At first it seemed like a prison. Standing in the parking lot after just stepping out of the car into the frigid cold morning air of northeastern Ohio, all the building appears to be is a complex design of brick and blind-closed windows forming a hexagon. It’s like the Pentagon in D.C. – except hexa-shaped. The narrow paved pathway leading up to the double-sided doors to the entrance is just wide enough for a patient in a wheelchair coming in to flail their arms every which way but at rest. At the entrance, neither of the two doors would grant access to inside the building. There’s not even a doorbell to ring to notify someone that I’ve arrived. On the right wall adjacent to the doorway however, is a small rectangular metal plaque that reads, “IF DOORS LOCKED, PUSH BUTTON.” It’s as if the sign is yelling at a visitor to push the button for entrance. There is no doorbell to ring here, just a button to push.
A rather obnoxious and alerting buzzer sounds and a latch on the inside of the doorway drops, unlocking the door. Immediately, the smell of the outside cold air – the smell that can only be described as cold – is replaced, by honey. Or coconut. Or both. Maybe lemon? No, it is most definitely the smell of honey, like those little honey hard candies encased in the gold plastic wrapping paper – the ones old Grammies would usually give kids who were out trick-or-treating during Halloween. Perhaps the smell of these candies doesn’t actually come from the candies at all, but from the old folks who hand them out because there are no candies of any sort in this lobby. There is just a couple of old folks sitting on some 1960-era floral couches and a sign-in book resting open on the front desk with a blank box waiting to be filled out. On the top of the sign-in booklet sheet reads a title, “McCrea Manor: Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.” And so, I write my full name, today’s date and the purpose of my visit: “Matthew Gorman. 02/04/14. [Blank].”
In the lobby, there hangs a small rectangular quilt with more of the floral pattern that matches that of the couches arranged around it. It hangs facing the main doorway entrance so every visitor is reassured that the patients here are well taken care of. It reads, “Welcome to Eden” in that italicized style that’s meant to comfort its readers. The quilt reads these words but it’s trying to say, “Please, come in. We can take care of your old people. We have fancy writing.” This is no prison, no prison at all; this is Eden and the old folks sitting next to each other cupping hands in the lobby are some of the residents in this paradise.
Out from the corridor behind and into another comes a small group of three older women crimping and rolling behind one another. They appear to be on a mission to go somewhere despite their lacking ability to move with hast. One by one by one they enter the next corridor and disappear behind the turn and then a small wooden analogue clock hanging on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk chimes a quiet ting ten times. On the other side of the facility, is an open room with white plastic fold-up tables scattered about and a small amount of tall-back wooden chairs that have a soft cushion on them to protect their sitters’ bottoms. Here, the three women are sitting at one of the tables beneath a wall-mount television for the daily 10:00 Coffee Corner activity. Other women, in their own personal mobile chairs, come strolling into the room and find a spot next their resident friends.
I look around and notice a peculiar occurrence that I am told is a stern constant by Robert, the activities director at McCrea Manor. Robert is a tall and skinny African-American man about 29 years old; he is seen as a hansom peace keeper by the patients and residents who does not favor towards one group over another. The residents who are alert and aware of themselves and others around them have grouped themselves at one table while the patients who are more dependent on the care of nurses are scattered elsewhere in the room. One of the patients across the room, Dolly, hollers out while Robert reads the Daily Chronicle that he is subscribed to in order to entertain the residents each morning. Like a half broken clock, Dolly hollers again and again at the end of a sentence that Robert reads. Half-heartedly, Robert says aloud, “Dolly, did you find that interesting?” Dolly doesn’t respond, just stares blankly aware from the group, perhaps just satisfied that she got some acknowledgement. Anita, a heavier-set woman in a electric wheelchair sitting with Robert and the other residents at the alert table, sips on her grape juice from a Styrofoam that can’t hold any more than six ounces of liquid, but Dolly from across the hall is hollering again after Robert finishes the Random Fact of the day (didn’t know the Blue Whale is the loudest animal on Earth – 188 decibels!).
Anita yells for her to hush down. No one at the table seemed to disagree with her. To block out the noise, Anita started to converse with the rest of the table about her relationship and interactions with the Amish people from where she grew up. She recalls and speaks tales of how they are nice, genuine, and humble people. Anita tells of her time working with the Amish at the local flea market and Gladis, a 92-year old church choir star, silently nods respectively and understandingly at the hard work Anita describes. Gladis grew up in a family of 6 siblings and says that she worked almost every day of her life until she couldn’t any longer. When Robert asks her, “If you could still work, would you?” Gladis simply nods respectively and understandingly again and says with a fatigued and worked voice, “Mhm, oh yes.” Dolly hollers. My eyes swivel left and right to see who will be the first to acknowledge it but everyone goes silent. Anita rests her elbows on the table and her head on her hands. Gladis is looking down into the black leather purse on her lap at a book of hymns. I look at Robert and sense that he feels the frustration boiling in the room. “Okay ladies,” he begins, “and that concludes Coffee Corner for today. Don’t forget to come back at 1:30 after lunch for pottery.” The alert residents at the table, the ones who are able to walk, slowly get up out of their chairs, pushing up from both arm rests. The ones who cannot, wheel themselves around and leave the room. Dolly hollers again. Anita tosses an arm in the air and utters a barely audible grunt as she fingers the steering stick of her electronic wheelchair to remove herself from the table and exit the room.
Within just a few minutes of Robert’s concluding announcement, all the residents have left the room and a team of nurses enter to wheel the dependent patients out and back into their permanent rooms. Robert walks me back out towards the lobby to sign out but I forgot my bag in the Coffee Corner room. After I retrieve it and catch up with Robert further along the corridor, I see him awkwardly lowering a patient into a wheelchair with three nurses huddled around them checking the patient’s arms, every inch. The incident is in their hands now so Robert and I continue down the corridor towards the exit. As we walk along the way, a nurse passes by hurriedly towards the resident who fell moments before and says, “Don’t forget to document that later, Robert.” He shows me to the lobby and taps on the clipboard held leisurely in his hand as he cracks a smile and turns back the way we came to go back to work.
I sign out on the booklet resting on the receptionist’s desk. The old couple from earlier is still sitting on the floral patterned couch. A man walks up to them into the lobby and tells the woman that it’s time to leave, that Fred needs to rest. The old woman kisses her partner on the lips and jovially says, “There ya go now, don’t go washing that off later.” The man slowly lifts the old woman up off of the couch and into a wheelchair and leaves McCrea Manor. Fred stumbles to get up but pushes himself up with one hand on the couch and pulls himself up with the other hand on his four-legged tennis ball-covered cane. He walks towards the corridor behind him and catches me staring. Fred giggles and places one hand over his mouth as he chuckles some. He laughs softly one more time and points out the door and says to me, “That there is my girlfriend.”
I return home to my dorm and am bombarded with the smell of my roommate’s sweaty many- days-old baseball socks and pants. I thought that I was used to it by now since we lived together for seven months already, but my nostrils were tainted that morning when I came home. They needed something sweet to cancel out the acid that they were taking in. During dinner in the cafeteria, I breathe in all the smells in the room from the different cooking stations but none of them are appetizing so I go to the tea- making table and brew myself a cup of Bigelow’s Earl Grey Breakfast Blend. The tea smells delicious as the hot water passes over the leaves but there is something at the table that smells even better. It’s the jar of honey. I don’t know why it smells so tempting because I don’t put anything in my tea but I find myself opening up the jar and inhaling a giant sniff and smell the lobby of McCrea Manor.
The next Thursday morning, I go to the nursing home to visit Gladis and Anita and perhaps get to see what Robert has planned for everyone today. It’s not an old folk’s home though; they don’t call it that anymore, and it’s not a place to send the elderly to wait for their time to come either. It’s a retirement home and a place people come for therapy who are recovering from some mental or physical accident. Robert told me the other day that he’s even seen teenagers here before who had a car accident that mentally handicapped them to the point where they became dependent on the care of people like him and nurses at McCrea. I press the button on the right wall again to unlock the front doors to let me inside. The buzzer goes off and the latch drops again but they sound more like the chiming clock behind the receptionist’s desk than a buzzer this time. I walk into the lobby and sign into the booklet again with my full name, the day’s date, and purpose of my visit: “Matthew Gorman. 02/06/14. Visiting.”
As I finish signing in, a female voice comes from behind, “Alright, Ted. I’m coming.” I turn around to look at what the commotion is. An elderly gentleman is walking through the lobby with the assistance of his four-legged walker and a nurse with her right hand attached to the small of Ted’s back. She may be holding him there that way she can catch him if he falls, but I bet he’s thinking he’s taking her for a lovely stroll down Memory Lane. The receptionist informs me that Robert and the McCrea Administrator, Andrea, are in their daily morning meeting. These meetings are held every weekday from 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M. to go over any and all details that occurred recently and will occur. Staff in these meetings discuss things like the menu for the upcoming week for patients and residents, departures of residents who have been checked-out, anyone who has been admitted to McCrea recently and how they are adapting. They talk about any documented falls and effects of said falls over the course of the week, messages from patients’ physicians, and updates on patients that they have to send to Medicaid and Medicare since they are receiving some form of financial assistance from these two. Of course, Robert also gives his input on upcoming social events for the patients and residents to participate in. The other day he told me that today he will propose the idea of a field trip to the Hartville Flea Market for residents who can make the trip – this idea was inspired by Anita’s talk about the Amish on Tuesday.
Since Robert is unavailable at the moment to direct me towards the morning’s activity, I sit down on one of the surprisingly comfortable floral chairs. The armrests are a little hard, but that’s probably to help residents get out of them because the cushions of the couches are sinking. A few minutes pass and nurses come in and out of the lobby moving carts from one corridor to the next. Some of the carts carry meals for the residents and other carts are stuffed full of laundry to do. After some moments pass, an elderly man plops down on the couch as I am on and sets a green paper bag stocked with newspapers on the ground as he too sinks into the couch backwards. This is David. He is over 70 years old with glasses and a scraggly unshaven grey beard that covers his chin, cheeks, and jaw line. I introduce myself to him and he tells me that his name is David. I inquire about the newspapers in the bag on the ground and he says that he’s the mailman. This is David, the mailman. I feel bad for pestering with all these questions but when I ask him one more, the feeling of pestering leaves completely and it turns into a two-way conversation.
When asked what his favorite thing to read in the newspaper is, David replies, “Oh, I love the story, ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’” At that, he continues talking by switching the conversation about his 39 years of experience as a truck driver. David tells me, with gust in his lungs and light in his eyes, that he was a coast-to- coast driver from Florida to California. From California to Pennsylvania. From Pennsylvania to Arizona. From Arizona to South Carolina. From South Carolina to Illinois. From Illinois to North Carolina. He says that he hauled, “only the manliest of things.” David trucked the country carrying loads of beer for Budweiser (both filled and empty cans); steel for ACE Hardware, and sometimes, even hazardous waste. He says to me that a buddy of his who he delivers to at a hazardous waste treatment plant told him how the waste is treated. These plants dilute the waste with water until it’s not harmful anymore and then just dump it into the nearest large body of water. Now, I don’t know if he’s telling the truth, but that’s his story and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. A trucker’s life is an interesting life; he has me convinced already. But David is loving the conversation – as am I, so I don’t stop him when he begins to talk about all the things he’s seen as a trucker. “A lot of girls given boys blowjobs.” My throat drops. I couldn’t believe he said that; I erupt in laughter. “Ah, yeah. You bet. There’s this one time I seen a girl masturbating with their hands up their skirts hiked up to their chest. There’s a girl in a Mercedes with just a bra and top, no underwear.” This is too much. I think to myself that this guy has had quite the life. David continues by telling me of the parties he went to at rest stops he had to stay at overnight for the job. He says to me that he misses the mornings where he woke up next to a girl but couldn’t remember who she was or how she got there. He tells me that now it’s the same thing but without the sex, and without the girl in bed with him; it’s just a nurse who brings him the newspapers to deliver.
David says that he’s late with the paper and the residents get upset when things aren’t on their regular schedule so he parts ways. The wooden analogue clock chimes its quiet ten tings and moments after, Robert comes out of the back hallway behind the reception desk and greets me a hello. He’s wearing brown pants and a black sweater similar to the one he had on Tuesday when I was here. Out of respect and sincerity, he wishes that I wasn’t waiting too long for him out here, but he smiles, chuckles, and nods when I say I didn’t mind because I ran into a man named David. “Yeah, that’s David the mailman,” he says. We walk into the corridor that leads to the open-windowed room we were in the other day for another Coffee Corner. This one in particular is designated the Devotional Day. I take my seat at the white plastic fold-up table and wait as Robert leaves to help the nurses bring some patients into the room. Gladis walks in with her four-legged walker and her book of hymns in her left hand. She sits down next to me and when everyone is seated either at the table or scattered in the room somewhere, she sings. The room is completely silent except for the sound of Gladis’s old almost monotone voice preaching the words of Jesus’s eternal love and forgiveness. When she finishes, she leans over to me and says with a half-chuckle-half-cough, “Ya’ know, I was a soprano back then.” I laugh and tell her it was wonderful to hear and that if I knew the words I’d sing with her. At that, Gladis interrupted Robert reading the Daily Chronicle and started to ring, “This Little Light of Mine,” from the highest vocal chords she could find. She just called me out. Before I knew it, my foot was tapping on the tile floor to keep the beat for both of us and I joined to make the solo a duet before she was able to say, “I’m gonna’ let it shine.”
After Gladis and I finished our song, she leans over again and says, “Now I wanna’ hear you sing.” Robert and I laugh and he focuses the group back on the topic of the day: What Are You Thankful For? One of the other ladies at the table, Gwen, says that she’s thankful that she is a retired nurse and that her aunt is here at McCrea with her. She also is kind to give her reasoning: “So no one can pull a fast one on us.” I silently laugh inside my head. Another elderly lady, Margret, when it gets to be her turn to share, states that she is thankful for her children. Margret is about 75 years old with a full head of curled white hair, which would put her children between 40 and 50 years old. She says that even though she’s glad they are around, she wishes she could understand them. I think Margret might have a slight hearing problem and I feel bad, but then she speaks again, “I don’t know what they’re saying but it’s probably about sex. Though I don’t know too much about that,” and I realize she’s just being funny. I notice that when she was saying this, she made constant eye contact with Robert and I with a smile that was just peculiar for the context. Not one of the patients scattered around the room made a single noise today during Gladis and my duet or Margret’s story about not knowing what sex is and why her children are probably talking about it so much.
I think Robert notices the same thing too and uses the optimum timing to conclude today’s Coffee Corner Devotional. He brings in the nurses to wheel the patients out of the room while the alert residents exit at the same time. It is a slow process because the nurses have to maneuver the patients who are in their wheelchairs and the alert residents are slow to get out of chairs and a hold of their walkers to leave. Even though it is a slow exodus out of the room, it feels different from the other day. Robert grabs hold of handles on a elderly woman’s chair and says he’ll return soon to walk me out. We get to the front door and shake hands to celebrate a fun day. Robert turns and heads down another corridor to probably assist someone else who needs him. I sign out at the reception desk and turn around, heading towards the door. As I’m walking, I glance around again at the lobby and see the older couple from Tuesday sitting on the floral couches underneath the Welcome to Eden quilt. They are holding hands and the woman is kissing her boyfriend some more. They stop as I walk passed on my way to the lobby and the man, Fred, cracks a seductive smile at me; I smile back and say to myself, “That’s your girlfriend.” I leave McCrea with smells of hard candies behind and walk down the walkway back to my car and think that they should probably get a room.