It is 2:59 pm on my car’s clock. I sigh in relief, having spent the day rushing through my life’s multiple to do lists.
Catching a glimpse of myself in the front mirror, I am surprised by how nervous I am.
Take it slow.
I take comfort in the silence of the droplets of rain that gather and trickle down my windscreen.
Slowly, I get out of my car and walk deliberately towards the front desk. After signing myself in as a volunteer, I ask for Rhonda. The receptionist merely nods her head in the direction of a room to her left and goes back to her very-private-but-very-loud phone conversation.
Rhonda greets me in a matter-of-fact way so common to those who have long worked around light and joy, death and pain. She punches in the security code as if firing a round of bullets, and lets me walk through.
Immediately, I am hit by a strong odour of hospital grade cleaning products that could not quite mask the unmistakable smell of faeces. It is a smell I will have to get used to.
The dementia ward has a dining area populated by large, round tables and plastic chairs. Further down, a number of couches overlook a garden that houses a riot of colours and deep rich scents of herbs. The communal areas gradually disappear, replaced by snaking corridors that lead to rooms filled with rows of hospital-like beds in which the ward’s residents sleep.
Rhonda begins introducing me to all the residents who are at various stages of dementia. With each introduction, my heart weeps and searches for ways to connect to these thought-wandering beings. Some are clutching at dolls whom they believe are their children. Others sit, eyes vacant, staring at the distance. Others still watch suspiciously and cautiously as they walk around the centre in aimless circles. Many mutter incoherently to themselves in languages that betray the multiculturalism of a society which they have long been unable to interact with.
Here is the ‘Greek gang’, Rhonda loudly proclaims. None of the staff at the centre speak Greek. Rhonda is looking at getting a TV for them so they can watch some Greek church services but she’s not sure if she’ll be able to go ahead with this idea. One of the Greek ladies follows us around and clutches strongly onto Rhonda’s arm. Rhonda struggles to loosen her grip, warning me to be careful as she has been left many a time with bruises. Despite Rhonda’s entreaties to let her go, the Greek lady only responds ‘Yes’. I quickly realise that this must be the only English word she knows. Ronda’s patience slowly evaporates, and she firmly moves the lady’s arm away and walks forward. The lady stares at us for a long time, before walking back to her gang.
We keep moving down the corridor and come across a visitor; hair dyed a dark shade of brown and make-up carefully applied to hide her (what I suspected to be) 60 years of age; immaculately dressed in clothes that betray high fashion and wealth.
As we near her, Rhonda remarks: ‘And this is Liz, one of our residents’. To this, Liz turns around incredulously, snapping back: ‘I beg your pardon! Did you just mislead this young lady into believing I am a resident here? I am NOT a resident!!’
With a final, parting glare, she storms down the corridor, away from us. Rhonda merely looks down the corridor and shrugs. Another worker at the centre says: ‘She is a resident’.
We return back to the dining area. Rhonda thinks it will be a good idea for me to play puzzles with the residents.
I look down at the puzzle’s box. Farm animals smile back at me. In big, happy balloon-like letters, the recommended age of 1.5-4 is written on the side of the box.
Rhonda suggests that I start with a Dutch lady who is good with numbers. I take a seat next to her and ask her whether she would like to play a puzzle with me.
Unfazed by my presence, the lady continues to mutter to herself in Dutch. ‘Omaaaaa’, I tell her, putting my hand on top of hers. She quickly looks up and laughs in astonishment at me. Realising this was my chance, I point to the puzzle peg and then at the cut out section of the board to which it belonged. I do this for every peg, each time stating a new number. By 3, the Dutch lady was completely focused on the puzzle. Though still muttering to herself, she is able to slowly piece the puzzle together.
As she does this, other residents slowly come around to watch. One of the residents grabs a piece and tries to stick it in her mouth. ‘No’, I say firmly, ‘you can not eat that’ and put out my hand for her to give the piece back to me. Sheepishly, she gives it back to me and wanders off. It’s like minding children!
By this stage, Liz re-enters the room. Still clutching at her bag, she glares at Rhonda as she makes her way towards us. Rhonda asks her whether she wants to join. Liz refuses, saying she has dinner plans and, even if she didn’t, she would not know how to. Rhonda shrugs her shoulders, but I am not willing to give up. I turn to Liz and say: ‘I don’t know how to play this puzzle either. I’ve never played it before. Would you like to try together?’
Liz is surprised, but after a moment says: ‘Sure. I mean, I guess hypothetically that could be ok.’ She slowly sits down and watches nervously as I spread the pieces across the table.
‘Right’, I say cheerfully, ‘which one would you like to start with?’
Liz is scared. She slowly grabs a cut out of a pig and hovers over the puzzle. She shuffles in her seat and tries to put it in a cut out section of the board.
It does not fit.
She abruptly moves her hand away and is about to give up when I hand her another piece and say: ‘Let’s forget about that one for a moment. How about we try this one?’
She takes it from my hand, and as she looks back at the board, I quickly hide the pig away. She gets the second peg wrong, but again, I simply give her another one, and hide the one she hands me back. Soon, she is only left with one peg to use, and she is able to put it in the correct place on the board. Buoyed, she takes another peg from me, and this time tries hard to get it right. She no longer fears that I will ‘discover’ her dementia; instead, she is simply enjoying the puzzle.
As we play, Liz tells me about her children. She lights up as she talks about them, though she struggles to remember at times the number of children she has or their professions. She also talks to me about how she used to manage a number of real estate agencies.
When she finishes, I can not help but clap. Liz turns to me and laughs. ‘Thank you for being so patient with me’. Her eyes well up and, forgetting for a moment her earlier reservations, she kisses me on the cheek. I smile back at her.
The Dutch lady is not impressed. ‘NOT JUST LIZ!’, she shouts. I wink at Liz and say: ‘Sorry Liz, I think she might get a bit jealous if I keep paying attention to you!’ Liz laughs and winks back. I move closer to the Dutch lady, and we start on a new puzzle.
Soon, it is dinner time. The Dutch lady wanders off, muttering once more to herself. I am left in the company of an old man, who stares intensely at me. I look back at him. He continues to stare until he no longer sees me. Rather, his mind wanders through me towards places and sounds far beyond this room. All of a sudden, his eyes soften and glisten, and his mouth breaks into the widest grin I have ever seen.
It was as if this man had abandoned this world and travelled to a time in his past where he had met happiness for the first time; the pure, raw happiness of childhood, not yet burdened or paralysed by comparison or worry, free to explore a moment in its entirety, as if that moment would hold for an eternity.
I laughed to myself, thinking of the funny ways life weaves its lessons into our daily narrative. I was finally learning to live in the moment through a man whose moment had long passed.
his fingers wade and bop
along the long pearly whites,
breathing life into his beloved piano.
Jazz notes float throughout the warm corridors of the aged care centre.
my fingers drum quietly on my lap,
crumbling and softening
the silk of my skirt.
Volunteers and residents sing along to the old familiars.
Norm does not remember
that his wife has passed away,
but he has not forgotten
the joy and laughter his voice and music bring.
I do not remember
the day that passed away,
because I have forgotten
to take the time to mark its passing.
I grin from ear to ear as I watch this gentle man grab centre stage once more.
Once he is done, I sit next to him. Norm winks, wagging his finger. I wink back with just as much cheek.
My time up, I lean over, thanking him for his music and telling him I hoped to see him again soon.
He brings my hand to his lips, kissing it gently, thanking me in return.
I leave the centre, happily walking in the light rain back to my car. Despite the gloomy weather, I was on cloud nine.
It took me a few moments to realise why I was so happy.
That day, I had been taught an important lesson that some people take a lifetime to learn:
Life rewards those who are open