Death Is Everywhere
But, deep down, I am afraid too, because I now know that death is everywhere.
Old people with wrinkles and white hair, and bent like commas, move in baby steps. I am at the convalescent home as a volunteer for Girl Scouts. I’m an assigned buddy to Elsie, a shriveled lady with pale blue eyes that seem to look past me even though I stand right in front of her. I help her into her wheelchair all by myself. I wonder if this is illegal because I am ten.
Elsie is fragile and I’m afraid she might break, that her bones will snap like twigs if she falls, and so I guide her carefully, like the nurse showed me the first day I came to volunteer. This is my fourth time visiting with Elsie, but she still looks confused when she sees me. Mom says that memory loss affects most of these folks and for all I know, she doesn’t remember who I am at all.
The brakes lock the wheelchair in place. I brace myself as Elsie shuffles close to the edge of the chair. I gently release her into the seat.
I push her wheelchair out the automatic doors, to the concrete path that leads around a pond that’s shaped like a jellybean. Ducks swim laps and climb onto the grassy bank. I grip the rubber handles of Elsie’s wheelchair firmly and start around the path. Here and there we come upon a resident sitting on a bench, staring out at the water.
After a lap, I push Elsie to her room and park the wheelchair next to her bed. Her roommate, another old woman, lies on her side, facing us. Tubes run from her nostrils to a machine filled with yellow reddish fluid, like a bag of pee mixed with blood. Her eyes are blank and she doesn’t move when we enter. For an instant I wonder if she is dead. But I realize that the raspy, rumbling sound of the machine is her breath, as if there are rocks in her chest.
There is one small window above Elsie’s bed. For those who are hooked up to machines, this window is the only view outside of the hospital. What a boring place— white walls, silver bed frames, white sheets, bottles of medicine, pastel nightgowns and machines with tubes-- all under bright lights.
On my way to the bathroom, I move through the long, white hallway. A few residents walk with white, red tipped poles. The red tips are the mark of their blindness. I shudder. Wallowing around in darkness, unable to see the sky and the ocean and the smiles of the people I love, would be like death to me.
Mom said she’s amazed that I respond so positively to the old people. She said that when she was my age, she had been terrified of old people to where she couldn’t even be around them. She feared their vacant eyes, moth-like smell, and their purple- veined skin.
But, deep down, I am afraid too, because I now know that death is everywhere. It doesn’t just happen to hamsters and guinea pigs. It happens in buildings and hospitals and out on the streets in car accidents. It happens to kids too, like the eleven- year- old boy in my neighborhood that died of cancer. One day, I won’t see or breathe or laugh anymore. One day I will no longer go to school or even stand on this ground. Old people in homes spend months staring at white walls under bright lights, stuck on mattresses, and then, they die.
Weeks later, after my visits to the old folk’s home ended, due to summer vacation, I wondered what happened to Elsie. Maybe she was still staring out the small window in her room, or maybe she had died. If so, I wanted to think she died peacefully in her sleep. That’s the way I hoped to go-- just fall asleep and never wake up.
My visits to the old folk’s home signified my first experience being in close proximity to death. It helped shape my first tangible thoughts on the concept of growing old and dying. It is an experience that now, eighteen years later, I still remember with striking clarity.