In the Time of COVID. Day 29
April 16, 2020
“All the Lonely People”
At wakening this morning, “All the Lonely People” that line from Eleanor Rigby, was playing in my dreams. I often dream music. I was raised in a musical family. When I was little guy there was a TV program called ‘Name That Tune’. The concept was, a panel of contestants competed to identify a song. They would try to identify it in just a few notes. In my family, it was blood sport. Often one of us would get it in 3 or 4 notes. That was before the Beatles, for sure.
My father played piano for at least an hour a day, but as he entered his 70’s he had a series of small strokes. He still played but the songs ran together into what I called ‘Heart of My Tiger Rag’. Eventually he was moved to a nursing home and was over drugged into a coma for 4 years. We thought he was off in the twilight. After a fall from bed and broken bones, he was moved to a different nursing home where his meds were reduced. He woke back up.
On the very day he died he played piano in the dining room for a couple of hours. His picture was taken. He had a sublime smile on his face. He was taken back to bed where he died peacefully in his sleep. For my dad it was a wonderful way to die. Music is one of the last memories we loose. He was with his friends, the songs. He was not lonely.
Now, we see images of residents looking out through the glass at rest homes. Families are unable to keep close contact with loved ones as this terrible pandemic reaps havoc on the elderly and young alike, as many slip away without the comfort of loved ones, bedside. We’ve seen the photos of health care professionals with that far away stare in their eyes after a grueling shift after a grueling week after a grueling month. “All the lonely People”
Nearly 5 decades ago I lived on Bainbridge Island, across Pudget Sound, from Seattle. For a time I had a job as a sort of gopher, maintenance man (putting beds together, unclogging toilets), ambulance driving helper at a convalescent home. The grounds were beautiful. From the home, a lush green lawn sloped eastward to the water’s edge. Across Elliot Bay were the bluffs of Magnolia Hill and to the right further back, The Space Needle and the Seattle skyline. Further yet the volcanic mass of Mount Rainer.
The postcard view and park-like grounds, belied the truth of what was happening at the ‘Home’ while I was there.
The “Home” was once the student living quarters and cafeteria of the Moran School and then The Pudget Sound Naval Academy, a military school for boys . It was shuttered in the early 1950’s.
The main building was a haunted place, abandoned auditorium, classrooms, wide ,hardwood lined, stairwells climbing four stories up. We stored extra beds and such in a portion of the main floor near the convalescent center’s office.
The people who were residents in the early 1970’s were mostly Wards of the State. That’s a legal term that means when a person is incapable of caring for themselves and they have no family willing or able to attend to their needs, the State becomes the responsible party. Children end up in orphanages and institutions and Foster care. Adults are entered into several levels of institutions. Our Home was for adults who were harmless.
During my time there, I can’t remember any family coming to visit. The patients were warehoused, fed, and bathed if incapable of doing so themselves. They were turned in their beds, if paralyzed or in comas. There was no personal clothing. All garments were hospital property and washed and supplied to residents as needed. The top 2 floors were secure , with outside access to locked and fenced yards. On the first floor was the cafeteria and men’s and women’s wards. These patients were able to walk freely outside when the nurses allowed.
While these folks were without family, they made due with the people around them. The nurses and aids were kind people but overworked. The patients were not mistreated unless being left to slowly fade away is considered neglect.
Each morning as I arrived, I looked at a board that had projects and expectations for my day. Once I checked that, I made the rounds of the population saying good morning. I helped people with their glasses, and wiped food off their faces. Strictly speaking, that wasn’t my job. It was a little thing, but I was one of the only people who talked to them all day. They had been forgotten by society. They weren’t angry but there were moments of frustrations. There were several levels of intellectual ability from adults with the capacities of a 2 year old, to guys like Smitty , an old logger , who was just plain worn out.
In the days to come (hell, I ain’t goin’ nowhere) I will tell some of their stories. Elizabeth will be tomorrow. What I found out about her, I have never forgotten. She was a true lonely wanderer in her mind and I know why.