived, and having that arm pinned to her body made her so angry she never said anything to anybody. But as soon as it was free, so was her wit, and away she went. Everyone loves her dearly. Since the stroke, she can’t move, really. But she moves her eyes, and she smiles – only just, but it’s there. Anybody paying attention can see that she is, too. She was smiling on Saturday.
The reason I go to the home is because the longer they can manage to eat “on their own,” the longer they can stay in that wing. Once they’re completely unable to function, they get moved to another wing, where there are fewer nurses and more of them. I wrote here about Mme P, who eventually got moved up to that wing. On Sunday Mme R went, too.
And then this morning M. D fell. Mme D told me that he’d been unable to put his feet on the ground, but since he doesn’t really talk, she couldn’t know where it hurt or anything remotely helpful. He was off for x-rays in the hospital, and she was on her way to meet him there. Her eyes welled up with tears but none fell as she made her way onto the elevator from the door of my flat. “It never stops, does it?” I said. She looked so tired. “No, it doesn’t.”
Apparently he’d fractured his pelvic girdle – or so I gathered with my limited anatomical French (or English, for that matter). I don’t know how long he’ll be in hospital, or if he’ll be able to make it back to our wing. A new woman, Sister P, was moved in today to replace Mme R. She sat in the seat normally occupied by M. D. I moved over to another table while M. P, the husband of a different Mme P, stayed at “our” table and helped his wife and Sister J, his arms crossing as he spoon fed both of them (I will undoubtedly write about him eventually).
Allow me to take another step back: Yesterday I decided to watch this movie Amour. It was not easy, but it was beautiful. It follows a very in-love older couple from the point of her stroke.
And then this morning, I learned that my godfather died. My godfather I wish I’d taken the time to know better, but who I always knew was wonderful.
And then today, three elderly people who have become very important to me underwent simultaneously traumatic and inevitable life-changing events. Mme R will now spend most of her time in a bed. Her husband is gone, and she has no children. Luckily she has a sister who also lives in the retirement home. M. D will be spending at very least a reasonably long time in a bed as well, and Mme D will spend much of her time by that bed’s side. Things in their lives will be very unlike the way they have been for the past few years, that state of normal that was already so very hard to get used to.
Sometimes it feels like life is filled with this seemingly unceasing pain, and yet so often that pain is directly associated with our love of life. It is as though we are constantly being warned by the cosmos, by God, by fate – whatever one wants to call it – that life is worth living…that we must live.
I was very, very lucky to have had the chance to see my godfather a couple of years ago. He was as wonderful as I ever remembered him, his home filled with books and paintings and love and joy…brimming over with the goodness that I never for a second stopped associating with him, never long without his kind smile. The single most extraordinary thing of all, though, was the love I could feel between he and his wife. It was so present. I felt I could have reached out and grabbed a handful of it, kept it as a souvenir.
I’m hoping I did.
A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC
There’s a light on in the attic.
Though the house is dark and shuttered.
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside,
And I know you’re on the inside . . . lookin’ out.