I started volunteering at a local convalescent hospital a few weeks ago. I don't do much, really. I spend a couple of hours every few days reading to the residents. Some are more responsive than others, but they seem to enjoy it. I like to think so anyway.
It took me a little while to get used to the place, to be honest. It isn't fancy, and many of the residents share their small room with two or three other people. Accommodating all those personalities, not to mention their very loud televisions (mostly tuned to different channels), isn't always easy.
It isn't very pretty, either. As my mom likes to say, "Old age isn't for the weak." And she's right. It's wrinkly and forgetful, crooked and slow. It's brown spots and bent fingers. It's messy and undignified. It's drinking from a straw because you can't hold a cup anymore, and waking from a nap with your false teeth somewhere on your chest. It turns once viril men into drooling, palsied patients and makes little bald raisins out of former beauty queens.
And so it hit me hard the first day.
But underneath the smell of soiled sheets and quiet desperation are the stories. The lives that came before. And in the last few weeks I've had the pleasure of getting to know a few of them.
I was immediately charmed by a 98-year-old woman in a pink petal cap who told me she liked Louisa May Alcott. Many times the stories I read will trigger memories, and this morning, while I read "Little Women," she remembered watching her father and his team of horses plow the earth around their house and all of the outbuildings of their farm in a frantic attempt to protect everything from a vast grass fire that was headed their way. Her watery blue eyes glazed over as she spoke, slowly speaking of how frightened she was that day, standing on the front porch, watching the raging fire devour the fields as it came toward them. She was just 4 years old.
There's the man whose wife thought to leave "The Count of Monte Cristo" on his bedside table, with a note telling me it was his favorite. He can't communicate very well anymore; most of the time his hands just shake and every now and then he'll grunt unintelligibly. But for a little while, while we're deep in France, imprisoned with Edmond Dantes, a little magic happens. He calms, and his hands stop shaking.
There's the woman who shouts a lot. She's a bitty little thing who used to run a 500-acre cattle ranch with her long-dead husband, Jack. His picture hangs on the cement block wall behind her hospital bed, adorned with a red crocheted heart hanging from a piece of yarn. "Black Angus and Herefords mostly," she tells me.
With no money to hire ranch hands, she and her husband rode herd on the whole thing. Despite her small, crippled body, I have no trouble imagining her out there, commanding a huge herd of cattle. It's all in her voice. But today, she cries a little, thinking of Jack. "What was your favorite horse's name?" I ask after a minute. "Flynn," she says, smiling up at me, her translucent cheek still wet with tears. "His name was Flynn."
And, of course, the comedian. There's one in every crowd, and the convalescent home is no exception. A gregarious older gentleman, blind in one eye, Charlie is always ready with a slow smile and a quick joke.
Last week he explained to me that years ago, during a trip through Europe, a tour guide told him that Napoleon always wore red, so if he was ever shot the blood wouldn't show, and his troops wouldn't lose morale. His face lights up, almost in slow motion and I know the punch line is coming.
It's always this way with Charlie. It's as if he's savoring the moment, building the tension. But no, it just takes that long for him to get it all out. "Maybe that's why Hitler always wore brown," he says between breaths, winking his dead eye at me. We laugh like hell, a real belly rumbler, so loud that a nurse wanders in to see what all of the commotion is about. Which is good because he has nearly fallen out of his wheelchair.
Barton, of Rocklin, Calif., is a former Williamsport native. She may be reached at www.thefoolschair.com.