Walking down the long linoleum hallway, one can’t help but notice the beaming florescent lights and the huge lack of windows in this thoroughfare. Scattered along the hallways are all different sorts of people in all matter of situations. They stare at you sometimes lost, sometimes sad, others say hello cheerfully. Most sit in wheelchairs and get around on their own. Others just stare blankly as if not aware, or mumble to themselves, traversing psychedelically the space time continuum with their collective experiences, integrating it all at the end of life. No one to listen, to channel, to pray with them except for the tired, overworked and underpaid care assistants that sit at desks doing paperwork to keep this whole thing rolling, cook, walk around all day to tend to folks’ needs, or just listen. Some get visitors, some never do.
I felt like I somehow walked into a sort of prison chamber. We saunter slowly past room after room flickering lights like out of a horror movie and I find myself welling up with tears. It’s worse than I thought. There’s no personality, hardly any presence of these folks’ prized belongings. Where are the special things? Where are the things that make places home? These people come here to die, sometimes very slowly. Usually, these places take them quick. They aren’t designed for long term.
Everyone knows their end is near, that they won’t go back home from here. There is nowhere else to go. No other possibilities. No autonomy or choice. No children to aid, to play with, to speak to, to have sit on warm fragile laps, full of love.
The sterile lifeless hallways, not a green growing thing in sight, alone will take someone down. In Papa’s room, sits only a single Christmas cactus. It’s his roommate’s plant. It sits in a windowsill who’s blinds are closed. I go open them to try to get the land inside of here. I almost knock over the cactus. Carefully I keep it right side up while I pull back the plastic shade.
Why don’t they decorate the shit out of these places? Make them luxurious? It’s the least we can do for elders, even if they are senile, can’t hear, are losing their minds or stuck in the memory of their younger years. It wouldn’t take much to paint the walls blue, put plants everywhere, cut out a few more windows, put a darn garden outside that is wheelchair accessible. The land is kept from this place. It literally is a place of death. Senile and ‘mad’ is just another state of being. Why don’t we all learn from having it right in front of us, as we are all subject to such states at some point or another, we might as well accept it head on.
We get to the end of the hall where ‘dependents’ live. The room is small, shared, and has built in furniture that reminds me of my prefab dormitory in college. Did I say it was small? Too small. Smaller than I thought.
Papa sits in his bed facing a blank wall.
It’s 2 pm. He is still in bed. His TV is off. He is waiting for someone to help him to the bathroom. He is in one of his plaid farm shirts. Birthday ornaments still decorate the one dresser he has by the bed. He turned 94 this month.
Sitting there, he is waiting in line to use the bathroom. The kind nurse, who is in charge of way too many people, is franticly trying to meet everyone’s needs, which seems to take way longer than it should but that’s how it goes. We try to brainstorm how to help him out of this intricate bed that works from a remote control. Should we get him into the wheelchair and wheel him there ourselves?
It all felt like too much.
I try to shoot the shit with Papa.
We share a kind of humor, a jovial cackle-filled candidness with one another. I tell him that he looks good, that everything will be fine.
I ask him if he would like the TV on. I touch him a lot. Touch is important.
I often come off as aloof or distant, ‘unloving’ in ways that others don’t understand but inside I am the most loving and sensitive person that the world is just too much sometimes. So, I have to purposely turn it down, put boundaries up. Plus, all the intensity of the world, of others’ numbing, of the loudness and fastness of the world we have accepted as normal sends my love beacons in overdrive. How can you properly love when all this makes you feel too much? I just want to touch him. I want to go around and touch and talk to, hear stories from and listen to every elder person there.
Why shouldn’t we have storytellers come and spend time in these places? Why oh why do we condemn our elders to such institutions, where often someone sits and makes a profit off of capitalism’s forcing of elders out of the homes of kin and into these sterile death chambers? The cat’s out of the bag as some say: there’s no going back when everyone now works every waking hour to get by.
you better save a quarter million so you can sit and stare at a wall when you’re old, waiting in line for the bathroom.
I know my family thinks of it differently. They have had to navigate sharing full time jobs with caretaking, as the reality is these days in our society where work is usually not at home, and one much work insane hours to make ends meet.
And everyone must be the mouse on a wheel, running in circles. As the mouse is busy on the wheel by necessity, the wise ones full of stories, full of time embodied, eventually become a burden. It is uncouth, socially unacceptable to give up everything for the elderly these days.
We must ‘become something,’ keep our dignity, so that we prove to the world that we ‘did it’ and were a trusted and loyal citizen of this weird and messed up culture. We go along with it as if this kind of sterility is normal. As if it is good, and how it should be. What if we re-thought this? Questioned it for a moment?
Characteristically, I question institutions. The church, the hospital, the government, the nursing home. I question how we let these things dictate our lives. Who determined the structures of these things? Why aren’t more alternative healers working in end of life care? How can we change this, now that it is still getting harder to just get by, even with a decent job, much less allowing time for proper child-rearing and elder care?
Lots of questions, I ask. I know some think that I see things from glass half empty standpoints rather than half full. The truth is, I feel too much. I feel a lot. I feel all the things, good bad and in-between, and it overwhelms me. I feel the past way after things happen and the future way before it comes. I predict things. They come in my dreams. I predicted this, and these feelings I had five years ago, even longer. I predict I will see these scenes again and again in my short lifetime, the devastating impacts of a toxic modern civilization and how it degrades the sacredness of our individual humanity, exploded and disintegrated outwards and imploded inwards into our intimate lives and relationships. It happens in so many ways. This one feels particularly hard. Even these prison-like elder care ‘facilities’ are only affordable to the rich, the lying, or those who have almost died in war.
Do we deserve it? No one deserves it. Yet, we all deserve it. We are all human. We are nature, we are the earth too. Just as we hold up youth and manifestation and becoming, where I find myself now, we equally find shame and discomfort in death, ending, the gross and undignified way of going out. We don’t like death. I know I don’t like death. We can’t handle it because the afterlife is this big mysterious place of judgement we have heard tales about. This place we have been taught to fear and get on our knees for our whole lives, enough to dictate the living to tremble in fear that they didn’t live rightly by the lord savior Jesus christ or hell is waiting. It feels ‘out there,’ some kind of wide open big mystery (one reason I love the desert so much). What if we recreated ‘total loss’ mentally, in a safe container, during the height of our healthy lives, in order to prepare us for inevitable death to come? And what IF, we decided to ‘integrate’ elders into our focus on manifestation?
I think it should be a law that elders be folded into the process of our worlds. They should not be sectioned off and forgotten about, or put aside. What if our careers, our need to pay bills, make money, just to survive, what a weird world we live in-- was mandatorily interwoven into the fabric of elder caretaking. We have cultured out the respect and sensitivity due to elders.
I am not blaming anyone. I know it is hard to care for someone’s every need. But what about children and infants-- this isn’t easy either with capitalism squeezing every last drop of energy out of us. We care for them cause they have the world ahead of them. And darn if that isn’t easy either. We can’t even breastfeed naturally anymore for God-(ess(x))’s sake.
My heart is broken and I knew it was coming. It was already broken before it happened. As the mold eats away at the things of my Papa’s home, covering chairs, the dining room table we ate christmas lunch, the floor of my Papa’s bedroom which is the room he was born in- overtaking, making space unlivable, my years of memories collide. My sense of ending becomes drastically apparent. It’s not like I didn’t prepare myself for it. My whole Oil and Rust project was essentially a study in slow ending, in decay, in the release of story, of the use and release of material things into the abyss, into the place of formlessness to be formed again by whatever it is that we deem holy.
I don’t mind the rust on the tools, the peeling paint on old barns made of cedar and oak. I don’t mind the fields getting overtaken by Moonflower, Pokewood. The locks that don’t shut anymore, the doors that have to be slammed shut from warping don’t make me uncomfortable. This all feels okay. I watch, and see it transform, I expect it to be this way. It’s a good thing, as new things need room to emerge, like a fire moving through fresh Juniper growth, or a field of Blackberries.
It doesn’t sit right with me that my Papa, the keeper of story, an escapee of imprisonment in war, is now back in a prison. My parents don’t really believe me when I say- I’d take care of him. What better honor than to aid in the comfort of an elder all the while hearing their jokes, laughter and experiences? These are not the things people my age think to do these days. It is not something we normally want to do. It feels too late now- I stayed at home when I wasn’t needed as much, and when I was needed, I was on my own manifestation mission. Now, the farm feels eerie, thick with my ancestors’ ghosts, begging to attention. The Apple tree dies as the rust builds up, the sun is blocked from the windows by shades covered in mold.
Notice: ///// A candid reminder that life is priceless, that friends and relationships are intensely important, even enough to drive 1000’s of miles for, to give everything for. That love should not be tied up and bounded, and determined by others, but ours to give away when we want, how we want, and in the way we want. What time do we have to waste on analyzing the limitations of our love and the methods we give it. If we love, than all we have is that love, and we should give it in the languages we know to speak through. It’s not that I can fix the brokenness of our system I feel in a single blog post, but I can speak to how we can react in our able-bodied lives right now, and the capacity to give and be generous and listen to the stories of the elderly, each other and take them in.