By John Thomas Tuft

*When the dark wood fell before me, and all the paths were overgrown

When the priests of pride say there is no other way, I tilled the sorrows of stone.

I am sitting in the dining area. Twenty-four souls gather round Formica-topped tables, seated on vinyl covered chairs. Certified Nurses Assistants (CNA) shepherd in those who require special help. Wheelchairs, walkers, fixed expressions, downward cast eyes abound around the tables. Some will need to be prevented from only drinking the sweet tea, others wanting to go straight to dessert. One of them, Betty, is poseyed into her wheelchair, grunting, striking out at all the indignities of being fed pureed food like an infant. We are together. We are alone. We are behind locked doors. Down the hall is the Memory Care wing. We protect ourselves by calling it the Animal House. Nobody wants to end up there. I am not visiting. I call this home.

Cast your eyes on the ocean, cast your soul to the sea

When the dark night seems endless, please remember me.

Across from me sits a strapping man of color, David, in his motorized chair. Victim of a stroke at age 48. He asks me if I’ll help him write his paper on the Civil War. He’s struggling to finish his GED. He still has pride. To my left sits a handsome man in his early 50s. He loves sandwiches because he doesn’t have to use the right arm that dangles uselessly at his side. A stroke left him with euphasia. His language skills are gone but his eyes are lively. He loves Butterfingers, keeps a ready supply in his room. His name is lost in his brain so we call him Kirk. Every time he comes into the dining room we greet him like he’s Norm from ‘CHEERS’. A boisterous “KIRK!!!” He always laughs; unless it’s a day when he’s had a visit from his family. Most days he laughs.

Though we share this humble path alone, how fragile is the heart

Oh, give these clay feet wings to fly, to touch the face of the stars

I feel a tug at my shoulder. I’m talking to Priscilla, seated to my right, a genteel woman of 87 years who keeps her room at 90 degrees. I always have to remind her to eat. She always fusses at me to not tip my chair back. I feel the tug again, more insistent. It’s Sandy. Sandy is a proud grandmother, 56, who just moved in a week ago. “John, isn’t this wonderful?” I raise an eyebrow. “They left us here in this beautiful airport. Or is it a train station? John, do you know where we’re going? What are we waiting for?” The cook…pardon me…the chef comes out of the kitchen bearing a large piece of chocolate pie, my favorite. Like so many, he once had a relative in an assisted living place like this. The CNAs look at me, sigh and shake their heads. With smiles. On my way out I pass Kathryn, she of ageless beauty, nodding off in her chair in front of the communal television. Don’t give her chocolate. She’ll eat the whole bag at once and need to have her diaper changed all night long.

Breathe life into this feeble heart, lift this mortal veil of fear

Take these crumbled hopes etched with tears, we’ll rise above these earthly cares.

I am sitting at the nurse’s station. It’s late at night. I borrow a pen and pull over my yellow pad. I start to write. Again. In the quiet darkness. The morphine, fentanyl, Valium, oxymorphone, antidepressants…all of it, is over. Gone. Done. I’ve started putting together a new story. An alarm sounds and the CNAs scramble. Something’s wrong with Bob. Bob is a real southern gentleman, always treating the ladies kindly, always carrying his Bible, always swinging his arms and singing at the top of his lungs. But the inevitable has caught up with him. He’s broken the locked doors to the outside with a fire extinguisher. His beloved Dorothy, also a resident, is terrified as she watches the CNAs bundle Bob away, flinching as she hears them buzzing the code for the doors to the Animal House.

Cast your eyes on the ocean, cast your soul to the sea

When the dark night seems endless, please remember me.

It’s going on two years now. I’m in my own place. A new book is coming soon. The publisher wants to know what I want people to know about me. And…anything I don’t want them to know. I look in the mirror. I see David, Kirk, Priscilla, Betty, the chef, Kathryn, Sandy, and Bob, along with the CNAs looking back at me. I turn back to the phone. “No, they can know everything. I’ve nothing to hide. They need to know grace is for real.”

Please remember me…

Please remember me…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.

*”Dante’s Prayer”, by Loreena McKennitt, from THE BOOK OF SECRETS album