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In Memoriam: A New Friend

"You know, you have to be really intelligent to marry a doctor," she said, suggesting that I didn't make the cut and that the medical student I was dating would break up with me due to my lack of intelligence. I will always be grateful for that comment. She is the only person (outside of my head, I mean), who has ever questioned my intelligence, and everyone needs that sometimes.

A.S. was one of two women I've been visiting weekly (when possible) at a local nursing home since July. When I went to visit her today, her name had been removed from the door and replaced with another lady's name. Sickened, and half knowing the answer to the question before I even asked it, I asked one of the nurse's aides where A.S. was.

"She died," was the response.
"Do you know when?" I asked, desperate for some information that would do me no good. "I was here and saw her a week ago Sunday."
"Sometime last week," was the only response. "They come and go. That's life." And she moved on to attend to her duties.

It's so strange. I went and visited my second friend there, but my heart wasn't in it and I couldn't stay long. It's so hard to see someone one week, and then they're gone and someone else is in their bed, and you don't get to say goodbye or even mark their passing.

I don't even really know how to explain who A.S. was to me, other than a new friend. I saw A.S. more regularly than I saw most of the people I know, with the exception of roommates, co-workers, and shul friends. I didn't get to know her that well, but we talked about what was going on in our lives. My boyfriends, my ex-boyfriends, my grandmother whom I went to visit in California whenever I could take the time off from work. She would tell it as she saw it, whether that meant saying that my hair was too long, that my ex-boyfriend was an idiot for breaking up with me, or that my shirt was very nice. She once told me that I had nice eyebrows, and praised me for not plucking them, lamenting her own brows that had long ago been plucked into oblivion. Nobody has ever complimented me on my eyebrows before! She told me about her bad days and I tried to empathize, although it's almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to be elderly, disabled, and live in an institution with no one but a stranger to visit you. I hoped that my weekly visits restored, at least in small measure, dignity to A.S.'s life. Her life was largely regulated by the nurses aides on whom she depended for everything--waking, sleeping, washing, dressing, and eating--and circumscribed by the walls of the bedroom she shared with a stranger and limited to the hallway and dining hall outside her door. When she was upset because someone had stolen her calendar, I brought her a new one. She showed me family photos and I brought some in to show her. She always wanted to hear about my parents, my siblings, and my grandmothers. She never married or had children, though she spoke lovingly of "my-nephew-the-doctor" in Washington state. She always put on lipstick and eyeshadow for my visits, and would be upset if I arrived before she was properly made up. She had beautiful blue eyes.

I love visiting people at the nursing home. I did it high school and developed very strong bonds, over several years, with a number of women and one man. I visited the same people each week, occasionally picking up new friends as the old ones passed away. By the time I got to college, I only maintained contact with those who I had visited in high school who were still alive. The news of their deaths always came the same way--I would go on my usual rounds, only instead of my friend's name on the door, I would see another person's name. I would ask the closest nursing home employee where my friend was, and the answer was inevitably "She died last week." (The one exception was a woman who had moved to a different facility to be closer to her family.) I wish there was a better way to find out.

I never found out in time to go to a funeral or memorial service, and there was never anyone to mourn with. I once asked for an address to send a condolence card to, but it didn't usually seem appropriate. Most of these people did not have children, and those who did had children who rarely visited. "I loved your mother," I thought about writing. "She loved you and talked about you all the time, and she lived for yourbi-annual visit. Maybe you should have visited more." Or I could have written, for the childless many, "Your great-aunt loved you like a grandchild. She wished you would have called more." Of course, I would never write these things. I don't know the circumstances of these people's lives, and their absence gave me the pleasure of the company of their mother, grandmother, and great-aunt.

It was clearly A.S.'s time to die. She was old and often immobilized by pain. Sadly, few will mourn her passing, and that is part of why I do what I do. Everybody deserves to have people in their life who will be sad and miss them when they die. Mostly, I visit these women because I enjoy their company, their sage wisdom, and their delight in my company. But a small part of me feels that there is no greater honor on earth than to be with someone during their final months of life, and that is another reason why I visit people like A.S.

And so, this week, I will ask the volunteer coordinator for the name of another nursing home resident--someone lonely, who receives few visitors, and who likes to talk. I will welcome his or her presence into my life, and mourn his or her passing when it inevitably arrives.


Thanks for a post that reminds us of something truly important. My favorite new quote is from The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd: "The whole problem with people is they know what matters, but they don't choose it."
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