Tuesday, March 31, 2009

old man.

I remembered him tonight when I saw the word “Achalasia” in my review book. I remembered how he sat uncomfortably in his chair in the corner of the hospital room—within reach of the phone, should anyone call. I remembered how his back curved forward, his eyes glazed, but happy. I remembered how I had to yell to get him to hear me--& how he nodded in genuine approval when he finally understood what I said.

And I cried tonight—because he was lonely.

I met him back in September. He was admitted to the ICU for rectal bleeding without a known cause. He’d gone through a gamut of procedures—tubes in & out, up & down, xrays, scans, needle sticks. And still, nothing.

The older patients are my favorite when I’m working in the hospital. They appreciate your time the most—they respond to your smiles, relax with gentle touch, & have endless stories to share.

He was old. 96, actually.

His wife, whom he told me about, had died almost 20 years earlier. And he remained in his house, alone. The house they’d made love in. The house they’d raised their children in. The house where their lives happened, together. He stayed because it smelled like her—at least it did at one time; he stayed because he was happy living through his memories.

He had children—but they lived away. Two sons, I think—each of whom had families of their own. He didn’t see his grandchildren as often as he liked—and I wanted to call his sons & scream in the phone that this man needed the joy of little ones more than once a year.

When I first met him, he was eating pancakes drenched in syrup. His shaky hand made its way to his mouth, lips found the fork with hesitation, & he’d slowly drop his hand back to the tray to retrieve another bite.

I tried to smile…I tried to look happy while my insides cringed & twirled about, wondering why this lonely old man’s life had come to this. Once vibrant, muscular (he even told me so!), once completely capable of holding a job, raising a family, loving his wife...now this.

As I yelled questions into his left ear, I finally gathered that he was having trouble eating--& had been for about three months. In the course of 90-something days he’d lost over 60 pounds…and for anyone in medicine, extreme weight loss usually means something bad. But upon further questioning, I discovered that in his lonely house, he was too old to cook. And so he ate two meals each day. One cup of coffee for breakfast (“meal”) & one microwaved dinner, which his kind neighbor (who was also a nurse at the hospital) heated for him each night.

Two meals. Every day—only two.

He told me he was really hungry—but just couldn’t cook…and didn’t have any one to do it for him.

Old man. Lonely house, full of memories.

I had to leave the room—and, as I always do when I’m emotionally charged—I found a bathroom just down the hall from his room. I cried. I cried for a long time. And when I finally emerged, eyes puffy & reddened, I was angry.

I was angry at society for boarding our generations of wisdom, for shunning them with looks of disproval & treating them like children. I was angry at families, abandoning the very people who served as their care-givers during their precious development. And I was angry at myself, for not showing compassion to all the “wisers” that had crossed my path.

And I’m still angry.

Turns out, this lonely old man also had a spasmatic lower esophageal sphincter (read: the bottom part of his esophagus wasn’t properly allowing food to enter his stomach)…we discharged him two days later. Never could find the source of his bleeding.

Lonely man, I hope you’re peacefully at rest now—home with your wife, home with your Maker.


Kylie Danielson said...

I am sitting in a coffee shop, working on report cards for my second graders, and I was fighting back the tears.
First, you write beautifully. I feel like I was there.
Second, I totally and completely understand how you feel. My heart goes out to anyone who is alone. My heart has an extra special place for the elderly. I had a grandmother who was far older than most grandparents (20 years older than my other grandma). She was my everything and taught me more than anyone else by far. My relationship with her really made me appreciate the amazing gifts of others, especially those who have lived, and experienced so much.
When I was finishing my masters, I worked as a hostess at a restaurant. Whenever an elderly person came in only, it was all I could do not to go sit down and have a conversation with them. My boss thought I was crazy for wanted to talk to them. I thought it was crazy not to!
Thank you for sharing this story. Although it made my eyes well up, it also made me remember and I really appreciate that...

kylie Danielson said...

Yikes! I should know better than to post something without reading it! This is what I meant to say!
"Whenever an elderly person came in alone, it was all I could do not to go sit down and have a conversation with them. My boss thought I was crazy for wanting to talk to them. I thought it was crazy not to!"

Michael said...

I'm usually not the emotional type, but wow, you just made me cry...

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