I was fifteen and a half, old enough to qualify for part-time work on weekends at a nursing home in Newburyport, MA. My friend, Charlene started working the same day; our parents shared the carpooling to get us there at 7am.
I knew nothing of nursing homes or of really old people. The uniform was cool, short white dress, white stockings and soft-soled white shoes. I’m not sure why I found it so attractive, when in truth it was hideous even by 1974 standards. Perhaps it had to do with the feeling of being so “grown-up” and having a job. We arrived and were taken though orientation along with two other girls our age. After walking through the entire home, and it was a stately old historic home on High Street, we were paired with a nurse to shadow and learn our duties as aides. A plump, warm middle-aged nurse lead me away from the group.
“The men’s wing is a wonderfully happy place to work, but you have to be comfortable with certain facts of life. Do you think you would be comfortable sponge bathing an old man?”
I was so willing to please, I didn’t give it a minute’s thought, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
She smiled at my bravado and lead me to back of the house. We entered the first room occupied by four gentlemen just finishing their breakfasts in bed. They all called out greetings and she efficiently but gently helped the first man stow his breakfast dishes. A pan of warm water appeared, some soap, a soft towel, washcloth, and a razor. I stood by self-consciously as she and the man went about the routine of changing his diaper, cleaning his body, shaving his whiskers and combing his hair. The nurse showed me how to clean his dentures and apply the glue. It was Saturday, he might have visitors.
At the next bed, she pressed me into further service. Each of the men were remarkably spry and joked liberally with us. I was captivated by the dichotomy of the wonderful atmosphere and my first glimpse of old age.
At the end of my shift, I wandered back to the nurses’ station and was told I could find Charlene on the second floor. As I came down the hall I could hear voices rising and an old woman screaming. Nurses ran into the hall and flew to a room at the end. I followed out of sheer terror and curiosity. One of the elderly patients, was wailing and gesturing wildly. Charlene stood in the middle of the room with a look of horror. In her hands was a large, stainless steel bowl. She had been told clean all the patient’s dentures in the ward. The bowl was overflowing with sparkly clean teeth. With no way to tell who’s were who’s, she was attempting to query and fit each patient with a set from her stash.
Years later, as I sat rubbing his feet, the memory brought a smile.
I arrived at around 11am, he was having clementines on his wooden breakfast dishes with a beautiful squat ceramic pitcher of water nearby. She was buzzing around the kitchen and had a million questions about my book. We caught up very briefly then he began the slow process of taking himself to the toilet. I walked behind, keeping an eye on where the feet of his walker landed. Instead of holding the back of his pants by a belt loop, as is a common practice, I keep one hand on his shoulder, and one on his lower torso, massaging the muscles that are working so hard to keep him erect. Today he stopped for a while on the journey, I asked if he was OK and did he want to rest? In his thick rolling accent he responded, “No, I’m just enjoying your massage on my back.”
We managed to deal with the frailty and decline of his bodily functions in an intimately human way. While she attended to him, I held him upright. I looked into his eyes at that moment of extreme humiliation, and said “You have the most amazing green eyes!” He looked deep into mine, ignoring the indignity of life occurring and replied, “They used to be greener.”
“Shall we dance?” I purred as I lifted his hand to my shoulder. “Let’s.” he crooned with his green eyes smiling.
“Hang on a minute you two, I’m not done here!” she quipped, as the three of us ignored the reality of the moment.
Later, she went off to shop. He and I were settled in his room where he was tucked in his recliner. I had massaged his hands and was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a bottle of oil, massaging his feet. I droned on about the hardest working parts of our bodies and having respect for our hands and feet. He dozed and breathed the moist air of his oxygen tank.
The hum of his machine lulled me into silence as I watched the blood return and the color improve in his skin. I have no massage training but the simple act of giving comfort was enough. Everything we do in life is connected, part of the joy is seeing those threads the weave through the fabric.