In the Haze of Their Minds by Breanna DeSimone
The contrast of her wrinkled hand against my smooth one is artwork. She touches my wrist so lightly I almost don’t feel it. My eyes are drawn to the web of bruising decorating her delicate skin, and the way her fingers curl with arthritis. I look up to find a smile spreading across her face.
“I really love you, you know,” she says with complete sincerity. “You’re such a beautiful girl.”
I believe her even though I only met this woman five minutes ago.
As we sit there, I use the cotton pad to gently glide nail polish remover along her nails. The shimmering purple paint begins to dissolve beneath my gentle pressure. Every once in a while, she lays her hand on my wrist and tells me,
“I really love you, you know. You’re such a beautiful girl.”
Wanda pushes her cart down the hall, stopping by every door. It is snack time, and I trail behind as she makes her rounds. She knows which drink and snack every patient likes the best. She talks to them as she fills up plastic cups with bright liquids. Their faces light up as they smile and joke with her. She treats them like human beings and in those small moments, they remember who they are. I am impressed by how well Wanda knows everyone, and filled with affection for each beautiful soul I meet. I realize this is the effect I want to have on the people in my life. This is the reason I have come to volunteer.
The stuffed animals hanging off of Wanda’s cart sway as we move on. I ask her questions about every patient, overflowing with curiosity. I want to know their stories, the lives they lived, the people they loved. Each pair of eyes staring back at me has a history hidden somewhere in the haze of their minds. To learn it is to carry those bright souls with me. Though none of them know it, they are also teaching me.
The beach ball floats ever so gently into the unmoving hands of the man in front of me. It falls into his lap and he grins like a toddler. I take the ball from him, careful not to bump his wheelchair. Looking around, I find the next participant. She’s buried in blankets and barely lifts her arms, waiting to catch the ball. In her movements, I see the cage her body has become, unwilling to follow her commands. With this in mind, I roll the ball instead of throwing it and I watch to make sure it settles in her lap. All the people who surround me here feel so breakable. I am careful to remember that.
After exercise with the beach ball, it is trivia time. Wanda asks them to spell simple words like dog or sit. Sometimes we ask them to name animals or items that start with a particular letter of our choosing. As the patients nod off, I ask Wanda about them. There is a couple sitting in the corner next to the window. The woman is chewing on her clothing, eyes closed. As I watch, the man takes her hand and laces his fingers with hers. I learn they have been married for many, many years. She is slowly forgetting who he is, and yet, they are together, and she knows him well enough to feel comfortable holding his hand. It is a bittersweet love story.
There is a box of old things in the activity room. Sometimes, Wanda will bring it out to reminisce and stretch the patient’s memories. Today, she reaches in and pulls out kitchen utensils and doll clothing. Inside the box, there is also a pair of well-worn baby shoes and a bonnet. The ladies sitting around the table are eating ice cream and putting together jigsaw puzzles. They relive old memories brought to the surface by these pieces of the past. Wanda lifts a chalkboard from the box. Across the top there is an old, faded picture of some children. May, one of my favorite people at the hospital, holds this one. She is deep into her dementia. She loves the chalkboard because she believes she knows the kids in it. Her voice is sweet and childlike as she tells me stories about them. This is my fourth visit and May surprises me by asking, “Do I know you? You look familiar.”
I do not know if she actually remembers me from past visits, but I like to pretend she does.
I pass through the main room of the dementia hall with Wanda. She is telling me the names of patients as we walk by. There is a stiff old woman sleeping on a couch. Wanda gestures to her and says, “Watch out for that one. She’s our hitter. If you catch her on a bad day you could go home with bruises.”
The next time I visit, I learn she has passed away.
Wanda tells me there are more deaths during the winter months. She theorizes about the holidays having something to do with it, or maybe the cold weather. In the time between my visits, patients pass on. We walk through the hallway and I pause by an open door. Wanda tells me about the woman within. She is dying. I watch her niece pace the room in tears as she lets family members know to come say their last goodbyes. I want to give her a hug. Instead, I watch the shallow breaths of the lady in the bed, and I pray for her. My chest is heavy with grief as I turn away. Wanda and I move down the hall, the rattle of her cart echoing through the silence.
Oscar, the resident cat, is waiting for me in the activity room. I reach down and scratch his belly when he rolls over. There is a painter here today, teaching a couple of women how to paint fall trees. Their walkers rest casually by their chairs with bags of paint supplies hanging from the sides. Watching from the corner, I listen to their idle conversation. I have grown comfortable with the elders. I am still careful but no longer afraid to break them. Instead of only nodding my head, I have learned how to converse with them. I talk to the silent ones, telling stories about my life and my family. I have even moved wheelchairs down the long, wide hallways.
In my time here, I have learned that humanity is two sides of one coin, both strong and delicate. I have seen how true respect can bring life back when it is slipping away. Most of all, I have reached a greater understanding of human dignity and I have seen the human soul. Always, I observe, trying to learn from my experiences. I try to take in every detail, hoping to remember this far into the future.
I am in the activity room with Wanda. We are playing Dominos with a group of patients. As we talk, a man wheels his mother into the room and asks us to keep an eye on her. She is asleep but she is yelling incoherent things. She yells about bullfrogs and asks where her son went. We try to keep her calm and offer her ice cream when she wakes up. Another woman sleeps on the other side of the room, her wheelchair pushed up against the wall. There are string lights hanging above her and they cascade across her body and her wheelchair. In her sleep, her fist tightens around the lights. It reminds me of a newborn baby grasping at a finger. I can’t help but smile at the innocence. The women at the table try hard to match the numbers on the Dominos. I help them when they cannot remember.
“Excuse me ma’am! Can you help me? I have to use the bathroom!”
I am flustered and don’t know how to respond. I tell her I don’t work here and then rush to find someone who does. I am told to push the woman’s wheelchair to the main room. The whole time she is yelling and my heart thumps with anxiety. I park her in the main room and let the nurses know about her needs.
In the background she is yelling, “I’m gonna pee my pants!”
I hover, afraid to abandon this woman in her distress. The nurses are unhurried and tell me not to worry. They tell me she does this all the time. I do not understand how they can let her suffer but as I head back down the hallway, they push her into the bathroom.
A woman in a wheelchair is wearing a bright red dress. She is beautiful for her age. She dances in her chair to a tune only she can hear. Her face is filled with a soft joy. A smile spreads across mine as I watch her sway. Lost in her own world, she has found a purity of happiness that I have never seen before. She is the reason the hospital brings in an Elvis impersonator, but all of the patients find joy in this activity. Music is a language that passes even the barrier of a fraying mind. The thought makes me smile.
I walk by a woman with her arms full of items. She has stuffed animals, a sock, a board game and other things I can’t identify. She sits down in a chair and sorts through her treasures. I ask Wanda about the odd sight.
“Oh, she’s just our resident kleptomaniac. None of that belongs to her. She wanders around the rooms and take what she fancies. Eventually, she’ll set it down somewhere and we’ll figure out who it belongs to.”
As we sit with the patients, Wanda names the owner of each miscellaneous item. It amazes me that she knows her patients so well. Wanda has grown on me in the time I’ve known her. I smile at the kleptomaniac and wonder what I will be like when I reach that age.
I have never felt such a permanence in saying goodbye as I did on my last visit with the patients. I know that even if I come back in the future, many of the people I find myself attached to will be gone. So many lives have already flickered out of being here in this hospital. The thin line that parts life and death was made clear to me over the course of the past few months. The beauty that can be found in the bleakest of places has shown me a new way to view the world. Each soul is a soft touch of fortitude and each has left a permanent mark on me. There is such a beauty to their condition; there is also an infinite sadness. I say goodbye to May and when I smile, her face lights up; I can see the beauty of her youth within it. I touch her wrinkled skin, look into her clear blue eyes, and I see artwork.