By John Thomas Tuft
My trusty Facebook reminds me that today is Margie’s birthday, and that she is now 82. The realization takes me back to yesterday…and yesterday…and yesterday. Margie is a retired nurse, loves the beach, and her family. She tells me about the days when she first started working in hospitals and the nurses had to stand when a doctor came onto the floor. And remain standing until the doctor left. She tells me about caring for her husband for over a decade and a half as he suffered through Alzheimer’s. His midnight trips to the Costco to stock up on endless jumbo-sized jars of mayonnaise. The good, the bad, the bittersweet, the endless enduring of all manner of indignities. The release of his death and the stroke that soon after felled her. We put our heads together and whisper about the other souls making their way into the dining room of the facility. We are friends.
Across the table from me sits Gail. There is a prickly side to Gail’s personality. Perhaps because she seems so alone in life. Born and raised in the Bronx, transplanted to North Carolina for a job as a shipping clerk, no family, a transplant, like me, from the discouragement that is assisted living. That is the bond which ties us. She migrates from table to table, never seeming to fit, until she finally joins Margie and I. Everything warrants a complaint by Gail, but with us she finds safety and refuge. She offers to help me find an orthopedic doctor and invites me into her sparse room while she prints off a list from her prized computer. She tells me her dream is to live on her own again, a place she can once again call her own. At Christmas and Easter, she secretly leaves some chocolates outside my door and a note: “will you remember me?” We are friends.
To my left sits Ginny. Each day when I awaken one of the first things I tell myself is that yes, today I will look after Ginny. I have told you about her in this space before. That daily decision is what saves me. That is a central truth in my life. One of the absolute requirements for sitting at “John’s table” in the community dining room is that you must be not only tolerant but be accepting of Ginny. Period. At 90, she suffers with progressive dementia that robs her of immediate memories. One day she finally received a long-awaited haircut. I knock on her door to fetch her for lunch. We pass a mirror in the hallway. She stops and stares at her reflection. “Did I get a haircut?” she wonders, in genuine surprise. “Yes, and you are beautiful,” I say. “Well, I don’t remember getting one.” She flashes me a smile. “Thank you.”
In the few minutes that it takes to reach the dining room and get situated, she has been stopped a half dozen times and admired for her haircut. Each time it is a surprise to her, and as she touches her hair I see the distress in her eyes. “Did I get a haircut? I don’t remember,” she worries. I tell her each time, “Yes, and you are beautiful.” I help her get the requisite two creamers and two sweeteners for her coffee as she launches into the litany of her upbringing and family. I know it by heart, but I listen each time as if hearing it for the first time. Because that is what friends do. Later, as she digs into her beloved cherry pie, she gets a puzzled look. “I keep thinking of a song about something about know when to hold them…do you know that song?” I launch into a rendition of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler for her as other diners shake their heads. “You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run…”
She joins in and it is our hymn to the universe, praise for “the morning has broken,” our song of friendship that crosses through all the yesterdays. She notices my scribbles on my place mat. “Are you a writer? What is that?” It is a poem. About a dozen other fellow travelers gather around John’s table, waiting for me to read it. When I finish there are smiles and nods of self-recognition. Someone compliments Ginny on her haircut. She nervously touches her hair, and frowns. “Did I get a haircut? I don’t remember.” I lay my hand on hers and she smiles as I say, “Yes you did, and you are beautiful.” Margie and Gail join in assuring her that all is well. We are friends. At our table, rest assured, you are seen. I swear it through my tears…yes, I remember you.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.