I spend a chunk of my time with older folks who rarely leave their tiny nursing home rooms that smell the way you might imagine nursing homes smell. (Take a hospital smell then throw in some stale air and a few more things I’ll refrain from mentioning.) It changes you after awhile. Like being an emergency room doctor can change you, because you witness the things that happen on the edges of life and death–dementia, the painful deterioration of the body, dependence on somebody, anybody, for those basic everyday functions like going to the bathroom or eating or getting dressed. Here is what I know: growing old sucks. It just does. If you have the resources to sustain yourself comfortably, then that helps. But nothing can stop the eventuality of cells breaking down, the heart weakening, joints stiffening. Nothing can stop the memories from fading away.
And yet, that isn’t all I see when I enter these rooms. Or rather, I have come to understand that there is more than just a worn out body sitting in the chair or lying on a bed. A weak heart is still a beating heart, one that has counted out the pace of years, years that are now precious memories and often all that heart has left. Last week I visited one of our church members; he had just turned 95. On the walls of his room hung pictures from his past: paintings by his wife, photos of his parents, a picture the mountain view from the front of his family home, photographed at dawn. The one that hangs right by the door is a portrait of his family, taken by the front door of their home. It’s clear from the photo that he and his wife raised their five children during the sixties. That’s right, I said five children. They are, of course, all smiling in the photo, but mom isn’t looking at the camera. She’s looking down at her kids, and her smile radiates. He said to me, pointing at the picture, “That one, that one makes me cry every time I look at it. If I could do it all over again, I would.”
I’m one of those people that likes knowing how the book ends. I tend to enjoy the story more if I do. These visits are like that for me, in a bittersweet sort of way. I hated to leave, I gave him a hug and told him I needed to get home to meet the school bus. He was grateful for my time and said as much, but I was the one who should have said “thank you,” because I was walking out with a little more than I had walked in with.