I think that October is my favorite month of all. The days, while often still quite warm, if not hot, have a quality to their heat I call ‘brittle.’ The heat fades at sunset, and the nights border on chilly. The October sky is clear blue, a welcome relief from the dazzling yellow-white that has persisted since mid July. The heat and humidity of the Arizona monsoon which makes August and early September so unbearable is likewise gone. One can smell autumn in the air. Around Halloween, daylight savings comes to an end, and suddenly, nighttime begins its wintry late afternoon reign.
It was in October that I met the old man. I don’t remember his name, or why I had to see him, except that I needed his signature on something. He lived in a local convalescent hospital, one of the largest in our service area, a vast warehouse for the dying. I remember the day as being warm, not hot, with a soft quality to the air. It was early afternoon when I arrived. The receptionist greeted me and ascertained why I was there. She directed me to a particular room number and gave me directions to it. As I followed those directions I realized that I was heading toward the back corner of the hospital, as far from the entrance and the real world as one could get. Eventually I got to the old man’s room. The door was wide open, and I went in.
The room was faced toward the southwest, so the sun was high outside the window, filling the room with soft autumn light, filtered through a few leafy plants growing just outside. I could see a few dust motes dancing in the sunlight. I noticed also that it was extremely quiet in the room. I could not hear anyone talking or the bustle of the daily hospital routine going outside that room. The room was meant for two occupants, but there was only one bed. On the bed lay the old man.
I stopped, just inside the door, transfixed by the sight of him. He was a tall man, I guessed over six feet tall, lying on his back on a made bed. He was wearing faded pajamas, which were too short for him. His feet were bare and seemed to protrude a very long way out of the pajama bottoms. His forearms were resting loosely upon his body. His hands particularly caught my attention. They were big and heavily veined. They told a story of a lifetime doing heavy work. This man had been very strong once. His face was deeply lined and had been recently shaved. His mouth was very slightly open. He had a full head of hair, grey going to white, still curly. The TV was on, no sound at all, but he was not looking at it. He was staring fixedly at the ceiling. He was utterly motionless. He might have been dead, alone in that deserted part of the hospital, but he was breathing, slightly, slowly.
I made a small noise, probably cleared my throat slightly. There was absolutely no reaction. I spoke. I told him my name and told him that I was from the Social Security office. My voice seemed loud to me and out of place in that deathly quiet room. There was still no reaction, no flicker of movement on the face, nothing. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me. I spoke again, saying the same words, more loudly. Again no reaction at all. I stood there a minute or so, watching the old man breathe, wondering what to do. I realized there was no point in my being there. The old man could not sign anything, probably wasn’t even aware anymore of things as esoteric as signing a paper from Social Security. I spoke a third time. I said to him that I was afraid he couldn’t help me and that I would be going now. I turned to go, but something made me look back one last time.
The old man eyes were moving. They had left the point on the ceiling and were slowly moving in my direction. He was otherwise motionless, completely immobile. After what seemed like a very long time, his eyes were focused on mine. They were focused. He was aware of me, he knew I was there, he understood at least that much. Maybe more. I looked back, for a long moment. Then I saw it, a single tear slowly coursing its way down his cheek.
This happened perhaps fifteen years ago. I have never forgotten his face. I can close my eyes and see it whenever I want to.
For those of us in the boomer generation whose parents are still alive, those parents may be in convalescent hospitals like the one the old man was in. They are lonely places and we need to visit them when we can. One never knows when the last opportunity to say, “I love you” will go past.
The hospital he was in was not a hell-hole. The nurses were going into and out of rooms, patients who could sit in wheelchairs formed little groups and talked to each other, they had a day-room where patients who could participate in activities did so. The place didn’t smell bad. It seemed like a nice place. But no matter how nice a place it might have been, it is no substitute for a visit from someone whom the patient knows and loves.