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Rosita is leaning against a gigantic stuffed-toy in her high-chair when I arrive at the home for the elderly. The fluffy tiger serves as a buffer between her and a wall. The chair reminds me of the one in which my youngest grandson once sat at the dining table. It protects her from falling over; prevents her from spilling food on herself. She is unable to lift herself or change her position. Her crying fills the entrance hall and the adjacent dining room. Aayaaaaaaaaaa. Ai, ai, ai……………!
The nurses and attendants appear numb to the “antics” of their patients with advanced dementia. They remain in their office, go about their chores and keep to their schedule. I think they have heard and seen it all, have become immune to the cries and irrational behavior. Who I am to judge their actions? I am not walking in their shoes.
But I cannot ignore Rosita’s cry. It surrounds me, tugs at me. I wonder if the crying is one of pain, of boredom or of frustration from being imprisoned in a body that no longer works or obeys her will. I put my coat and bag down on a chair and begin to alternately rub her back and hold her hands. Then I straighten her up from the leaning position. How long had she been leaning like that?
She is the only immobile one. The others, though minds are failing, can move around unattended. Some wander along the corridors with their rollators; others watch TV. Can they follow the thread of the program? They rarely engage each other in conversation. One sits briefly in front of the TV only to rise soon after. In no time she returns; repeats her action.
I no longer see an old man who always slept and snored loudly in his wheelchair. I no longer see his dedicated wife who visited. I suspect he has died.
A patient, pushing through the corridors with her rollator, badgers a nurse for medication. Is she addicted to the pills or has she forgotten the time it is dispensed? The attendant assures her she will receive it at dinner time. She walks another round along the corridors and comes back again, asking the same question.
In the meantime, Rosita’s crying has eased. Standing, I continue to rub her back, then switch to holding her hands.
“How long has she been crying like this?” I ask the nurse.
“Since she woke up from her afternoon nap and was brought to the sitting room,” she replies.
“Is she in pain?” I enquire.
“She is due for her medication soon,” the nurse answers.
I accept that the patients will get their medication at the same time, pain or no pain, and I return to rubbing Rosita’s back.
Rosita’s eyes have been tightly closed since I arrived, as though unwilling to see her surroundings, face her reality. I push the sippy cup between her tight lips and try to get her to drink. Between crying, she utters Spanish words I do not understand. To me, they are lamentations, words of protests against her deteriorating condition, against her loss of independence, her surroundings. They do not sound like words of joy…Ai, ai, ai….” Am I projecting my own fears unto her? This is a moment when I wish I was a mind reader.
Rachel L, an old Peruvian friend of Rosita’s, pops by to visit. When we met before some time ago, they both communicated in Spanish. But I do not speak Spanish.
“I speak English,” Rachel says, as though reading my mind. “I have lived in Switzerland for a long time but did not learn German. Too complicated. I also lived in Japan for a decade and did not learn Japanese. Too complicated. So how do you know Rosita?”
“We taught together at Klubschule Migros for many years, belong to a Stammtisch of retired teachers,” I say. “I learned Spanish in High School, in the mid-60s but I have forgotten most of it. A few phrases have stuck with me…Hola, como estas? … Dónde vive?’….”puedo tomar un poco de agua, por favor?…. “me caí y me rompí la pierna.” “siento mucho escuchar eso.”… bits of conversations we had to memorize.”
“I remember when Rosita had hips and danced and partied long after my head and tired limbs had sent me to bed. I wondered how she, ten years older, found the staying power. I am still amazed at the number of languages she once spoke. What a gift!”
“That right,” Rachel answers. “Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, English and Greek. I envied that gift.”
“She was still taking Greeks lessons five years ago,” I say.
“Is that so?” Rachel’s eyes widen.
Our attention turns back to Rosita. Rachel speaks Spanish to her. Rosita opens her eyes—wide. It is like the sun suddenly rising. Then Rosita sits more erect and begins to respond to Rachel, answering her questions in that strong voice I remember. She grabs her sippy cup and drinks unassisted. Hearing her “mother tongue” is like a life-saving homeopathic infusion. Rosita’s changed demeanor brings us joy. We have just witnessed a miracle.
Rachel hands Rosita an organic biscuit which she eats enthusiastically. She eats five in a row. Her are eyes bright, full of light and life. Then she smiles. Her smile is infectious. We are grinning ear to ear. Our hearts are light feathers of happiness for Rosita.
Had we just witnessed that moment of lucidity I had heard and read about …. that phenomenon, which experts refer to as terminal or paradoxical lucidity? It is said to have been reported on since antiquity.
But now, our visiting time is over. I have been with Rosita for more than an hour. Rachel, who arrived twenty minutes after me, has to leave, too.
It breaks our hearts that leaving might usher sundown, put Rosita back in that dark place from which she had just risen. I promise myself to play her Spanish poets reading their poems next time I visit. She was a teacher of Spanish literature. I think of Pablo Neruda. Would she recognize, “I Like for You to be Still”, “Me gusta cuando callas?” Would it speak to her? We do not always need words to express love.
I like for you to be still, and you seem far away.
It sounds as though you were lamenting, a butterfly cooing like a dove.
And you hear me from far away, and my voice does not reach you:
Let me come to be still in your silence.
Me gustas cuando callas y estás como distante.
Y estás como quejándote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
Déjame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.
I want to see that light, that rising sun, again and again.
© Althea Romeo-Mark 2019
Born in Antigua, West Indies, Althea Romeo Mark is an educator and internationally published writer who grew up in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands. She has lived and taught in the Virgin Islands, USA, Liberia, United Kingdom, and Switzerland since 1991. A dual American and Swiss citizen, she writes short stories and personal essays in addition to poetry.
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This is so beautiful and sad and hopeful. I am taken back to my late mother and late husband in their dementia. The sudden awareness. The sun downing. The hundreds of times my mother first saw the blooming jacaranda.
Thank you very much for your response Barbara Huntington. I am glad the essay spoke to you.
Althea Romeo Mark
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