“I can’t remember. I just can’t remember”
Those are the words that I heard over and over from a woman at the Gateway Vista, a nursing home near my school. My entire soccer team was there for a volunteer event. We were given an option to either sing with some of the residents in a sing-a-long, or were given the chance to visit the rooms of some of the residents so that we could chat with them.
I chose to talk with people because I have always loved listening to people’s personal stories so that I can look through their eyes into the lives they used to live. So one of the nurses led us down the hall and would knock on each door, asking if the resident wanted someone to talk to for a little while. The whitewashed walls and paintings of flowers were dull, but many of the doors were open, giving me a peek into the lives of these many residents.
It reminded me of when I was younger and would often take visits to go see my great-grandma Hati. As a child, the silence of the nursing home reminded me of a library, so I made sure that I would never talk when going down the hallway. I loved reading and I loved libraries, so the thought helped me to enjoy the visit a little more. Little did I realize that I almost was walking through a library with all the many stories that were contained within those walls. But at the time, it was just a thought that would help get me through the long visit where I would always have to do so much standing. At least there was always little mint candies for me to snack on after I had said my hellos and answered the obligatory questions. “How’s school going? Are you enjoying soccer?” Then my parents would take over the conversation before we exchanged some hugs and left again through the whitewashed halls with paintings of flowers. It wouldn’t be long until I no longer needed to walk those halls…
“She would like to talk”
I snapped back to reality as the nurse looks at me expectantly.
“You can go in”
I slid inside the door to see an old woman smiling at me. I said hello and she greeted me back and offered me a seat. There weren’t any chairs besides the one she was sitting in, but she offered me her wheelchair. I sat down and smiled at her as she continued to smile my way.
I was nervous and wasn’t really sure what to say. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, so with a searching mind I asked in a stuttering voice, “What’s your name?” She responded then I responded with my own name. I feel particularly proud of my name because I am named after my great-grandma Hallie. I never met her, but I always felt as if I held some sort of connection with her because we share the same name.
I then continued to ask the woman other questions about how her week is going, what she ate today. I then remembered having a conversation with my own grandma who said that asking about an elderly person’s childhood is a great way to make them talk because they often remember their childhood very well.
“What were you like as a little girl?”
“Uh… well I used to love to play.”
“What did you like to play?” I prodded.
“Why, I don’t really remember”
The response surprised me a bit, and for a while I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Where did you grow up?” I stammered out.
“Nebraska. Somewhere in Nebraska… oh I just can’t remember.”
I went on like this for a while, asking questions and receiving vague responses followed by a, “I can’t remember”. It was still interesting to listen what she could tell me, but there was much of the story left out. She couldn’t even remember where all of her children lived. I worked to find the perfect question that would suddenly unlock some sort of flood of memories, but it never came. After asking about a husband though, she did inform me that he had left after they had their third child. She worked as a single mother and as a teacher. I was impressed and told her that she must be a very strong woman. “Yes, yes I would say that I am,” she beamed.
Despite her inability to remember much of her past, she was still very witty and full of life, and I enjoyed talking with her. By the end of our conversation, I was sad to leave. I gave her a hug and we exchanged our goodbyes before I walked out the door.
I remembered my great-grandma Eunice as I strolled down the hallway to the exit. The woman I just spoke to reminded me so much of her. They had the same sort of fiery spirit that suggests that they have never been one to be pushed around by another. I recall visiting my grandma Eunice in the hospital not long ago after she had a surgery. It was a fairly minor surgery, but her frail frame required plenty of rest to recover. Despite her body’s complaining though, she was not about to let herself be bound to a hospital bed for a few days. She insisted on leaving the hospital and refused to take her medicine until she was allowed to go home. This rebellion was dangerous for her health, but I still couldn’t help but chuckle when I was told about her refusal. It was so like her to do that.
My grandma is still full of life, but just like the woman at the nursing home, her memory is going. That doesn’t mean, however, that her life has become suddenly terrible. I think about my own future often. I wonder how I will act, what I will enjoy doing, what memories I will hold, what memories I will have lost. This unknown future sounds as if it should be terrifying, but the more I look upon the lives of the elderly, the less I fear it. I am reminded of their library of memories and their strong personalities. I am reminded of their humanity, as well as my own, and it makes me excitedly anticipate my life ahead.
We walk out the front door of the nursing home and I quickly glance back. I had almost forgotten this was a volunteer event. I grin to myself as I walk back to my car, cherishing all the memories that today had presented me with, both new and old.
But what was the name of the woman who stirred up so much memory? I asked for it at the beginning of our conversation…
I can’t remember. I just can’t remember.