“The miserable have no other medicine
But only hope:
I’ve hope to live, and am prepared to die.”
— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
I hate this place.
I don’t say that about many places; but, I hate this place. I hate its unpolished floor and old fluorescent lighting. I hate the moldy smelling walls, and the amount of despair that lives within them. I’ve been in this old nursing home maybe ten times, and each one worse than the last.
Unlike the clean, gentle place my mother spent her last days, this place is one of underservice and need. No one in here meant to come here. Ever.
But here they are.
I round the corner to where my wife’s aunt is now staying. A merciless, tyrannical woman in most areas of her life, her blindness and softness towards men led to the draining off of the money that might have kept her out of this place. But men were her weakness, and now, unable to stay at home anymore, and chronically unhappy, she rages and storms at almost anyone who comes near her.
Except me, of course, because I’m a man. She looks at me out of her fierce eyes, and they begin to soften. I’m her niece’s husband, of course, but that seems to have eluded her memory.
For the others in the room, however, she has tart comments. She says to her daughter, just come from Colorado, “You’re fat.” She tells my wife’s sister not come near her. She yells at a nurse who comes into the room about nothing in particular, letting go with a stream of profanity.
But of course, it’s not “nothing in particular”. It’s everything in general.
Later, as we are walking out, I hug my wife by the car. “She was always like this, really,” she says.
“I know,” I say, kissing the top of her head.
“Alright. I’ve got one more stop to make, so I’ll see you at home.”
“Yeah, I think I’m going to go down to the water and write for a while.”
So here I am, down by the water, writing for a while.
Death is the great surprise, even though we all know it is coming. We go through life with all the evidence in the world around us, but still treat decay and disappearance as though they are oddities that need explaining.
Almost every wisdom system in the world tells us to know death is coming, to live while we can, and to live as best we can, although they vary as to what that entails.
Older ones of us live as though we will always be able to function independently, even though we know this is the exception rather than the rule. Wisdom tells us to prepare for what’s coming, but we frequently don’t.
If practical wisdom has any one feature we could almost all stand to have more of, it is acceptance of inevitable change.
Modern life can’t make up its mind on the subject of change. On the one hand, we proudly trumpet how the speed of change is at an all-time high and how technology is transforming the world. On the other hand, we see the sheer amount of change as contributing greatly to the generalized anxiety that our age is perhaps best characterized by.
I saw the play “Measure for Measure” while I was in college. I was dating the actress playing Isabella.
That play almost killed me.
The part of the plot I remember most vividly is that Isabella is asked to sleep with the villain (Angelo) in exchange for getting her brother (Claudio, who speaks the quote at the top of this essay) out of prison. She doesn’t.
However, being the insanely jealous type at age 20, I was prepared to jump on stage and start throwing down. Even for a girl I had been dating two weeks.
Thinking back on it, I realize, as I often do, that how we feel is what we really remember. I had to look up the character names from that play. But I sure can remember how angry I was.
With my wife’s aunt, stuck in a nursing home she probably has only one way out of – she knows how she feels. She’s angry. At the end of our journey as at the beginning, almost all we have are our feelings: that overwhelming, messy welter of things that moves us for as long as we’re still moving at all.
But death and its approach, like grief, are both universal and intensely personal and different for everyone. Just like love, and everything else in this life that is sacred.
But I still hate that nursing home.