In 1949, E.B. White captured the whole of New York City in a 7,500 word piece called, Here Is New York. My daughter downloaded the book to our shared digital account last week. "You might like this mom," she emailed me, "it will just take you an hour." She was right, the book was beautiful and short, and it made me homesick for New York City -- and I have never even lived there.
The beauty and simplicity of E.B. White's words haunted me for days, until I finally realized why. Parts of his book -- the parts where he describes the loneliness and lack of privacy in the city, sadly reminded me of my grandmother's nursing home. "I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings," E.B. White wrote about New York. "The place resounds everywhere with loneliness and isolation and the romance of what has been lost." I get it. The nursing home resounds with this loneliness and isolation, yet there is no counterbalance of energy and excitement that E.B White finds in New York.
When I open the front door of the nursing home to visit my 99-year-old bubbie, I let in some much needed fresh air to the foyer where she takes her visitors. Though it is furnished with grand furniture set up in intimate conversation areas, there isn't much conversing going on amongst the "regulars" there. When I visit, I pull up a light orange plastic chair from the staff kitchen so I can be close to my bubbie. If I sit in one of those comfy chairs -- more than 18 inches away from her wheelchair -- she will not be able to hear me.
The morning I visit, in another area of the foyer there is the woman I have seen before, but never met, sitting beside her caretaker. I avert my eyes. I only know it's a woman because I have been told so. She is huddled under a wool hat, wool sweater, sunglasses and a pile of blankets in her wheelchair. She is unable to close her mouth. "She's dead," my grandmother tells me with a clear look of disdain -- like someone should have seen to it that she was disposed of long ago. "Just no one has told her so." But seemingly, just to prove her wrong, the woman cries out in pain as her caretaker straightens her out, presumably to make her more comfortable. With that task done, the caretaker settles in on the comfy chair beside her, talking softly on her cell phone.
An alarm pierces the stilted air when a former (I am told "brilliant") college professor, suffering from late-stage Alzheimer's, walks out the door. His caretaker has forgotten to turn off his alarm, yet again. The alarm screeches, for a full 30 seconds, before an aide (in no obvious hurry) comes over and puts in the re-set code. In that 30 seconds, you are not sure whether you want to pull your hair out, or if you are thankful for the moment of distraction.
A taxi pulls up. For about 10 minutes, we watch as a man, very, very slowly emerges with a walker, the taxi driver patiently helping him. I am told this man comes to call every single day to visit his wife on the second floor (she does not come down to the lobby). We watch him as he shuffles slowly, oh so slowly, over to the elevator -- a living reminder of the "passage of time and the swing of the pendulum," as E.B. White might say. I am awed by his devotion to his wife.
There is no sense of connection when residents suffer from Alzheimer's, cannot close their mouths or do not come out of their rooms. There is no privacy when you need help going to the bathroom. There is no fun when there is neither nature to enjoy, commerce to distract you and everyone around you is a stranger, and bound to remain so. There is no passion. There is no adventure, no generation of heat, no physical majesty, no visible symbols of aspiration and faith saying the way is up. When the only way is down, there is an irritability and tension that persists, because there is nothing to offset it. My grandmother takes her meals in her room, not the community dining room, because she can't stand "old" people. I don't blame her.
In the nursing home, there is not even a faint vibration of what E.B White senses in New York: "great times and tall deeds." There is no feeling that you can experience rejuvenation by shifting location. The feeling of "stuck" permeates the place. It is high in purpose and important in its furnishings, but there is nothing grand about adult diapers, sponge baths, rotting teeth or thinning hair.
I leave after an hour, wondering why anyone would live in a nursing home if there were other options available. But unbelievably, with every marble intact, my grandmother in fact made that choice.
"Writing is never 'fun,'" E.B White is quoted as saying. I generally don't agree; in this encore career, I wouldn't do it if it weren't fun. But there is nothing fun about a nursing home, and there was not much fun in the writing about it either.