“Mademoiselle, please help me!” The old woman’s hand trembles above the arm of the wheelchair.
I glance around the bustling hallway, noting all the nurses, technicians, and nurses’ aides. Nobody appears to have heard the plaintive cry.
“I beg you, take me to my room!”
“Where is your room?” I ask briskly, since I am in a hurry to get to my dad’s room in rehab.
“I don’t know,” she replies sorrowfully.
“This woman needs some assistance,” I announce loudly in the direction of the busy nurses’ station.
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” says the head nurse. “She’ll just keep asking.”
I push her down the hall and then back again, the old woman murmuring repeatedly, “Thank you, mademoiselle, you are so kind.” We look in each room as we pass. We see patients in wheelchairs or in their beds, eyes riveted to televisions. The rooms don’t look familiar to my charge. Finally, I wheel her back to the nurses’ station and park her there.
I don’t like seeing my dad, a fit World War II veteran with five Purple Hearts, in this place. It is filled with old people with blank expressions in their eyes, already far along the road to dementia. But my dad needs physical therapy after hip surgery.
The first day the physical therapist tells my dad to build a tower of Jenga blocks, and then remove one block. “I used to play this game with my kids,” I announce brightly, wondering what possible point there could be in this task.
“Now, read the question on the block,” says the 20-something therapist unctuously.
“What do you do if you have a prescription to be filled?” reads my dad. We exchange glances. “Let’s see,” muses my dad slowly, “Throw it in the trash?”
The therapist looks alarmed and wants to correct my father.
“He’s teasing,” I tell her, the two of us rolling our eyes.
Old folks in wheelchairs line the hallways; scowling nurses are busy not interacting with the patients. The physical therapists work diligently with their patients, but some of the tasks seem embarrassingly ridiculous. What is the point of pedaling a bicycle wheel with your hands? Still, my dad obeys. Patiently he pedals bicycle wheels with his hands, sits in a circle of wheelchairs during “group,” and dines with strangers wearing bibs.
“Let’s go have a drink,” suggests my dad hopefully at the cocktail hour.
We meet George at the dinner table. He used to be a dentist. Now he spends his days in a wheelchair in rehab.
“At least you’re in a walker,” wheezes the heavy-set man. “If I were in a walker, I’d be out of here.”
I mention that I went to Mass today, and a lady from church would bring Communion.
“I used to go to Mass with my first wife,” announces the large dentist. George has two sons who live nearby, but they never visit him. Nor do the previous wives. He remarks sarcastically, “We get along better when we don’t see each other.” Sarcasm hides the hurt. Nobody ever visits him.
For most of our lives, we take for granted that we are in charge. We empower ourselves — to work, to study, to read, to walk across the room. We go about our business, never really reflecting on our dependence on God — or our dependence on one another. When God sends out the invitation to the wedding banquet — Behold, everything is ready; come to the feast — we ignore Him. We’ve got work to do, the house to take care of, kids to raise.
But holiness, the saints tell us, means depending on God. And we are all called to holiness.
The elderly in the nursing home and the rehab facility are no longer able to live with the illusion of independence. They need someone to make them a meal, take them to the bathroom, find their room for them, and remind them what day and year it is.
“What day is it today?” the doctor asks my dad.
“I don’t remember,” says my dad. I point out that I don’t know, either. The doctor glares at me.
“Who is the President of the United States?”
My dad frowns. “Well, it’s not Clinton, that’s for sure.”
“And what year is it?”
“1988?” asks my dad apprehensively.
“And what is my name?”
My dad has no clue.
Take, Lord, and receive, all my memories, prayed St. Ignatius. All my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
I cannot say this prayer. I am attached.
Yet the ties that bind us to the world are slowly, nearly imperceptibly, snipped, like the gradual erosion of a once-bountiful field plowed too many times, now incapable of bringing forth new life. The gourmet cook, whose gnarled fingers can no longer hold a cooking spoon, the athlete now confined to a walker, the painter whose eyes are clouded and dimmed.
Our attachments — some big, some small — are wrested from us. The career, the children, even the memories. Willingly or not, we detach from the things of this world, in preparation for the next. Maybe that’s what the Scripture passage is about: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12).
Take, Lord, and receive.