Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A visit to Death's antechamber

At the weekend, I went to visit my parents, who live in a long green valley sprinkled with rolling drumlins. It is bounded on three sides by hills (those to the north are quite imposing) and on the fourth by water, where the valley reaches the sea and becomes a long thin bay. The shallow end of this bay has a sprinkling of islands, drumlins caught and half-drowned by the post-glacial advance of the sea. Beyond the islands, the shoreline becomes more severe, hillsides dropping away into seacliffs, citadel walls whose weaknesses are ceaselessly probed by the swells marching in from the ocean. On a mid-June weekend, with the hedge-rows in full-summer foliage, blue skys and a warm south-west breeze - well, it is very nice.

On this particular weekend, my mum had plans for my fiancee and I: she wanted to take us to see an old friend, a former Matron in our local hospital. Once resident in the local convent, her advancing age and the dwindling numbers of her fellow nuns have left her in her present situation: confined to a local nursing home. Time treats some people rather brutally, doesn't it?I'm sure this isn't a bad nursing home, but I wouldn't wish such a place on any of my friends or relatives.

Beginning with the front door, one leaves the summer behind - this door is kept locked at all times, for fear a resident might wander out onto the road. Summer does not happen here: it is part of the Outside. If the valley is Eden, then this is purgatory. The locked door is quite unnecessary for many of the residents - they sit hunched and unfocused, their withering bodies barely occupied by failing minds. Our own health, youth, the very way we spent our afternoon (rowing in the bay) seem obscene, like wealth by slums. Many of the residents are still mobile and aware of their surroundings, at least to some extent, and these look up, smile, try to catch our eyes - I look away, afraid to become involved. With some shock, I realise that we, as visitors are an event here. Today is a Saturday: but there are no visiting friends or relatives - even we can hardly be counted, as we are mere acquaintances.

The old nun we have come to see is quickly joined by two other ladies more fortunate than the rest. The years have certainly take a heavy toll: she shuffles slowly with a wheeled zimmer frame, needs help with chairs, and has casts on both wrists, which she has fractured. But she's smiling and chatty, and very well able to carry on a conversation. On long-familiar topics, her memory is still good - you might say her thoughts run well, in the deep ruts. Her fellow-inmates say very little, but seem to be enjoying the company. Eventually, the time comes to leave - we have a dinner engagement, out in the world where dinner is with friends, and not fetched by nurses to a timetable. I feel very guilty for ending the visit - everyone we have met has been so pleased to see us - strangers. How can it be that we care so little for these people, these who have spent their lives working for others, that we leave them to the company of a television?

The long slide into the night of senility and the terminus of death, with the accompanying indignities that age inflicts seem terrible enough, without we condemn these passengers to loneliness and terminal boredom in their last years. What hypocrites we shall be, that attend their funerals, who did not attend them in the closing scenes of their lives!


Since last Saturday, my mum, who is really very good about visiting the sick and the very old, has, with the approval of the nursing home, begun to organise a visiting comittee from among her friends. I hope it goes well - what a pitiful situation those poor people are in.

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