“Bernie, quit clanging the bell!” I reach out and smack him. Ugh, what is it with old people and being weird? Bernie, an 85-year-old man-child on a wheelchair likes to turn off his hearing aid and strike the gargantuan bell in the common room just to feel the vibrations.
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See? Weird. I see Sarah, a lovely 91-year-old who’s currently struggling with her walking frame that is stuck on a door frame. She’s the only person that is remotely normal in this nursing home. So, at times she feels like a favourite granny. “Here, let me help you.” I rush over to her. “Thank you, dear.” She smiles up brightly at me. “Does your back still hurt?” She looks worriedly at me. “Naw, my back’s perfect. I didn’t do a lot of work yesterday.
Just a little bit of running.” I whisper the last part. I free her walking frame and set it to face the way she was initially headed. “Must have been bad enough for the doctor to come to check up on you.” I just smile, shrug, and walk away. I think it’s bad form to tell an elderly lady she’s wrong and that she probably lost her memory of the previous day due to her dementia.
So, I’d just keep my mouth shut. I sit on a beige sofa in the reading area. I need a break. No matter how much I love volunteering at the nursing home, caring for the elderly can be draining, sometimes. I pick up a magazine from the oak-coloured rack next to me. Jocelyn, a nice nurse whose raven black hair is always in a tight bun, approaches me with a smile before I can start reading. “Paulina, did you sleep well?” “Yeah, sure.” I smile back because she feels like a big sister to me.
A small bell chimes signalling the time for group talk therapy. The elderlies file in and arrange themselves in the communal sitting area in the form of a semi-circle. Doctor Cynthia Prakash a beautiful Indian-American, comes in and takes her seat in front of the semi-circle. “Why don’t you go join them?” I turn to Jocelyn who’s still standing beside me. “You think that’s okay? I feel like I’d be intruding or something.” “No, of course not. Go ahead.” She nudges me forward with a small smile.
As soon as we are all seated, Doctor Prakash calls out. “Paulina, how about we start from you today?” I look around and nod. “Is there anything that has upset you recently that you want to talk about?” A brief pause. “My family…” I look around and continue. “They piss me off real bad. Sometimes, it feels they gang up just to make me feel bad.” I notice some heads nodding so, I continue. “Every little thing I do makes my dad look at me like I killed some little girl’s puppy. He refuses to give me everything I want.
My younger sister’s a brat-a real one yet, my dad gives her whatever she wants and that really sucks. My twin younger brothers just like to drive me crazy and snitch to my dad, all the time. And then my mom! She’s always yelling, always. No matter what I do, she picks on it and finds something wrong. That’s why I ran away from home yesterday.” I exhale and look around. Only now, no one’s nodding and all I see a dozen pairs of eyes with varying degrees of pity in my direction.
I turn to Doctor Prakash and she’s got a serious look on her face. I knew it. I somehow always end up spoiling the mood. I shouldn’t have said anything. “I know. I shouldn’t have run away, okay. I’ll go back after a few days.” Feeling every bit the teenager I am, I want to defend myself and scream “I’m the wronged party here” but I hold it in. it’s bad enough that a bunch of old people are already looking at me like my parents. I’m not going to add a tantrum to it.
“Paulina, what do to remember from yesterday?” “What do you mean, doc? I just told you. Mom and I got into a screaming match and I ran away from home.” Or is Doc suffering from dementia like some of the others here? Doc signals to Jocelyn and whispers words like ‘episode’ and ‘something-milligram of something’. I look around to check for anyone feeling ill. Everything seems normal. “Paulina, I need you not to panic, alright. I’m going to tell you something right now. Remember your breathing exercises, okay?” Huh? Breathing exercises? Is she talking about physical education classes we took in 11th Grade? Doc covers my hand gently.
“Paulina, you are not an 18-year-old girl.” She looks carefully into my eyes. I exhale. How the hell did she find out? Now the jigs up. “Doc, I know. I lied. I’m actually 17 years. But I’ll be turning 18 at the end of the year, I promise.” Doc looks like she really doesn’t want to be doing whatever it is she’s doing right now. Well, I guess it’s because I lied to her. “You’re an 82-year-old woman, Paulina. And this is the nursing home you stay in.” You know those deep drumroll sounds you hear in movies when the birth secret gets revealed?
That’s what I feel in my chest right now. Is Doc messing with me right now or is she really sick? Ah, it’s probably an elaborate prank to reward me for volunteering here regularly. I take a deep breath and look up. Instead of seeing Doc’s face, I see the face of an old lady staring at me. A face with wrinkles just like granny. A face I don’t know. I look higher and see a male caregiver in lilac scrubs holding a mirror. The same mirror I’m looking into and seeing someone else’s face.
I turn my face to the left, the face in the mirror turns. I turn it to the right, it follows my movements again. I touch my face, the same happens in the mirror. I look at my hands and see them wrinkled like the one in the mirror. I let out a bloodcurdling scream. What’s going on? I’m not old so it doesn’t make any sense. My thoughts freeze. I turn to Doc. “If I’m old then where’s my mom? Where’s my family, huh?” Doc looks down. No. “They are no more. Passed away many years ago.” She looks at me. “I’m sorry.” I feel the hysteria bubbling up. I can’t breathe. What’s wrong with everyone here? Why am I even here? Mom, where are you? I’m struggling with someone whose face I can’t see. I feel a needle prick my skin.
I pick out ‘Alzheimer’s’ and ‘episodes’ from what Doc’s saying. Who? Me? I’m confused. Mom, I’m scared. I fade completely into the abyss. Clang “Bernie, I said quit clanging the bell!” I reach out to smack Bernie but my hand hits a vibrating object. I open my eyes as I snooze the alarm clock. I look around at my pink walls. I’m in my room. I take a deep breath. It was all a dream. “Paulinaaa!” It’s amazing how she manages to yell my name every morning like clockwork, I smile.
I put on my neon pink bunny ear slippers and go to the dining room where dinner is being served. I sit and take in the scene before me. My dad reading news on his iPad with his glasses perched on his nose. My younger sister faces down in her phone scrolling through Instagram. My youngest brothers playing punches and talking over each. And my mom, serving steaming miso soup into our bowls. Tears fill my eyes as I realize the little things I took for granted. My heart overflows with gratitude. “Thank you,” I whisper.
The story gives us a basic lesson on gratitude. No matter how little it is, we should never take anything for granted because someone, somewhere is wishing for that very thing you take for granted. And that which is taken for granted can easily be taken away.
About The Writer
Timi Adebayo is a freelance writer who loves to observe everything around me.