During Toad’s second visit to the vet during our travels, the vet told me that I should go to the Pioneer Museum because several volunteers are in their 80s. So, while my car was being fixed at Tom’s Alignment, I decided to walk over there and see what I could find.
The director quickly referred me to Harriet DeWitt. Harriet told me that her mother, Marie Cole was 102 and sharp. So, we set an appointment and I went to meet Marie at the Gallatin County Rest Home.
Marie had a tough time with the interview especially toward the end as she grew tired. Her mind drifted through long pauses and often said apologetically, “I don’t know.” (Keep in mind as you listen to the audio below that I edited a lot.)
We went to the cafeteria for the interview and shortly afterward, a staff member began setting the tables for lunch, so, there was a lot of noise and distractions. She didn’t seem interested in honoring 102-year-old Marie or politely offering alternative locations for the interview. Rather curtly, she let us know that we were in the way.
I know that I can go on ad nauseam about nursing homes and that this is a sensitive subject for everyone. I’m not pretending that I have any solutions or that I know everyone’s circumstances. I certainly don’t. I know that some people become dangerous to themselves and to others. I know that some people have no families. I know there are also lots of things that I don’t know. So, when I’m stating how I feel about nursing homes, please take that for what it is: my feelings.
I have struggled with this interview for a month now. Every time I sat down to begin editing the audio and her voice strained to say her name, I had to stop. Her voice struggles to surface like a bubble from the bottom of a tar pit and when it breaks through, thick around the edges, you can hear her strength and effort.
Having not been in a nursing home since my grandmother passed away, I knew this would be hard. Before walking inside, I sat in the parking lot and prayed to please let this be a blessing to all that hear it and all that read it.
I have searched and searched and as of yet, I don’t know where the blessing is in this, but, I decided to trust that the blessing is here, somewhere. My limited understanding of all of this is that it’s my job to write it as I experience it. I don’t intend to offend or hurt anyone, but, I can’t smooth over the rough edges to make everyone feel comfortable. My job is to tell you what I saw and how I saw it.
When I looked at Marie, I could see that she was unhappy, often confused, slipping in and out of reality and treated with minimum respect. She flat-out told me, “I have nothing to smile about.”
She was disheveled and her hair was pressed flat from her pillows the night before. I wondered when was the last time someone fixed her hair. On this day, clearly no one helped her prepare for the interview so that she would look good. You and I both know that she would have liked to look her best. I tried to photograph her in such a way that minimizes the signs of neglect.
When people say to me that someone is in a nursing home because they require 24-hour care, my first thought is, “So do babies.” I truly don’t understand how we have become a society where it’s acceptable to put our elders in these facilities. It is certainly not acceptable to put a baby in such a place. I am endlessly thankful that when I needed 24-hour care, my grandmother took me in and sat by my crib despite the inconvenience.
These facilities make me nauseous. This facility looked clean and didn’t smell of urine the way that some do. But, I still felt sick. The people lining the halls in their wheelchairs, eager for any attention, the people staring blankly out the windows, the old man violently choking while trying to swallow… All of these images hurt. I don’t want to grow old if this is the best that we can do.
Last fall, someone I’ve known all of my life, admired for many reasons and learned most of what I know about music committed suicide just after her 85th birthday. She was extremely healthy and rather grumpy about it. When I first heard of her death, I was actually happy for her because I knew she wanted to go. Then, when I heard it was suicide, I was selfishly upset because we had been working on a project together and I couldn’t understand why she would do that before we were through. I thought I had given her something to be excited about, but, it wasn’t enough. I felt I had failed her. Then after some time passed, I realized that she didn’t want to face what most people she loved went through, what her husband went through, what so many of her relatives and friends went through: slowly deteriorating in the nursing home.
Long before my grandmother was put in one, over the course of our childhood, my sister and I went with our grandparents to visit their relatives or friends in several nursing homes. I remember the pact that we made that our grandparents would NEVER be put in a place like that. We both did our best to keep her out of the nursing home, but, ultimately, we failed her. Perhaps I didn’t fight hard enough. I applaud Tressa and her grandmother, Frankie, my first interview. Tressa drove to Birmingham and took her grandmother saying, “She’s coming to live with me now.” And that was that. As much as I fantasized about kidnapping my grandmother, I always felt too powerless in my family to do anything.
My time with Marie brought a flood of emotions. Given the circumstances, this interview would have been difficult no matter what, but, the fact that she shares my grandmother’s birthday, June 25 is too much of a coincidence to not mention. The day before her interview, when I heard her date of birth, I hoped that the Big Mystery had some healing in mind as all of this was coming together. I know her date of birth is important to me and I know the nursing home pain is important to me, but, I still haven’t put it all together yet.
I trust that I don’t understand this or the complicated feelings that have resurfaced and I trust that I don’t have to understand.
This is a blessing for someone, somehow. I trust.
Me: What is your full name?
Me: Where were you born?
Me: When were you born?
Me: What can you tell me about living in Bozeman?
Me: What’s your highest level of education?
Me: Who is your favorite singer?
Marie: I don’t know.
Me: What’s your favorite song?
Marie: I guess I like all of them.
Me: Looking back over you life, what would you say are some of your happiest moments?
Me: What would you say are some of your saddest moments?
Me: When you feel down, what do you do to make yourself feel better?
Me: What life experiences have you had that made you really proud?
Marie: That’s a big one. I really don’t know.
Me: If there are any, what ways would you like to improve yourself?
Marie: Oh there’s a lot of ways. I don’t know.
Me: If you could offer a new-born child a single piece of advice, what would it be?