Mar 13, 2012

A Legacy..


I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to attend the nursing home workshop where we were asked to wear cloudy glasses and tape our fingers together to understand how it felt to be old and disabled. I didn’t want to be paired with an elderly resident for six months, and, with him or her, create a “Legacy Project” of memories or keepsakes of their choosing.

I fled the nursing home grounds determined not to return. While the Legacy Project was most worthwhile, it wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t ready for nursing home residents in wheel chairs, some shrieking out, others demented or confined to bed. And, I just didn’t want to return to the place where my father had stayed before coming home for his final months. But now years later, I also didn’t have a real reason to say no. So I signed up.

Enter Bob on a cane..a gentle, quiet man in his late 70s eager for company. He shyly volunteered that he’d grown up on White Oak Mountain in Dry Forks, Virginia, had taught French at the University of Richmond, and liked to paint and enjoy poetry, especially poems about roses. Apparently he’d come to the nursing home from the hospital after a stroke; he apologized for memory lapses but otherwise showed few signs of debilitation. His niece, “Sandy,” was his guardian, and she and her family lived over an hour away.

I liked Bob immediately. He was frail but aware, attuned and receptive; we also shared many interests and had grown up in the same generation. Our first day, I talked about the Legacy Project’s deadline, goals and purpose. I soon began visiting Bob once a week and eventually tape-recorded three short interviews. I postponed doing more and somehow didn’t mention the Legacy Project again.

Instead, we fell into a routine of sorts. I’d go to Bob’s room where I often found him napping. I tapped his toe. He’d blink awake, politely asking, “How are you?” He’d recite a list of predictable aches and pains in his back, hips, knees or stomach. Then, complaints aside, he sat up ready to watch the noon news or shuffle forth on his walker.

While taking many medications, Bob was still more mentally cognizant than most residents and had found few likely companions. He also seemed naturally reticent, choosing to eat his meals alone in his room and only taking bites of the starchy fare delivered in covered dishes. Over the months, Bob was moved to more than five different rooms, usually to replace an ill or dying roommate.

With little to distinguish his side of the room, Bob took pride in the bright patchwork quilt sewn by his mother as well as her direct gaze from a bedside photograph. He said that he -- the youngest of six -- was his mother’s “pet.” He now dreamed about her a lot, a smart, country woman with a talent for math who’d gone on scholarship to the elite Chatham Hall girls’ school, but dropped out, embarrassed that she had “too few changes of clothes.” She’d cooked chicken instead of turkey at Christmas and baked butterscotch, banana and chocolate cream pies, the memory of which still made Bob smile. His father had been a mechanic in the nearby cotton mill, “a man who could fix anything.”

Some days we ventured from Bob’s room to the patio to pluck deadheads from a rose bush that we planted together. In spring, I folded Bob’s walker into my car, and we headed out for a sandwich at my house or a nearby restaurant. He always ordered egg salad. He and my husband talked on the
deck about painting rivers and clouds, and we hoped that a fresh canvas would inspire Bob to try his hand again. But it did not.

 Other afternoons I looked forward to drives in the country, a time Bob and I breathed freer. He complimented the mountain views and changing colors. We discovered that we both enjoyed the July heat when everyone else turned up the air conditioning. He described what it was like to cure tobacco in the swelter of a summer barn. He confessed that after high school, he’d liked to smoke and drink, especially with his soda fountain buddies when working at a local drug store. For four years, he served as a Navy radar specialist aboard the S.S. Myles C. Fox, a destroyer docked off Rhode Island and Mediterranean shores. On leave, he’d enjoyed rare chances to visit Spain, France, Italy and Morocco.

 Somewhere in the mix, Bob had won University scholarships and also earned a PhD in French and the privilege to be called “doctor,” a respected title in the nursing home. He’d been a French professor at Ohio Wesleyan and later worked as a librarian, an archivist in a geology lab, and a caretaker in a rose gardener.

 Bob took particular pride in his collection of rose poems -- over 1500. Before his stroke, he’d started gathering copyrights but now despaired that the poems would ever be shared or published.

We leafed through the poems, sitting side by side. “I like the Persian ones best. I like their passion,” said this seemingly monastic fellow. Had Bob, in fact, had his own great love? Did he too remember longing and heartache; days driving by a lover’s house or waiting like a fool for someone’s call?
The first Christmas I gave Bob poems by Tagore and he gave me his ode, Lord of The Rose, praising the.... “Beloved, “Heavenly Gardner, Thou...
.... “Your love a delicate petal....”

Bob revealed that as a young man he’d gone to the Catholic church with a girl he’d dated but other- wise hadn’t been religious much of his life. His mother attended the Pentecostal Holiness church, and his father, a Methodist, only went to services in his last years. He said he now relied on his faith more than ever, desperate to leave the nursing home, to return to his apartment, his friends and a private life he could no longer afford or manage on his own. He’d written his niece requesting to move but had no reply. “I feel my life is over. I don’t want to live like this. I pray,” he said. “I pray.”

I wanted Bob’s prayers to be answered or to find a way to help him escape the nursing home. The Legacy Project’s six-month deadline had long passed. I, too, was ready to exit. I felt flattered and anxious when he said I was his only friend, and he didn’t know what he would do without me. I imagined that we’d keep meeting for years to come.

We now felt safe speaking of our doubts and losses. Bob listened to my questions about faith without judgment. He confessed that he’d stopped teaching because of his drinking and the rough times that followed. “Earlier, I didn’t believe in God really,” he said. “It was more theory. Now, the whole matter of the hereafter is real to me in a way it never was. I feel I have a personal relationship with Christ. It’s the real thing and gets better and better. It saves me. Right now, if I didn’t have that, where would I be?” Indeed.

And, our differences, never strong, only lessened as the months passed. We joked that we’d cancel each other’s votes on election day. Together we ate Hershey kisses, read Richard Wilbur poems and watched the early snow fall.

As Bob’s second Christmas approached, I readied a Santa bag of his favorite foods to deliver on Christmas Eve. Then, on December 23rd, I got a sudden call. “I’m leaving in the morning,” Bob announced at high pitch. “Sandy is moving me. It’s a place nearer her. I’ll write to you when I get there.”

I was setting the supper table when Bob called; I stopped and sat down. “That’s good news, Bob. I’m glad Sandy’s coming. It’s what you’ve wanted. I’ll come by before you go tomorrow,” I said. Maybe Bob’s many months of worry had paid off; maybe his prayers had been answered. Maybe I didn’t want him to go.

In the morning, I hurried to the nursing home and found Bob already dressed for departure in a heavy sweater and jacket. I stuffed his shirts, sweaters, slacks, letters, soaps, razors and too many pairs of white cotton socks into cardboard boxes. He’d already packed my photo of a pink rose from a garden we’d visited before the last blooms.

When Sandy, and her husband, Frank, arrived, Bob and I hugged goodbye. He seemed the kid off to the county fair, impatient for his ride on the ferris wheel. He pushed his walker faster than usual; he carefully climbed the truck’s high step and wedged into the cab between Sandy and Frank, his belongings strapped tight in its bed.

 I snapped pictures and waved Bob off as Frank’s green and silver truck circled out of the nursing home driveway and disappeared into the traffic. I told myself that Bob’s move was all for the best, that he’d be closer to his family. I was grateful that his wishes had been heard and acted upon. He’d be far away but in a better place. I turned, saw Bob’s walker against the tree, and started to cry.

Watching the red truck taillights fade in the cold before Christmas, I promised myself to stay in touch. I sat in my car, holding the keys. I thought of the Project we never finished and Bob’s very real legacy. He’d chosen dignity when given no privacy; he’d chosen patience when others decided his fate; he’d chosen faith when facing the unknown. His was a legacy I’d long cherish, one of sweetness, acceptance, courage, and yes, love.

--The Richmond Times Dispatch, December 2011

copyright 2011