Is that you, God?
There comes a time in every person’s life where they will feel alone. This is natural and to be expected. This aloneness is one of the many things that binds and separates all of us; we will experience it and yet will react differently, sometimes vastly so. We can relate to one another in our solidarity but from different vantage points on the existential continuum. Sharing your personal view of the Absurd with another can be a sublime experience. The following is an anecdotal retelling of just such an experience.
I worked for too short a period in my early 20’s at a residential establishment that assisted in the facilitation of the activities of daily living for the wonderful corner of our human race known as the geriatric population. The particular facility I worked at was called Lighthouse* and it specifically housed those with a claim of dementia and Alzheimer’s in their life. These type of locations are not entirely rare yet not common enough to fully service their chosen target audience and happen to be colloquially known as Old Folk’s Homes (OFH).
I absolutely loved working with the residents.
While the chapter of my life spent there is flooded with stories starring many of the residents ranging from lighthearted to miserable, this story is about Maud.*
Much like the idea of molecular gastronomic cuisine Maud was a deceptively complex character so let me give you a little sample platter.
One of the concepts Lighthouse promoted was the idea that this was the residents’ home, not just any old OFH but their OFH. As such residents were encouraged to make their rooms (which we were to refer to as ‘apartments’) their own, partake in activities they did before moving there (provided it wasn’t a health risk to do so), and even do their own laundry (if they wanted to). Maud loved doing her laundry. You wouldn’t know it from the language she used while doing it, but trust me Maud loved doing her laundry. You would get an earful if you did it without her. One can never be sure, but it was as if she gained a sense of accomplishment, some meaning in her life by doing it.
One night while helping Maud fold her laundry she stopped with a gasp and looked up at me with sort of haunted disgust.
“Oh my god. What size is this bra?” She asked in her distinct Brooklyn accent that seemed to me to be perfectly appropriate for her.
“Hm, looks to be a 40G.”
“That’s what I thought. Oh dear,” a touch of concern in her voice, “this won’t do.”
“What won’t do, Maud?”
“This bra. Whoever owns it has got huge boobs. Poor girl’s back must be killing her! No, no she should get those things removed before it’s too late and she can’t stand up straight.”
“But, honey, this is your bra.”
Looking at me in disbelief, “This is mine? Oh, my god. I’m not that big. Am I that big? Oh my god…”
Her voice trailed off as she stared contemplatively at the sizable brassiere in front of her, held it up to her chest for comparison, and with a nod seeming to signify acceptance she remarked, “Sweetheart I need to sit down. My back is killing.”
On another occasion (honestly on many such occasions) I was greeted at the start of my shift by the sound of Maud’s voice hurtling down the hall like a hoary handball pummeled by an over-eager greasy-haired adolescent. Not necessarily the way I want to start my 5 a.m. shift.
“Good morning, Maud! Can I do anything for you?”
“Rub my tuchus,” she said without pretense.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My left cheek, I need you to give it a good rub.”
“Now Maud, we talked about this.”
“Oh, yes. Language, I remember. My derriere, it’s numb on the right side and it needs to be awoken.”
“It’s the right side now, is it?” I tried unsuccessfully to hide my weary amusement.
“Hum, well now I can’t tell. Better rub both just to be sure.”
“Mrs. G. I will not go through this with you again. I will not rub your rear back to life.” Playful yet firm.
“Oh c’mon, just a little rub? It would mean so much to me.”
“I’m sure it would, but I won’t.”
“No,” with finality.
“Oh alright. Is Benjamin still a dentist?”
After reassuring her that her son was indeed still a dentist, Maud would mumble to her roommate about how she almost got me this time and turn over in her bed and fall effortlessly back to sleep.
This was the way Maud lived her life now, bounding between mischevious lucidity and (mostly) amiable confusion. I admit that at the time it was on the whole hilarious, the things she’d say or do. Upon reflection, however, I find it a rather melancholy and sobering situation to be in. What a horrid thing, to lose one’s mind. And not lose it completely, but just enough where you’d know it’s not all there.
Maud experienced a peculiar phenomenon known as Sundowning. A thing where her overall state would deteriorate rather rapidly in the evening when the sun would go down (hence the name). This meant that her confusion, agitation, anger, and sadness would all be at their peak right around bedtime. I can imagine it was every bit as frustrating for her as it was for us. She would make it seem personal, we would take it personally, she would cry, we would cry, she loved us and we loved her. As a group of mostly late teens and early adults (whatever the hell that delineation actually means) we grew quite a bit living with someone like Maud, and there were many like Maud at Lighthouse.
One night as I was ending my shift I decided to do one last sweep of the rooms, say my goodnights, and get home. I had clocked out and was texting my person that I would be leaving soon as I headed down towards Maud’s apartment (this is a serious faux pas, returning to the floor after clocking out, but if you’ve ever worked with 50+ people who act as if you are their grandchild you know how difficult it can be to resist one more ‘goodnight!’).
I knocked, heard a ‘hullo’ from the inside, and entered. That’s when I saw her. She was on her side facing away from me, on the floor. Shit.
Now, this wasn’t necessarily as bad as my mind reacted. She could just be looking for something under her bed, or finding a new way to relieve her arthritis. Or she could have fallen off of her bed, broken god knows how many bones, and be slowly bleeding to death internally.
My mind, as always, went with this last option.
“Maud,” I called her name and began my approach in a calm, be-determined-and-don’t-freak-out fashion, “how’re you doing honey?”
“Is that you, God?” Her voice ever so slightly betrayed a hint of panic.
“Maud, it’s me.” I know that wasn’t a great response but I was preoccupied, okay?
“I know it’s you, God, who else would come? I’ve been forsaken. Hey, what took you so long?”
“Okay Maud, I’m just going to check if anything is broken.”
You learned to roll with whatever the residents threw your way and tonight it seemed that Maud threw godhood my way. I had reached her by this point, still from behind without making face-to-face contact, and was doing a quick yet thorough body scan to check for broken bones, out of place joints, stolen desserts, etc. I was almost as concerned about her food-pilfering habits as I was that her brittle bones would have broken and were puncturing a lung or something.
“You’re God, don’t you just know if something is broken? While you’re finally responding to me I just want you to know that you are so disappointing and you make me sad.” These last words were said in that peculiar manner, almost exclusive to mothers, that allows you the opportunity to review your life thus far and realize that everything about yourself has been found lacking.
Her lungs were working fine.
“Now Maud, isn’t that a bit harsh? You know I’m doing all I can and I’ve been quite busy,” came my response, full of contrition for being such a disappointment. She clearly was talking about someone else but I couldn’t help but feel the pang of guilt as I mulled over the word ‘disappointment.’
“Harsh? Let’s discuss the Constellation Fire, then we talk about who is being too harsh.” Her response was quick and clipped, she clearly was not in a jovial mood and her reference cut deep. A week or so earlier we were discussing the fire that took the life of her husband, a welder on the aircraft carrier Constellation. Maud clearly had a bone to pick with the Almighty and her sundowning determined that I was to be the deity.
The contents of Maud’s complaints weren’t really important, as it is with most complaints. Sure they give the target of the barrage specific things to work on but that’s not really why people complain. People complain because they are hurt and scared and don’t know what to do and are doing their goddam best to cope with it. Complaints, like blaming or yelling or arguing or really most forms of verbal negativity, are an (often ineffective) way of expressing emotion.
It’s like saying, “I feel [insert emotion here] when you [insert action here], I would like [insert request here] and if you can do that I will [insert offering here].” But it never comes out that way, does it? No, it’s more like, “You bastard you’re such a screw-up! What’s WRONG with you? Why can’t you just…”
Let’s go back and plug Maud’s words into our new formula.
“I felt scared when you weren’t answering me, I would like it if you could respond quicker in the future and if you can that I will not be so harsh.”
There, isn’t that lovely? This is the way to get what you want. It expresses your own feelings, gives specific actions to work on, acknowledges the other person’s capabilities, and offers something in return. All in one sentence! But this formula is, well, formulaic. It isn’t cathartic at all, it doesn’t feel good to say it. You know what feels good? Yelling. And pointing fingers, punching walls, slamming doors. And fucking swearing.
You see, Maud was falling prey to something that most of us, absolutely myself included, do at some point (many points) in our lives. Namely, confusing feeling good with being existentially efficient. The objective in communicating is to get something that is inside your head out into the open and have it picked up by the other person. That’s it. Sure along the way you or the other person may feel something while communication, especially when it is a feeling you are trying to convey, but you don’t get them to think much less act differently by emoting all over their face. You will probably feel better after yelling at someone who upset you or calling them a name, at least for a little bit. And if that is what your goal is, to feel a relief of emotional pressure, then by all means continue yelling. But if you want the other person to know how you feel then you have to go the communication route.
I was getting the impression that Maud was at this juncture. She probably wanted to feel a little good in the moment, but mostly just wanted to express that she was full of fear and trembling. I tried, and failed, for a little while to play into the God-role I was given, at least what I thought the role entailed. I would try to say something profound, she would cut through it like a hot knife through butter. I would try to lovingly rib her for being so upset, she would push right back. I was getting nowhere. My attempts to pull Maud out of her feelings were just ways of saying, “Your feelings are unacceptable, you should feel something different.” I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t understanding, and I certainly wasn’t helping.
Also by this time I was feeling a little abandoned, and a little worried, by the lack of presence from my co-workers. What was taking them so long? Remember I was already off work and shouldn’t even have been there; how long would Maud have laid here if I hadn’t happened to walk in? How long had she already been laying there? What if I had to do this all by myself? And that was it.
That was how Maud was feeling.
She was feeling abandoned, help took too long to come, she was doing this all by herself. Had been doing this all by herself for God knows how long. And here I was trying to be God knowing things. In order for me to reach out to her, I had to first reach deep down inside my own cavernous well of emotions and sit there in some uncomfortable feelings that were close to what she was feeling. It didn’t feel good, it wasn’t cathartic, and I felt worse but I also felt connected.
I had her in a sitting position now, gently reclining against me with her back to my chest. We still had not made eye contact. I just sat there with her and the uncomfortableness that was our current emotional state. We swapped explanations and clarifications on how she was feeling and now that I wasn’t trying to push her feelings away we could really get into it. And you know what, we both felt worse but that was okay. We were allowing ourselves to feel again and it was glorious.
My co-workers eventually came, we helped her up, made our reports, and went on with the rest our respective nights. As we were helping her into bed Maud looked at me in surprise and confusion.
“Who are you? How long have you been here?” she said.
“I’m the proctologist Maud, now go to bed.”
“Oh good! Finally, someone who will give my tuchus the proper attention!”
And she promptly fell asleep.