The Glance: An unexpected source of compassion

In late 1997 I decided one night to drive across town to drop in on my girlfriend at the time, the aforementioned “Peach”.  Peach was working an 11-8 shift at a local restaurant where she was a hostess.  At this time she started her sophomore year of college, and it seemed she was taking less interest in me.  She claimed she was just busy with work and school, and I didn’t question her reasons for ignoring me during the end of the fall semester.

When I arrived at her job, another hostess who I did not know asked why I wanted to talk to Peach.  When I stated I was her boyfriend, the girl had a stunned look on her face and immediately turned around to find Peach.  I overheard her say to another girl that she didn’t know Peach was seeing “other people”.  Hmm.  We’ve been dating for almost four years, so what was the other hostess talking about?

Peach saw me and immediately became agitated.  She was angry that I arrived unannounced and told me to come back when she was done at 10.  I told her I thought she was done at 8, but she claimed she had to stay a few extra hours.  In my head I thought she was full of shit but I could see she wasn’t happy and very uncomfortable, so I agreed to leave without saying another word to her.  You couldn’t tell me that a restaurant with minimal bar traffic needed extra help seating people after 8 p.m.  She was planning on being somewhere after work and she needed to weave her web of lies before seeing me again.

I was too far away from my parents house to go back and return at 10, so I decided to head to the local shopping mall to burn off the two hours I had to wait for Peach to “finish up at work”.  After parking the car I headed to the food court since I didn’t eat for several hours.  I got my food and sat alone at a small table, wondering why my relationship with Peach looked to be in jeopardy.  I barely touched the food and people-watched for the majority of the time.  It hurt that I was being lied to by the girl I loved, somebody who I gave the last four years of my life to without hesitation.

Around 9:15, just before the mall closing at 9:30, a group of three teenage girls sat a few tables away from me.  They were all about 14 or 15 and they were creating the typical laughter and early high school conversations that one would expect from girls of this age.  I continued to people-watch and didn’t look their way.  It was an awkward spot to be in since I was 21 going on 22, but I didn’t have the mental energy to stand up and go somewhere else.

Right around 9:30, I noticed the girls got quiet, and I assumed they were probably getting ready to meet whoever was taking them back home.  I took a glance over at their table and one of the girls was staring right back at me with intent.  Going by the look on her face, it’s like she could feel the pain I had in my heart.  She must have been watching me for a few minutes while her and her friends sat there, taking notice that a soulless older guy was a few seats away.  We exchanged hellos and smiles for a few seconds, and we both looked away from each other.  She continued on talking to her friends and I found some energy to finish off the rest of my food.  I was waiting for her friends to make fun of her for talking to an older guy, but that never happened.

About five minutes later, the girls got up from their table and the same one made eye contact with me again.  This time we exchanged goodbyes and smiles, and they walked out of the food court.  I remained there for some time trying to assess the situation, and I still think to this day the outcome of that moment with that 15 year-old girl went the way it should have.  And I think she knew that to be true as well.

Somehow, my 21 year-old self had a cerebral, esoteric connection with a 15 year-old high school girl, and we both knew in our hearts that we bumped into each other eight or nine years too early.  No matter what she wanted to say to me when I glanced up at her table, she already knew at her young age that it wasn’t going to create the possibility of a relationship with me.  The fond look on her face was telling, but in the end we told ourselves this will be our final meeting, at least for now.

Over the next two years Peach and I were on and off as a couple and I finally had enough of the instability.  Throughout my 20’s I wondered what my life would have been like if those three girls were college age at the mall.  We would have spoken to each other and maybe I would have started dating the girl I exchanged that moment with.  Instead, the outcome was something that Russian author Anton Chekhov would have written in the late 1890’s.

In the present, I’m happy, married and I have a young son.  I’m sure that girl I glanced upon at the mall found happiness somewhere out in the world as well.  When we meet again, we’ll have the same exchange and go our separate ways.  This time we’ll have spouses, kids, smart phones and many more responsibilities in our lives.  Lives that could have been interwoven into one if we met around 2005.  Reflecting on this moment in my life reminds me of what words Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

 

Advertisements

“I’m home.”: An Alzheimer’s Tale

My wife will sometimes work with Alzheimer’s patients at her workplace.  She’s a physical therapist at a nursing home and she often dreads working with them since they are the most combative and non-compliant patients on her caseload.  She understands it’s part of the nature of her work, so she puts effort into being professional no matter how impossible a situation might be.

She has worked at a few different locations over the last eight years, one of which is close to our home.  This particular nursing home sits off the main road and is surrounded by acres of farmland on each side.  Up until three years ago the farm’s landowners grew corn in those two big fields.

One Saturday morning my wife gathered her caseload and noticed she had a new patient in one of the rooms.  “Betsy” was an old, frail silver-haired woman in her late 70’s.  She had been recently discharged from the hospital after a fall at her daughter’s house.  Betsy had moderate signs of Alzheimer’s disease and was in the nursing home to rehabilitate her broken arm.  My wife prepared her usual choice of words before entering Betsy’s room.

“Hi Betsy, how are you today?”

“I’m home.”

“Well, I’m here to help you get back home.  I’m here to help your arm get better.”

“I’m home.”

Not surprised by the answers she received, my wife simply continued with her assessment of Betsy and was shocked at how easy-going Betsy was for her condition.  Betsy complied with my wife’s requests and even said goodbye to her when she left the room.  Nurses and aides also commented on how pleasant Betsy acted despite having advanced dementia.

The following Saturday Betsy’s daughter stopped by to see how her mother was progressing.  My wife informed her that Betsy was doing very well and should be ready to come home soon.

“Betsy is doing great, but she keeps saying that she’s home.  When she says it, she’s always smiling and in good spirits.  Does she say this at your house as well?”

Betsy’s daughter was stunned to hear this news.

“I’m amazed she can tell that this is the location of the old family farm.  The only landmarks that have stayed the same since the 1950’s are the bends in the road, the tall trees in the front, the cornfields and the rusty old mailbox that is somehow still standing across the street from the nursing home.”

Betsy had an uncle and aunt that lived in the “country” (the property is only fifteen miles outside of central Pittsburgh) when she was a little girl growing up in the city of Pittsburgh during the 1940’s and early 1950’s.  They didn’t have any children, but during the summer months Betsy would come out to their farm house and stay with them, sometimes for a few months.  When the couple got older, they sold the property and the house was eventually torn down.  Betsy’s daughter remembers the stories her mother told her about staying on the farm and how much she enjoyed the visits some sixty to seventy years ago.

Obviously my wife was equally as stunned to hear the explanation as to why Betsy called this morbid environment “home”.  Betsy will probably end up as the best Alzheimer’s patient my wife will ever encounter in her caseloads.  She stayed for a total of three weeks, and went home to her daughter’s house.

Nursing homes are associated with illness, disability and the final chapter of one’s life.  Betsy’s stay in a nursing home was an opportunity to see a place that she longed to return to.  To the people around her, the residence was a three-story, three building campus set on twenty acres of land.  To Betsy, the residence was a one-story, four room house surrounded by cornfields along a dusty country road.  Betsy was home again.