At Maison Nazareth, the nursing home where I’ve recently started volunteering, the dinner tables are arranged in a peculiar and very sensible way.
At the first table sit the five most able-bodied of the dozen currently living in this particular wing of the facility. They can feed themselves, a great relief to the nurses at mealtime.
The second table has only two settings: one for a woman I don’t yet know so well who is wheelchair bound, the other for Sister S, one of two nuns that live there. This table is, from what I can gather, for the naughtiest of the bunch. While both are fully capable of feeding themselves, they can be a bit higher maintenance.
It seems – and mind, I’m not always right about this stuff because I can’t always understand the French – that the woman in the wheelchair likes, for example, to drink her soup out of her water cup. There are nurses who understand this, and there are those who don’t. The ones who neglect to put her soup in her cup are rewarded with her trademark surprise: she uses her water cup to scoop soup out of the bowl and onto the table. She’s unable to utter a word, and does this so silently that it’s often not until she’s made quite a mess that anyone notices. That is, of course, if Sister S is playing along. Normally Sister S can’t help but tattle-tail at the top of her lungs, though.
I struggle a little with Sister S…the thing is, she freaking cracks me up. I know I shouldn’t laugh, and I don’t think she’s seen me, but it’s hard. She speaks in the highest-pitch falsetto I’ve ever heard – it’s almost like she’s putting it on – and she’s loud enough to be heard anywhere in the building from wherever she happens to be. She also speaks really fast, and her eyes are always open really wide, like she’s just seen something very shocking (storm face, Dazza). She’s incessantly looking for someone to rat out (“Someone’s not sitting in their place! Someone’s not eating their food!”), but somehow she’s earned the adoration of several of the ladies there, who are always trying to get into her room, which drives her mad. She also makes the most horrible sounds hawking up mucus that she then spits onto the ground. She knows she isn’t allowed to do this, and it’s hilarious watching her look around to make sure no one’s watching when she does it. Mind, she carries around a hankie to spit into – she just doesn’t like using it. And if she gets caught, she can be heard by all protesting that she didn’t do it and she won’t do it again.
The third table is where I sit, with M. D, Sister J, and Mme. R. M. D is the husband of one of my neighbors, and he’s the reason I got this gig in the first place. Sister J doesn’t talk much, but she’s pretty good at eating by herself if she’s encouraged. Thing is, that can take a lot more effort than just feeding her, so the nurses quite often opt for the latter. She doesn’t speak much, although increasingly I can get a oui or a non out of her that corresponds to my question. But she’s very nervous. When she scratches at her face and neck sometimes, all I can do is helplessly rub her back and ask her if she’s feeling okay, if she’s a bit tired today and so on.
Mme. R intrigues me: she was a chemist at the Sorbonne University in Paris. I guess she’s about 80 now, so that would mean that she was a female researcher at one of the most prestigious French universities circa the 1960s…pretty amazing stuff. She can totally eat by herself, but she doesn’t want to, and will go without food rather than do it alone.
The problem is, once they stop the motion of putting food to mouth, they can forget how exactly it’s done, so it’s really important that they keep doing it on their own for as long as possible. But it’s also really important that they eat. Tricky.
The last table is occupied exclusively by Mme. P, who is accompanied every single evening by her wonderful husband, M. P. She’s very young – late 60s maybe – with hardly a grey on her head and skin that’s been well-looked after over the years. She likes to move, and that might be one of the incentives for her husband to come to the home every day to sit with her – I don’t know how the nurses would get her to stay still for the meal otherwise. She has the saddest look in her eyes, but given the chance I can normally get a smile out of her…but her eyes stay sad. Worst part is, she can’t see that she’s the luckiest girl in the building.
The other day, whilst awaiting their soup, one of the ladies at the 5-top table suddenly burst out into a very out-of-tune rendition of some well-known French classic. It was the loveliest thing…no one even looked up from their table, but several simply joined in. They may not have remembered every word, but they knew the tune, and it was the most words-strung-together I’d heard any of them make since I started coming. I had to bite my tongue when the nurse told them to stop singing because it was time to eat…admittedly they could do this regularly throughout the day, but I selfishly wanted to see them shine like that, confident for those moments that they knew what to say next.
So that’s my new volunteering gig for the moment, dinner with the old folks around the corner, just a few times a week.
So far I dig it.