When I spend any time with very old people—I suppose I should say older than I am—I can’t help but try seeing myself in their shoes. I’m especially drawn to those few elderly souls who, despite their obvious physical restrictions, still manage to keep learning every day and shining their lights of optimism, joy and kindness. That's what I want to be when I grow up.
Might the elegant designs Nature has crafted for everything else in creation include compensating us, when we age, for our loss of physical mobility with a proportional gain in our spiritual reach?
If this is the case, I think I might understand what grace is. And it brings to mind an experience I had when the door to my mother’s century-long life—at least the part of it that afforded her access to the physical world—had closed to a narrow slit.
* * *
"Oh, Irene’s the one in charge of the whole place," Mom declared. "Everything goes through her." I looked at Irene and the others at our table, and somehow I knew she was talking about Joyce.
Mom had been in the nursing home for only a few days, and already she’d assigned a pecking order to her fellow "inmates." She'd even been pointing out "the head table" in the dining room. It was always a different table, always one occupied by people no more able nor important than the rest. Still, the institution seemed of great interest and importance to her. There was no resentment in her matter-of-fact tone, just a vague note of resignation.
I'd been joining Mom every Thursday for dinner and bingo since she and Dad had first moved into assisted living eight years before. The staff at her new full-nursing-care residence had been nice enough to establish a standing guest chair for me at Mom’s table, so, every Thursday, there was a place set for me. Even more thoughtfully, they'd assigned to our table residents who could feed themselves, and who still had the ability—and the desire—to converse.
Tonight, everyone at the table seemed in fairly good spirits. And Joyce was positively in seventh heaven. One of the two dinner choices was biscuits and gravy. To her, this was pure ambrosia—real comfort food reminiscent, she explained, of her youth. The servers always brought her two large biscuits and an extra bowl of gravy on the side.
With her one functioning hand and special fat-handled spoon, she resolutely spaded off each morsel of biscuit, slathered it in the thick, starchy, sausage-dotted gravy, and lifted it slowly to her mouth. Gravy crawled down her chin, dripping occasionally onto her bib. I remembered my mother's comment about Joyce and wondered if she saw something I was missing.
I exchanged pleasantries with Irene, Mark, Marion and Joyce, but somehow the conversation could never build up a head of steam. I guess it's hard to talk when just taking a sip of juice demands every bit of your strength and concentration. Every few minutes, it seemed, a nurse would interrupt, dispensing medications in little pleated paper cups.
While nearly everyone else in the room seemed carried by conditions beyond their control, Joyce still carried herself.
As dessert was being handed out, I found myself looking again at Joyce. On the other side of that gravy-slobbered bib, there was indeed something different about her. While nearly everyone else in the room seemed carried by conditions beyond their control, Joyce still carried herself.
It was hard to put my finger on, but, if one can imagine a 90-something, half-paralyzed, wheelchair-bound woman embodying a mystique, Joyce, I decided, had it.
This presence was by no means intimidating—though she was a large woman. But her erect posture, her direct, confident tone of voice and an earnest, resolute manner just seemed somehow strong, safe, reassuring.
She seemed wise too, as if, when she mentioned something factual, you could believe her. Among this community of crumbling minds and spirits, her core of strength seemed intact, as yet unconquered by her years.
Eventually everyone began leaving their tables one by one, a few steadfastly wheeling themselves, most being pushed by aides. It was then that I was glad I'd kept watching Joyce, because the most remarkable thing began to happen.
A woman at another table who'd been staring vacantly into her own lap was wheeled by her still-ambulatory husband all the way across the room to our table—to Joyce. When the wheels of their two chairs touched, the woman raised her head and gazed distantly into Joyce's eyes. "Yes, dear, I know," I overheard Joyce intoning.
She'd always end her audience with those gently powerful words: "I’ll see you tomorrow."
I lost most of the words, but the solid, caring, deeply reassuring tone was unmistakable as she leaned forward toward the woman. Joyce raised her hand and, offering the softest part of it—the back—tenderly stroked her supplicant's cheek. "Good night, sweetheart; I'll see you tomorrow," she said.
In the coming weeks I witnessed Joyce's gentle ministry, once again with the same woman and with several others. "Darling," "sweetheart," "love"—she embraced them with her words and her touch. And she'd always end her audience with those gently powerful words: "I’ll see you tomorrow."
Last Thursday I was back in my special spot at Mom's table. "Hey, where's Joyce?" I said to no one in particular. There was an awkward silence before Irene's quavering little voice answered, "Joyce..." She forced the rest through a catch in her throat. "...passed away this afternoon."
I miss Joyce. Everyone misses her. My mom has appointed no successor to her imaginary exalted post. I keep looking for a sign that someone else—anyone—will carry on.
Maybe, I'm thinking, Mom was right after all. Maybe Joyce really was in charge.