“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” (Act 4, Scene 1)
Earl of Gloucester, King Lear
You’re turning 43 today, a surprise just a few weeks ago when you were certain you were turning 42 until you did the math. It has you thinking about aging, more with each passing year, bringing to mind your favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear, with its tragic characters, its grim messages about growing old. You had a professor once who said that no one could really understand King Lear until they were at least 35, and you were slightly offended because you thought you knew enough in your early 20s. You understand what he meant better now in this second stage of life, especially with a disease that afflicts you with issues usually reserved for senior citizens, aging you in fast-forward. It doesn’t fully hit you until middle age: you’re going to die. And first, you’ll get old, suffer countless indignities, feel yourself crumbling from the inside out. You’ll see it happening to your parents, aunts, uncles. And while you’re caring for them, it will begin happening to you, passing from one generation to the next, an inheritance of suffering because everyone must take their turn.
Before that, of course, you know that death is coming…someday. You are nine when your grandfather passes, the call coming from your mother in Rhode Island with him while you and your brother are in England with your father, carving pumpkins for Halloween. You understand that your grandfather is gone, but he was old and it was expected, and isn’t that the way? The future is so far off, a complete blur; you’re too busy living in the present, with your present worries, your present dreams, your present heartaches. There’s so much you want to do, so much you want to have, and it doesn’t seem like it will ever come. Beginning at 14, you spend your days around the dying while working your first job in a nursing home. They pay you $4.25 an hour, and it’s enough because you have time, so much time.
You pour milk over the residents’ cereal, spread jam on their toast, cut up their sausage, all while listening to their complaints. The coffee is too strong, makes them shaky; it’s decaf, you tell them, and then they complain about that. The food is cold, it’s bland, it’s always the same, it looks like shit. “If only it would actually make me shit,” Earl says, pushing his plate away and picking up his prune juice. “This shit tastes like shit,” he grumbles, grimacing, before wheeling himself away from the table, his plate almost untouched.
So much food is left behind. Entire meals, cold eggs, gravies that have solidified over pressed meats, oatmeal so congealed you can peel it from the bowl in one piece. You have to chart how much each person eats, a number from one (most of the food left uneaten) to four (most of the food eaten), counting the cubic centimeters of liquid consumed for the residents on I and O (input and output), 30 cubic centimeters per ounce. The nurses used to do this job, but then it became yours. You forget sometimes to write down a number before the plates have been cleared, so you guess. Two or three are safe enough, depending on what the person usually eats. What else do they expect from a teenager? Especially when there are dishes to wash and tables to reset before the second group of residents arrives, sticky spills that need cleaning.
Jack and Ron arrive together, Jack stooping a little to push Ron’s wheelchair from their shared room. Jack is incredibly hard of hearing, so Ron speaks for him, letting the aides know what Jack wants to drink, when he needs more of something. Despite being spent mostly in silence, their friendship is strong, their connection as familiar as a married couple’s, but you worry about what will happen to the other when one of them passes. Deaths happen often in the home, of course, as dying is what most of the residents come here to do. Yellow roses are left on their beds to mark their passing, and Jack’s arrives first; Ron’s follows shortly after.
You call the residents by their first names, which feels strange, as if they were children, and in so many ways, they are. Helen, a plucky resident whom you’ve heard was once in the army, carries a teddy bear named Bootsie with her everywhere she goes. She has a red foil bow outside her door so that she can find her way back to her room, and she really likes pulling the fire alarms; when the firefighters respond as they must, each time she points the finger at Bootsie and says how naughty he is. She tried to stop him.
At lunchtime, you see Vera’s willowy figure near the dining room’s entrance. She is tall and thin, takes great pride in her shoulder-length white hair, one of the only women who hasn’t given in to a shorter, easier cut. She scans the room before turning around, and you follow to see if you can persuade her to eat something, anything. Usually, she just sits at the table folding paper napkins like freshly ironed handkerchiefs, her skeletal hands patting the pile gently. Vera agrees to sit down for some coffee, and you walk her to her table. “Honey,” she says, pulling on your sleeve. “I can’t stay here.” When you ask her why not, she lowers her voice: “These people are all so…old.”
You and your friends joke about how you’ll all live there yourselves one day, imagining which residents you’ll be most like. Who will be like Joe, found once in the dining room shaking pepper down his pants, saying “hot stuff, hot stuff”? Who will be like sweet Gladys, who never says anything, just smiles beneath her too-large glasses, tapping her feet to music only she can hear? Who will be like Elvira and constantly scream, “Oh MY GOD, I’m tired!” even as the other residents tell her to shut up because they’re so tired of hearing it? Your friends agree that you will be the crankiest, the most difficult, and they’re probably not wrong.
Tim sits sideways in his chair, looking edgy and irritated. When you ask him what he’d like to drink, he says, “Gin!” and you both smile a little before he decides on the orange juice, which he mutters would be a lot better with gin. After the meal, he walks over to the table just outside of the dining area and picks up the phone. He resents having been left in the nursing home by his wife, and he calls several times a day to remind her of that. When she doesn’t answer, he slams the phone in its cradle, wild-eyed, before stomping off to his room. She is faithful about daily visits despite how mean he is to her, and you can’t help but wonder if she jumps every time the phone rings. Perhaps she has unplugged it for some peace.
The only kosher resident comes to dinner and takes her usual seat. The cook, too lazy to make a separate meal, has warmed up yet another bowl of canned soup accompanied by half a sandwich because only men get whole ones. You and the cook both know that the soup isn’t kosher, and the sandwich probably isn’t either, but she is above you in the hierarchy, so you serve it anyway. “How are you today, Bessie?” you ask as you set her food in front of her. She sighs and shakes her head, declaring, “Oh, I don’t know my ass from my elbow,” raising her eyebrows and hands like she always does, and you laugh like you always do.
As you’re sweeping the floor, ready to shut the dining room down for the night, Edgar wanders in, his hands in his pockets. One of the few residents who is still quite steady on his legs, Edgar walks and walks and walks around the building all day, making that awful sound as he pulls up phlegm from his throat. He usually stops to say hello, and when you ask how he’s doing, he tells you that he’s great because he went to Gorat’s earlier and had a big steak. He didn’t, of course, but you know he must have spent a lot of time there once because that is where his mind has him spending his final days. It’s a blessing, you think, that he believes he had a steak instead of the chicken a la king that had been on the menu that evening. You feel terrible serving it to people because it looks just as bad as a school lunch; you have no idea how it tastes because you’d never manage to get yourself to try something that looked so unappetizing.
You don’t know then that you’ll dream of this place and these people for the rest of your life. That in your sleep you’ll constantly be back slinging trays and washing dishes, forgetting to clock in, wondering why you’re there. “I’m a college teacher now,” you say, as you panic, having forgotten how to do this job, surprised that all of the people you knew are still there, somehow still alive. The residents laugh, all the ones you remember so well. “Then why are you here?” they say, pointing to empty coffee cups. You realize then that you haven’t made any coffee, and you panic once more.
And then you see Matthew, still in his thirties like he was when you were a teenager, the youngest resident you’d ever served by far, younger than most of the rest of the residents by more than thirty years. Mostly paralyzed from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, he is a favorite among the staff, who bring him special meals that he likes, paid for with their own money, usually a cheese Runza, his comfort food. You felt for him then, like everyone did, especially after your aunt was diagnosed with MS, not that you shared that information with him at the time. Somehow, you knew even then that saying you know someone else with the condition does nothing for the person you’re telling it to. What are they supposed to do with that knowledge? Comfort you? They have their own problems to handle. Instead, you talk about high school football rivalries, and he defends the school he attended and loved. You don’t talk about his wife or children because they so rarely visit.
Now that you’re in your forties, you especially want to catch up with Matthew in this dream, tell him that you, too, have MS, that you understand better now. But every time you move in his direction, an obstacle appears: another resident needing something, a tray of food waiting to be delivered, one of your old supervisors asking what the hell you’re doing there, saying that you haven’t worked there for more than twenty years, even though they haven’t either. Matthew doesn’t make eye contact; he has nothing to offer you, and you have absolutely nothing to offer him.
When you wake, you realize that Matthew has likely passed away by now. You look for him online and find his father’s obituary from just a few months ago. It mentions that he was preceded in death by his son, and several clicks later, you learn that Matthew died in 2002, just four years after you left that job, that he is buried nearby. He was 41. You were 23.
So many people say that MS is not terminal, that it won’t be the primary cause of death for the people who have it. But that paints an incomplete picture. Your aunt died because of complications she would not have had if it weren’t for MS. Matthew died because of the same. Someday, you are likely to as well. Of course, there could be gunfire, an unfortunate fall, a virus in a pandemic, a car crash, any number of other ways to pass from this world into the next, but just as this disease has changed the way you live, you know that it is also likely to affect the way you die. It’s as much a part of you now as your skin, your ghosts.
All the more reason to get out today for a walk, stand by the river and feel the sun and the breeze upon your face, move your sometimes stubborn but still-working legs. All the more reason to order one more fancy cocktail than you normally would with your dearest friend, to enjoy the beautiful cake she made. All the more reason to have dinner with your parents, to fall into your husband’s arms, to let go of small, silly resentments. To pretend that the inevitable is still far off for you and all of your beloveds, to be fully present in the time you spend with them. There are so many tomorrows before you, so much to experience, including losses, yes, but also great joys. All the more reason to embrace the celebration today of turning 43—the phone calls and cards, the flowers, the people you love—because it’s not yet time to become a ghost yourself.