Sunday, June 20, 2010

What's Your Name

I'm not entirely proud of this, but one of the things I do at the nursing home when things start getting to me is I go outside and smoke with the people I call my Wheelchair Buddies. These are good guys. Nursing home regulars who are full of stories and treat me like like royalty. 

Today is Father's Day. My mom left to do errands and my dad started crying when they put him in his wheelchair. "Are you in pain?... Is it your breathing?... Are you just plain frustrated?" It can be difficult to pinpoint what is wrong sometimes. My ultimate fear is not that he is feeling depressed, but that something is snagged or poking him. 

Eventually, my dad falls fast asleep, and I go outside to see who's smokin'. There is a bus stop hut with chairs inside it for the smokers. It's quite cozy, actually. 

Today the patio is deserted except for one of my buddies who is always quiet. I am not even sure if he can talk. But when I come outside, he typically wheels over to me slowly and then parks himself about 20 feet away to observe. I don't mind it. I am sure that I am an odd spectacle when I breeze in with my lip gloss and flashy Nike high top sneakers.

But today he rolls nearer to me and grunts. I look up to see that he is displaying a crushed cigarette box in his hand. 

"Oh. You want a cigarette? Um, but I'm, not supposed to give them out" (This is displayed on a sign nearby)..."Okay, well, what the hell."

I reach out to hand the man a cigarette and he juts his head for us to relocate in the Smokers Bus Stop Hut. I shuffle in behind him and hand him a Camel Light. He grunts at me again.

"Oh, you need a light. Ok, here."

As well sit there, silently smoking our cigs, I note that this man is smoking the living shit out of this one cigarette like it's a joint, and then I feel bad. I am sure I totally was not supposed to feed him nicotine. He probably keeps that ancient crushed cigarette box as a prop to fool young gals like me. 

He smokes his cigarette almost past the filter, then accidentally drops it onto his lap.


"Hey, careful there! –" 

I caution as he reacts in slow motion to the smoking artifact in his lap. This is turning out to be too stressful for me. I note that there is a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket in the smoker's hut. Probably issued by the Fire Marshall, I bet. You better believe that one of these dudes have inadvertently lit themselves on fire at some point.

I walk out and sit myself on the bench.

"I'm going to sit here now, alright?"

Geeze, I spend a lot of time talking to myself at this place. And then, sure enough, my wheelchair buddy slowly inches his way over to me. He plants himself about 10 feet in front of me and just stares. He makes a delightful sighing sound as if to say, "What a nice Sunday afternoon." I smile.

"What's your name?"

He points to his chest and grunts.

"Yes, you."

Then, oh-so-slowly, like a mime making sure the audience understands his act, the man reaches into his canvas knapsack to produce something. It takes him forever, and soon I am wondering if I should just go over there and pull out whatever the item is. Maybe it's a name tag or something.

But I resist the urge to rush and wait while he slowly unfolds a flowered piece of paper. I instinctually start to choke up, wondering what it is the mute man is about to share with me.

It is a birthday card, folded and unfolded countless times. He unfolds it with the speed of a slug and then looks up at me. I apprehensively walk over to his chair and peer over his shoulder at the old card in his hands. It reads:

God is smiling today because it is your Birthday! 
I love you very much. God Bless you richly, Terry

I start backing up with my hand to my chest, holding in the countless hypothetical scenarios swarming in my head that might explain the reason why this lone man has been carrying this card with him for so long.

He looks at me with a glint of pride in his eye. I turn my head to the side and nod, suddenly feeling the heavy weight of the human condition. I smile at him and quickly walk away. I can see his reflection in the glass entrance to the nursing home. His head is cocked to one side, as if wondering if he had done something to upset me. It certainly wasn't that he said anything wrong. 

I take the annoyingly safe elevator back to my dad's floor. With my arms crossed around me, I try to rid myself of the image of the man in the wheelchair. I never want my dad to be him, showing an old birthday card to a complete stranger. Hell, I don't want to end up being him either. 

One cannot always count on the kindness of strangers.

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