Friday, January 05, 2007


A woman came into my office today to discuss her sister in law moving onto the unit, and when I asked her what she usually wears, she said "waltz length gowns." I'm not sure what that means, just like I'm not sure what "tea length" means.

What does it mean? And when did the length of things relative to mealtimes and dance steps stop mattering? Go go boots, for example.

It sounded elegant, spending those golden years lounging around in waltz length gowns, sipping mint juleps on the porch. I picture waltz length as very long, sweeping the floor, dustballs forming at the hem if you are in my house. But I think I am wrong. I think it is nearly ankle-length. Same as tea length.

Oh god. Who cares. Sometimes it seems like it is all just a death sentence. They all die. And we all die. I know this.

But in the give and take of it all, on Tuesday I got to throw one back. Audrey. I liked Audrey, loved to have her live with us and hated to let her go. She is very anxious and fixated, but she is not demented. Not yet. She shows some wear for 93, but all in all, she is still more organized than I will ever be. So I sent her to the other side.

Picture this: An assisted living facility with 90 some-odd, 90-something people on the one side, blissfully imagining that life will continue much the same as it always has, that leisure has meaning, that death will come in the night, "on little cat feet," like winter or fall or dark of night that Sandburg described, leaving a tidy corpse; and that madness will remain on the other side--my side--mannered and forgiving, touching only strangers and the unclean.

So they don't visit us very often--the 90-somethings--because they fear what they could easily become... are in fact becoming... but occasionally, one of them loses her mind, slips through the crack and stays with me. They cluck among themselves when this happens, those who remain, and they make sense of it all, and bring her leftover donuts from bingo for a week or two, and blame her daughter in Texas for visiting only at Christmas. Then they stop coming and repair the crack so they can't see it anymore. But it is still there, yawning and hungry, waiting for a single missed-step.

So it isn't often that one returns from the dead as Audrey has. She returns to the living with the stain of the untouchable. The old ones point and stare as though dementia were contagious. It may be.

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