Twelve residents of the residential memory care unit sit in the central living room area. Ten women and two men. All in assorted chairs and couches loosely arranged in a circle. A gas fireplace glows at one end of the room while windows at the other end allow a diffuse rainy foggy morning to gently illuminate the room. Not a single person says a word. Perhaps they are startled by my entrance. I’m a stranger to all but one. As I sit down outside the group on the fireplace hearth, the resident I am here to see tentatively raises her hand as if to say I think I know you but I’m not quite sure, then she turns back toward the center of the circle.
Not one person speaks a word. No one moves. No one glances around. No one even sighs. There isn’t a clock in the room to tell how much time is passing, but it’s as if time has stopped. I have walked into a time machine. The only clue that time hasn’t ended are the sounds of staff and other residents elsewhere in the locked down memory care wing of the assisted living facility.
After what seems like hours the Big Planet lady from yesterday stands up. She urges another lady to her feet, helps the lady to a walker, and urges her outside the circle over in my direction. Straight towards me. I’m instantly uncomfortable. I mumble something as they approach and I get up and move to another seat. The walker lady shuffles off to another part of the building and the Big Planet lady takes the walker lady’s seat.
Back to the silence. Everyone stares toward the center of the circle. Most still clutch the empty cups left from their mid-morning juice snack. That was likely an hour previous.
Now that I’ve changed seats I’m right next to the person I’m here to visit. She doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t acknowledge that I’m sitting right next to her. She just stares straight to the floor in the center of the circle. She does shift her hands and nervously fidgets with the cup as if she expects bad news, or probably worse, questions to answer. I have no idea what she’s thinking. I put my hand on her arm and she turns to look at me and then turns back to the center of the circle.
The group remains quiet. They are still sitting in the circle like a movie version of a self-help group. Yet no one talks. They don’t even look straight at one another. They just stare off in slightly different directions. But, mostly toward the center of the circle as if an imaginary show is about to start. But it’s like they’ve seen the show before and there is no excitement about seeing it again.
After what seems like another eternity the Big Planet lady gets up a second time, approaches another person in the circle of residents, urges that person to stand, gets the person’s walker, and they shuffle in my direction. She makes hand motions between me and the other person and I’m uncomfortable again. I’m not sure if she’s playing matchmaker or trying to figure out whom I’m there to see. As she motions back and forth between me and walker #2 I shake my head no. After a pause, she points to a woman halfway around the circle. I shake my head no again and she points to the next person. I shake my head no again and she points to the next person. And the next. And the next. She’s like a grade school dance instructor trying to pair me up with someone to dance with. She finally points at my mom sitting next to me and I nod my head yes. Big Planet lady nods yes back to me and sits down in walker #2’s seat who has shuffled off out of the room.
More silence. More blank stares. It’s as if every person in the circle is somewhere else. Not as a group, but individually off somewhere else in thought and attention.
I decide they are simply gone.
I wish I could figure out what they are thinking. Are they reliving their lives? Are they thinking about the lives they wish they’ve lived? What would be their reaction if I dropped a bunch of travel brochures on a table? Are all their dreams and imagination and wonder gone as well?
I look around the room at each of their faces. Some have blank half smiles but no one returns my smile. It’s as if I’m invisible to them. Except for one lady. She has ignored my attempt at eye contact but suddenly looks straight at me and loudly yells “WHAT!”. I quickly turn away. I’m uncomfortable again. But at least the silence is broken.
Another woman with a bruised up face (likely from a fall ?), speaks up to me and says they are all “waiting and waiting but nothing is going to happen”.
Last night my mother was sitting all alone by herself in the same room laughing while watching America’s Funniest Videos on TV. Now she sits staring straight ahead with no acknowledgment that I’m sitting right next to her. What has changed? Where has she gone?
Later we both take a walk around the halls. I hold her hand. I motion to things outside the window. She occasionally gives a small laugh and looks outside. But, I don’t think she knows who I am.
To her… and to me… perhaps we are both… gone…
I drove away with a light rain falling on a lingering snow causing fog to envelop the wintertime mountain brownness. A bleak eerie sight. Not much different from the circumstances of the twelve in the living room.
I guess the place is ok place as far as facilities like this go. Yet it’s out in the sticks, forty-five miles from the nearest larger town. I could not get cell service there, much less wireless internet. But I’m sure none of the residents in the memory care wing care about such things.
Across the street is a small community hospital. Next door is a cemetery. Many around that circle will likely transfer to more advanced facilities as their mental disease takes its toll on other parts of their bodies. For a few the living room circle may be the final stop on their way to the facility across the street or the one next door.
Today they sit silently in a circle, waiting for the rest of their lives to happen. Life’s accomplishments, meaningful conversations, learning, love, and maybe even emotions, are all adjourned. Finished. Concluded. Ended. Over. Done. Through. Gone.
They just sit and wait. Waiting for the final gone.