I have to learn to tolerate more things now, I guess. Well, if not tolerate, then at least expect. Cultivate a belle indifference whenever I am confronted with situations I cannot escape. Or better yet, perhaps, pretend I am deaf and ignore them. Deafness, I have decided, is a gift of age.
But, there are totally different processes underway when elders meet. Impediments, not tools. Frustrations, not greetings. We all need someone to talk to eventually -someone who understands our concerns about our remaining time, someone who is also worried about the memory thieves who stalk the corridors.
Okay, I don’t live in a Home, and neither did the old guy staying in the budget motel room next to mine, but he might as well have. We first met as we were transferring suitcases into our respective rooms. He was struggling to extract his from the trunk of a car that, judging by the angle at which he’d finally parked it, should not have been rented to him in the first place. His wife, who was already in the room, was a tiny little woman, so I offered to help.
Fred -I have come to believe that men at a certain age are obliged to use that name- thanked me with a reluctant grunt, clearly frustrated because he required assistance, and ashamed that it was another elder who offered. But at the insistence of his wife, he did manage a wrinkly smile albeit on an indifferent face decorated with two rheumy eyes that suggested he was not well. And yet, it was enough for me and I smiled back as he disappeared into his room.
I would have forgotten about him entirely had his TV not been both audible, and palpable through the thin wall that separated us from spending the night together. I have to say that he and his wife did not share my taste in programs, but it became sepulchrally quiet after 9 PM.
The motel, perhaps in a bid to attract more customers, had decided to offer a free breakfast. The word they’d used to clarify their gift was Continental style, but apart from two still cellophane-wrapped loaves of white bread, and a package of bagels whose best-before date had been exceeded, there was little else. No cereal, no muffins, and certainly nothing that hinted at cooking, or warmth, except an old toaster, and maybe the tepid coffee they expected people to pour into Styrofoam cups. The milk and cream were both huddled in a little unplugged fridge that was hiding under a wobbly plywood counter. Of course, that was where the dismal selection of breakfast staples were arrayed, so I suppose it all made sense. The peanut butter and jam packages were more of a challenge, but I found them concealed under an untidy pile of paper napkins.
I think the motel was new at breakfast, because they had outfitted the room with folding chairs arranged around those little card tables you find at church dinners. And I’m pretty sure they were catering to seniors; they assumed nobody would complain.
But it was not that, or the tasteless breakfast that taxed my tolerance, so much as Fred and his lovely wife. By the time I arrived, they were already hunched over their toast and a little space they’d cleared on the table for an iPad. They both were wearing hearing aids, and I suppose neither of them could use personal earbuds like everybody else nowadays, so they had cranked up the sound on their tablet. And it wasn’t the News, or a talk show. There was no discussion of current events, or even weather -just one excited female voice lecturing them on something. I suspect their children had downloaded it for them, because they were obviously fascinated by the topic, and kept glancing at each other and nodding their heads like those Pumpjacks you see on the prairies extracting oil from the ground.
I tried not to listen, but it was so loud a few of the words caught my attention -and theirs. They would go into a nod-frenzy and sometimes even clap their hands in appreciation of the wisdom whenever the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ surfaced. I gathered it was a sort of infomercial for people who were worried about relatives who might be at risk, although from their reaction each time they heard the word ‘memory’, I wondered whether the concern was more personal.
I have to admit, though, that after a while it began to annoy me and I got up as if I wanted some more toast. As I hesitated beside their table wondering how to broach the subject of the noise, Fred looked up, flushed with excitement. “This is great,” he gushed, and his wife quickly paused the voice so neither of them would miss anything.
“Why’s that Fred?” I asked politely. I had intended to say something sarcastic about the volume, but he seemed so enthusiastic, I decided to smile instead.
His face went blank, so his wife answered for him. “Fred’s just excited about what the woman’s telling us.” She gazed fondly at her husband for a moment. “She assures us that there is a way to stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks.” She reached into her purse. “We’ve already bought these vitamin supplements, and the Ginkgo biloba… but now she’s telling us about some exciting new findings to repair brain damage with exercises. She’s developed a set of movements anybody can do that are specially designed for those with failing memories…”
I sensed that she wanted me to ask about them. “You mean like Sudoku, and crossword puzzles…?” I couldn’t think of anything else in the moment.
“Well, she’s already mentioned those…” she said, and smiled at my suggestion.
“I read somewhere that walking is good for the brain, too.” I had a feeling that I was still on the wrong track, though.
She hesitated for a second and looked over at Fred. “We already do those things…I gather these exercises are really special, though.”
“How do you mean?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Well, apparently they’re hard to describe in words. You need to see them, and…”
“She’s going to demonstrate them later in her show?” I interrupted, my interest peaking. I thought maybe I’d pull up a chair and watch it with them.
She really was a sweet, elderly soul. She looked up at me with serious eyes and a face that would melt butter. “The woman is an exercise neuroscientist or something. I think she said she was going to perform one of them, but I don’t remember -maybe she already has…” She touched Fred’s hand tenderly to get his attention. “Fred do you remember if Dr. Martha has shown us that exercise yet?”
“What exercise, dear?” he said, looking for all the world as if he’d been somewhere else.
She squeezed his hand and smiled. “Never mind, love. I’m sure she’ll demonstrate a simple one at the end of the program.” She looked over at me and sighed. “It’ll probably just be a teaser, though -a warmup exercise, or something. So far we’ve had to send away for pretty well everything she’s recommended.”
I looked at the floor for a moment. “And… have they been helpful?” I said, trying to sound hopeful.
Her eyes suddenly roosted on my cheeks as lightly as birds. I could tell she didn’t want to answer my question -not now, at any rate. Not yet.
“I’m sure the exercises will do the job,” I added, feeling the increasing weight of her eyes.
She smiled and reached over to turn off the tablet. Then, she touched my sleeve as if she were an old friend. “Fred and I will watch the rest later,” she said. “It’ll be something for him to look forward to…” She stroked me with her eyes again as she stood and helped him up. “He still remembers to hope, you know.” And the two of them walked slowly out of the room, arm in arm, like lovers on a date.