This was our first book talk of the new year. We left the house around noon to travel to a small senior facility with an equally small number of residents. I held low expectations of selling any books, but hoped to brighten up the day for a few folks. We had earlier decided to focus on retirement homes because River of January touches on many events that this elderly generation finds familiar.
Finally securing a couple of extension cords my projector flickered on, illuminating an empty wall, and the power point show began. The nurses aides rolled in some residents in their wheel chairs, where they remained quietly seated for the duration. Two other people wandered in at the same time and began a turf war over the ‘good’ chair. The gentleman didn’t move, nor did he say a word, but he meant to sit in that chair. The woman who demanded that same seat kept insisting that it was HER chair. Watching the showdown, I was reminded of how ornery my kids could get, fighting over preferential seating, either in front of the television, or riding in the car. In this instance, the feisty woman prevailed, and the old guy had to settle for the love seat. Once he settled into the cushions, he promptly fell asleep–for the whole presentation.
Two other fellows seemed to enjoy the pictures and the talk. As images of Helen Hayes and Maurice Chevalier flashed on the wall, I caught both respond with slight nods and faint smiles. Another woman sitting apart, back in the corner appeared very sharp, seeming to deliberately separate herself from the her failing comrades. Perhaps I sympathized with her, hiding in that corner, when our victorious friend from the ‘chair wars’ piped up, “I saw this show on tv!”
When I attempted to engage the group with rhetorical questions, they just stared, eliciting next nothing. And in a brief moment of insight I decided that these people had given enough in life. I was there to bless their day, perhaps make it better for that short time, than it otherwise might have been. All was as it should be, I was in the right place at the right time.
After I finished the program one of the quiet gentleman from his wheelchair tried to speak. His voice was quite weak with age and poor health. He was difficult to understand. Listening hard, reading his dry lips I made out B-24’s. “You flew B-24’s in the war?” I asked. He nodded and smiled. I took his hand, shook it and said, “Thank you sir for your service.” He whispered a couple more unintelligible words, and I smiled in return.
Time is a demon. For these people, idle hours can feel an insufferable burden. Still, sealed up inside their frail bodies exist dramatic stories, from dramatic lives already lived in full.
The old standard, September Song captures the beauty and melancholy of those facing a day identical to the day before, until those days run out.
Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you
I am looking forward to our next retirement home visit in February.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January. Visit the website at www.river-of-january.com