I'm in the Blue Room at Mr. Milk's house. The Blue Room is what he calls the guest room in his home. It's called the Blue Room for the obvious reason, it's painted all blue. Blue Chinese knick knacks, blue rugs, blue bed linen, blue most everything.
I'm scheduled to get off at 7 this morning but with this agency who knows.
Yesterday was a long day. Not hard, but long. Mr. Milk requires a lot of attention. Not for his personal needs like going to the restroom and brushing his teeth or feeding or anything like that. He can do all of those things on his own. Which, at ninety-five, is more than awesome. And he still has his own teeth. At ninety-five. But the attention he requires is my FULL attention. He likes to sit in a very, very small room just off the kitchen, a room not much bigger than a walk in closet. It's big enough for one and a half card tables and two chairs. That's the room he calls the Bird Room because he has large framed pitures of birds all on the walls. And when I say all on the walls I mean I dare you to tell me what color the walls are. He also has a bird clock in there with twelve different birds and every hour on the hour a different bird chirps. So, for one o'clock a mockingbird, two o'clock a robin and so on.
He likes to sit in that room from the time he gets up at about 8:30am and talk until the time he goes to bed at 10:30 or 11 that night.
I remembered from the last time I was here he talked a lot and for the two hours I was here that day he, the caregiver who trained me, and I sat there in the room and talked. Well, he and I sat there. She was gracious enough to stand the whole time as three of us could not easily fit into that small space.
I have about three hundred photos that I put into a bag and brought them with me. I knew he would be interested in seeing them and I figured I could stretch the time by showing him some. He looked at each one and I told him the story and location of practically every one.
He wants the entire time filled with conversation. No really, the entire time! At one point I needed a five minute break and so I started emptying my phone of unwanted messages. It was a perfect time, I thought. I mean, we had gone almost seven hours straight talking about...whatever. Finally there was a five second break and so I seized the moment.
M: Are you looking for gold?
Me: Oh, no. Just deleting some messages.
I felt him still looking at me and took that as my cue to continue the conversation. About whatever.
Even when he had his meals he wanted me to be right there. For lunch I stepped into the, I don't know what he calls it, but let's say the TV room, which is right in front of the Bird Room. In fact, you have to walk through the TV room to get to the Bird Room. Only a doorway with no door separates the rooms. Anyway, I stepped in the TV room while he ate his lunch and after three short sips of his soup he was finished with lunch.
M: I'm finished.
Me: You didn't like it?
M: I don't like to eat alone. I don't like to be alone at all.
So at that point I was regretting every time I felt like Clara was getting on my nerves. At least she could reliably take a nap or two during the day. At least she wanted time alone as she read every word of the newspaper. What old person doesn't take naps? I take them.
I knew the day wasn't going to change. He wasn't going to change. I had to. So I got in his world as best as I could. Wondered what it was to be him. At ninety-five. Alone. In this big ole house with rooms that had names and choosing the smallest one with the best light that looked out onto the yard so that I could see the dog when she was out there and count the blue jays as they flew by and the squirrels the dog chased.
Mr. Milk taught college theatre. Seemed to be very well known and there are books around the house where people praised and mentioned him. Then I wondered what that was like. To have out lived all or most collegues. To have achieved so much before the success of Google and Facebook. To not have the luxury of going online to see what the world is up to. The world not being alble to go online and read your blog, your posts, your musings about being a home health aide.
I Googled him. On my phone, read as much as I could out loud about him. He loved it. I just wanted him to know that someone cared. That someone right in his face cared, and would remember and would be impressed. We are human beings. We like to impress.
He showed me a book by a famous actor who dedicated the first part of the his book to talking about him and how he had changed his (the actor's) life.
I read the part about him. I laughed out loud at the funny parts and said "awwwww" at the touching parts and smiled when I saw his name in print. I let him know I was impressed. What did it cost me to do that? Nothing really. What did he gain? Himself, his pride, his floss, his smile.
"Gettin' old aint for sissies." I will never forget that quote from Mr. Minute.
I let myself really get present to how I would feel if there was no one around who cared that I was a poet, a painter, a mother, a sister, a photographer, a friend, an enemy, a lover, a reader, a blogger, a good housekeeper, a human being.
We want to be so spiritual as to beleive that no part of us is tethered to our identies but we are. We care about who we were.
At 9:00pm as I predicted, he started crying and got sad.
Me: What's wrong?
M: I'm sad.
I knew it was because he didn't want me to go to bed.
M: Because getting old is hard.
I didn't say anything. Who was I to say anything to that? I don't know. He didn't want my two positive young cents on getting old and why it was such a blessing and blah blah full life blah. He wanted to tell me his opinion. So I listened.
M: I spent so much of my life struggling. I struggled a long time. But I made it. I found a way to get through it.
I worked in a grocery store for twenty-five cents an hour. The mom and pop who owned the store would let me open one can of whatever I wanted in the whole store for lunch and so I tasted all kinds of different food. Because I wanted to know. I worked all day and then got two dollars. I kept working too. I worked hard. I'm a doctor you know.
Me: (I assumed he was but didn't know for sure.) Wow. (And that was a real wow. A "no, I didn't know that. Thank you for sharing yourself and with me" wow.)
M: I didn't have money. Now I do. But what is there to spend it on? Why couldn't I have had money when I was young? Why couldn't I have had money while I was struggling?
I raised my niece you know.
M: Yes I did. She pays for your services. She lives in Portland. She's frugal, but that's ok. She doesn't know that my wife and I sacrificed to send her to school and put her all the way through school and buy her things. And now that the shoe is on the other foot, well... But it's ok. It is. It's ok.
I spent so much time collecting things. All these things.
(And he does have a lot of things. His home is like a museum.)
And now what do I do with all of my stuff? I had so much joy collecting this stuff. The school will have my house to sell and give scholarships.
M: Yes. They can give many scholorships with money from my house.
Me: That's so cool.
Yesterday morning when Mr. Milk got up he called me in his room to hand him a box from the dresser. There were several boxes on dresser and I handed him the wrong one, twice. Finally I got it right and then walked out. As I left I heard him call me an idiot. Harshly too, like he didn't care if I heard him because what would an idiot know about being called an idiot?
But last night. In the Bird Room. From 8:30-10:30. I wasn't an idiot anymore. I was the only person in his world. Until the next caregiver came.
I look at the irionies in the home health care world. We take care of people who, when they were our ages were probably people who wouldn't have cared about us. Black, Mexican, poor (espeically to them). And now we are the only people they have around to talk to. The only people who will take care of them.
And I look at us. The caregivers who sometimes speak badly to the clients and in some cases abuse them. As if we are better than they are when we are the ones who predictably will not be able to afford the services of the company we work for if we should live a life as long as they. Who will be there for us?
Too often we don't look up until it is too late. When will we see that what we do to and for each other we are doing to and for ourselves?