Last Tuesday was my weekly visit to Mike. He was lying stiff on the hospital bed, motionless, staring up at the ceiling. His mind and body are in a long, irreversible decline, and he can no longer move much on his own. And funding for the assisted living facility has been cut.
I walk up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey Mike, are you awake?”
“I don’t think so,” he says softly with just a hint of a smile, “just my eyes.”
I go through my weekly routine with him, a few questions, a little kibitzing, readjusting him in the bed, a few songs, followed by a call on the speaker phone to his sister Harriet.
She asks him about his activities over the past few days. Activities are important, because without them the only thing he has in life is lying in bed. He needs the staff to dress him and get him up into his wheelchair. But there are fewer of them now, and they’re busier and more stressed. Did they take him to the art class and the rabbi’s study group yesterday, Harriet asks. It’s hard for him to remember. He’s not sure but he doesn’t think so.
Suddenly without warning, a big black wheelchair bulldozes into the room. It’s Judith. “Mike, I want to talk to you!” she says in a high, insistent voice.
“Judith, we’re on the phone with his sister,” I say. “Can you come back in 10 minutes?”
Judith ignores me. She wheels up to the side of the bed. “Mike!” she says, “I want to show you what I wrote!”
Before I know what’s happening, Judith, Mike and Harriet are all talking at once, and no one’s listening to anyone else. Finally Harriet gives up. “Okay Mike,” she says, “I’ll let you visit with your visitor, and I’ll talk to you next week, okay?”
“Bye,” says Mike faintly.
Judith fumbles with a straw bag attached to her wheelchair. Mike and I watch. “I can’t find it!” she announces in a loud tone of urgent distress.
“What?” says Mike softly, still staring up at the ceiling.
“The paper!” says Judith. “The one I wanted to show you.” I take a deep breath, and control an urge to roll my eyes. “I’m going back to my room to get it,” she announces. “I’ll be right back.”
She swings the wheelchair around and starts rolling out of the room. Just as her wheels cross the threshold of the doorway, she stops in her tracks. Sam in his wheelchair is leaving his room, which sits at a 90 degree angle facing Mike’s, coming right at her. He stops just in time. Judith glowers at him. After his wife pulls his wheelchair back, Judith hurries forward.
30 seconds later she’s back, waving a piece of paper in one hand and rolling her wheelchair with the other. This time she speaks to me. “Put this over there,” she says, pointing to the credenza where the TV sits. The paper is a calendar, with lots of boxes and entries for each day.
“What is this?” I say.
“September activity calendar,” she says. “Can you believe it? They never put it in his room!”
“Is this the paper you were talking about?” I say.
She looks at me without responding, as if to say: that is too dumb to dignify with a response.
Finally she says, deliberately, “The paper I’m writing is a petition to the staff here. They’ve been neglecting him lately, and he hasn’t been going to activities, and I think that’s very sad. So I’ve written a petition. I’m gonna show it to Mike and then get everyone I can to sign it.”
She steers her chair over to the side of Mike’s bed, grabs his hand, and holds it in hers. “I’m sorry honey,” she says. “I get tired very fast these days. I have to go back and sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow with that paper, okay?”
Mike nods at the ceiling.
The following morning I’m up early and see the sunrise reflected in the trees. I take a picture. The fact that I can only see the sunrise here by reflection is not about the sunrise, it’s about where I’m located. The next time I look at Judith, or at anyone whose light I can’t see directly, I’ll be paying more attention.
The names in this story have been changed.