Monday, February 28, 2011

Old and in the Way

I really wasn’t paying much attention to her.  She stood in front of us as we waited in line to sign the clipboard for my daughter’s appointment.  Her face wasn’t distinctive.  I couldn’t really describe her except to say that she was old, gray and wrinkled.  But what I still picture vividly in my mind is her feet.  Her feet told her story.  The skin was cracked and brittle, her toes were crooked and her heels worn and bleeding.  She was wearing an old beat-up pair of sandals.  I imagined she wore the sandals for comfort or perhaps she couldn’t afford a new pair.  She shuffled up to the counter and smiled sweetly at the woman behind the desk.  Quietly she asked the receptionist, “Honey is today the correct day for my appointment?”  The receptionist said she couldn’t find the old woman’s name on the appointment sheet but, if she’d have a seat, she would check to see when her appointment was scheduled.  The old woman’s expression didn’t change.  She thanked the receptionist and slowly, painfully shuffled to take a seat in the waiting room.  As she walked, I took a better look at her in her paisley dress and her pretty costume jewelry.  She reminded me of my grandmother who always looked presentable whether she was visiting the doctor or staying at home.  Grandma used to say, “You never know when someone might just pop in.”  I often wondered how many people just “popped in” on my grandmother when she spent her last days in the nursing home.  Somehow I don’t imagine there were that many visitors, myself included.  I was 1600 miles away from her home but I could have done more for her in her final days.  I bet she made sure that her makeup and jewelry was always perfect just in case someone popped in, even in the nursing home.
My daughter, Jennifer, and her friend had decided to sit next to the woman and they had struck up a conversation with her by the time I joined them.  The kindly woman talked to the girls about how she didn’t believe for one moment that teenagers today were bad.  “Why just look at the two of you!” she commented.  “You two are fine young ladies.”  We learned that she has six children.  They all live in neighboring states.  She talked fondly of her husband of 56 years who went to be with the Lord last year.  She told the girls about the days when ice blocks did the job of refrigerators and the radio was the best entertainment going.  We listened to her stories and we shared some of our own but I never asked her name.  I did ask her how she got to the doctor’s office and she told me she took the bus.  She said she had to walk quite some distance to the bus stop from her home and was sorry that she came on the wrong day.  “My memory just isn’t what it used to be” she was saying as I heard the nurse calling for Jennifer.  I quickly said we’d drive her home as I walked toward the examining room.  She said she didn’t want to trouble me.  “No trouble,” I yelled as we disappeared around the corner.
When we reappeared, the lady was nowhere to be seen.  I asked the receptionist where the woman went.  The receptionist admitted that she had forgotten all about the poor woman and said that she didn’t see her leave.  “Well, do you know where the bus stop is?” I asked the receptionist.  “No, I’m sorry.”  She replied.  “Can you tell me the woman’s name?”  I asked.  “I’d like to contact her if possible.”  “I’m sorry.”  She said, “I cannot give out that information.”  I went outside and unfortunately found an empty bench at the bus stop (which, incidentally, was right outside the front door).  My heart sunk as I realized that the poor woman would soon be walking a long distance home on her brittle feet.  She had left the office without finding out her appointment date because she was forgotten by the receptionist.  She didn’t want to “trouble me” with giving her a ride home so she went alone.
What a sad commentary on our fast-paced culture where getting ahead and looking to the future dominate our society.  We do not take the time to check if an elderly neighbor needs a ride to the doctor’s office.  We do not take the time or have the patience to sit and listen to our elders talk about the “good old days.”  It is a bother to waste precious time on such frivolous conversation that has no bearing on our lives of fast food, fast cars, high speed internet access, cell phones and microwaves.  I mean, what does it really matter that grandma knows how to knit?  Knitting is a thing of the past.  It went the way of home baked bread and slow paced games of chess.  Time is of the essence.  We need time to run the kids to soccer.   We need time to clean the house before our morning work-outs and trips to the grocery store.  We need to rush to get home in time for our favorite new sitcom.  Our time is taken up with work so we can make more money to buy more things that will ultimately take up more of our time.
The lawn mower we bought is a rider because it is quicker and easier than a push mower.  Since we have a rider mower, we needed more property to mow.  With more property to mow, we have just added more time to mowing.  Aren’t we smart!  Every Saturday my husband and son spend at least two hours mowing our large property.  Meanwhile, I spend time cleaning our large house while my other kids spend time sitting in front of our high speed computer chatting instantly with friends that literally live just down the road.  And all this time is being spent on “things” rather than on relationships.
If we were spending time with grandma, we would be learning how to knit, bake bread, can vegetables or play cards.  The television would NOT be on!  If we were sitting with old Joe, our neighbor, on the front porch drinking ice cold lemonade we would be hearing stories about how he mowed his small lawn in less than a half hour with his trusty old (not gas operated) push-mower.
Here I sit on my computer typing words that instantly appear on a page that will instantly print out my thoughts with a touch of a button.  I have grown accustomed to printing out my thoughts with a touch of a button.  I have grown accustomed to my fast-paced world where fingertips are more important than legs.  Legs require you to walk over to old Joe’s house rather than the more convenient fingertip touch-tone dialing of the phone for a quick, “How you doing, Joe?”  Joe lives right across the street but I have to feed the animals, make beds, do wash, finish writing this story, scrub the floors, mail packages, make phone calls…..I have to, I have to, I have to.  When does it stop?  When do we realize that all the “have tos” are wreaking havoc on our lives and our loved ones?  Will it be when we look at the old lady in the paisley dress and realize that somewhere in between soccer games, loads of wash and hours in front of the television we’ve become the old lady with only time on our hands and no one but the television to spend it with?
Are we better off today?  I think not.  I think we live in a world of bankrupt relationships where we don’t heed the guidance and wisdom of our elders.  Our children learn that it is ok – even expected – to live in a throw-away society.  If something is no longer viewed as useful – throw it away and move on.  If someone is no longer useful, throw them away too.  We throw away our lives on frivolous things and then we throw away our elderly folks by placing them in nursing homes where someone else will take the time to care for their basic needs – but that is all.  A nursing home provides food, shelter and basic care but who sits and plays checkers with those folks?  Who listens to their stories and gleans their wisdom?  Who takes or makes the time anymore?  I wonder.  I wonder about the lady with her cracked feet that tell so many stories.  What about her stories?  Will they go to the grave never being shared with young people like my daughter?  I wonder how often the old lady is forgotten and alone (although she told me she has six children).  How often does she sit by herself in restaurants or in her own home wearing her fine costume jewelry and her paisley dress?  Finally, I have to wonder how long she will wait before someone “just pops in.”  In the great song by Jerry Garcia are we all destined to just becoming “Old and in the Way”?