“If you can fill the unforgiving minute…”
Geriatric Mischief Makers
by Anne Vuxton
If I hadn’t been bored spitless that day in my room at Cascade Park Senior Living, nothing would have changed. Maybe, I had thought, I should take up painting, or scrapbooking, or knitting. One of my friends puts together rosaries for the missionaries in her spare time. A wonderful, charitable hobby, but not for me.
The days are very long and very dull here, you see. In my younger, harried days, I dreamed of being able to take a nap in the middle of the day. Now everyone fusses because I sleep too much. I used to have so many things to do that I had sticky notes all over to remind me of important things. Now the only thing I have to remember is that I’m allergic to peaches. I used to say that I didn’t have time to make new friends because I didn’t even have time to spend with my old friends. Now I’d like to have a few new friends because most of my old friends have passed away.
You think it is easy being 83 years old? The staff here at Cascade Park is kind and cheerful and talks of pleasant things. My children when they visit are kind and cheerful and talk of pleasant things. But sometimes, the unflagging genial demeanors really get to me. I’ve noticed that most people speak to geriatrics this way. I get so, so tired of talk of the weather or how’s my health. Do people think that older folks have forgotten how to handle sadness, or insecurity, worry, or anger? I want to tell them, please, tell me about your bad day, I might be able to cheer you up. Please fuss a little. Please sometimes ask me for advice. I was solving problems before you were even born and maybe I can help you.
Occasionally, someone will visit who’s having a bad day and will share it with me – what a treat! Wonderful! That’s when I feel the most useful and alive. At my age, what most people think is showing respect, I’ve found to be quite the opposite. Respect is not pacifying me with pretty platitudes or trying to solve my problems with meds. Respect is allowing me to see you sometimes not at your best, as you allow others to see you. And instead of the flowers or candy when you visit, bring me the latest bestseller or a decent cup of coffee. That would be far more appreciated. Or invite me to the movies, or your home for a visit, or an outing to a nice restaurant. Have you eaten in our dining room lately?
Believe it or not, I keep knowledgeable of current events and still, mostly, have a lucid head on my shoulders. When you visit, treat me as you would a friend, warts and all. I can handle it, I’m a big girl.
I’m just complaining. I know that. I’m being ungrateful for the many blessings that I have. I know that. I’m just grouchy and unsettled. I know that. I’m just bored.
Life seems like one big snooze-fest.
With a big sigh, I push myself up from the recliner by my bed, tired of watching Dr. Phil deal with a balky teenager and his parents. But when I try to exit my room, my roommate, Gladys, is blocking the door with her wheelchair, fast asleep. This is getting annoying. I have asked her repeatedly to go to the lounge to take her nap but Gladys likes to sit in the doorway and watch people pass down the hall. All for about five minutes before she falls asleep, I’ve told her. Gladys isn’t a bad sort, she’s just stubborn as all get out. Once something is in her head, it’s not in her foot, as a crazy old great-aunt of mine used to say.
Okay, Gladys, I mutter to myself, I’m going to fix your wagon. I put my hands on the handlebars of her wheelchair and stealthily push her a short distance down the hall to the fire exit sign leading to the parking lot. I leave her facing the wall and hastily slink away. Maybe next time, I think, she’ll take a nap elsewhere. No one has seen me so I stroll down the hall to the employees’ lounge with its stocked refrigerator. The “Staff Only” sign on the door does not deter me. Almost every afternoon, I sneak down and help myself.
With grapefruit juice in hand (I’m not supposed to have grapefruit juice, so I enjoy it each afternoon), I go down to the lobby to see if anything interesting is happening. Anything has to be better than Dr. Phil and the recalcitrant teenager.
The first person I see is Mrs. Withers. She’s watching Dr. Phil so I bypass her and head for Mr. Jimmers standing by the front desk annoying Administrator Billings, who when he sees me quickly takes the opportunity to escape. Mr. Jimmers looks like a turtle today with his bald head poking out of his green turtleneck. I appreciate his irreverent, snarky sense of humor. He and I have gotten into some lovely, heated discussions. We had asked to share a room but this seeming impropriety had shocked everyone. For goodness sakes, I had told Administrator Billings, Mr. Jimmers is in his eighties, too. We’re practically human antiques!
Mr. Jimmers beams when he sees me. He’s probably been itching for a nice argument. I pull on his sleeve and surreptitiously point to Gladys snoozing by the fire exit sign. Mr. Jimmers’ bushy eyebrows shoot up and he stage whispers, “You did that?” I nod and start to giggle. Mr. Jimmers starts howling and residents are now staring at us.
“I’m just sick of her blocking our doorway,” I tell him. Mr. Jimmers chuckles and pulls me down the hall, looking left and right. Surprisingly, all is quiet. Staff must be on break and everyone else engrossed in Dr. Phil. When we get to the end of the hall, Mr. Jimmers looks furtively around and whispers, “Get ready to run.” “ What? ” I whisper back. He shoves the fire exit door open and pushes Gladys a few inches out of the door. Then he grabs my hand and races with me to my room.
Mr. Jimmers has a good pair of legs for 85 years old and he is barely out of breath. I, on the other hand, immediately start rubbing the cramp out of my calf. I’m not used to sprints anymore. But the pain goes away when I look at Mr. Jimmers. We start laughing like two schoolchildren. The next second, the fire alarm sounds loud and shrill and I can hear Gladys screaming. The P.A. system automatically announces: “Attention! Attention! The fire alarm you hear is probably a test but you need to evacuate the building immediately. Please go to the nearest exit and into the parking lot until you are advised of the all-clear sign. For those of you not mobile, someone will come and assist you” and the hallway begins to thunder with foot traffic.
“Look what you did!” I tell him.
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” Mr. Jimmers chuckles.
It’s the most fun we’ve had in a long time. We exit my room and join the line of walking and wheeled people into the parking lot. Gladys looks confused as she is being interrogated by Administrator Billings. We can hear her protestations and can see the doubtful look on Administrator Billings’ face. I feel a little guilty but Mr. Jimmers looks totally unapologetic. Eventually, all is restored to normal and people start returning to their rooms and their normal routines.
When Gladys returns to our room, she tells me that she has no idea how she got into the parking lot. “Maybe you were wheeling in your sleep. Like sleepwalking! I have no idea really,” I say, “I was interested in the Dr. Phil show today.” Gladys looks at me skeptically. I don’t know if she believes me or not but I hope she thinks of this the next time she blocks our room’s door. Or she might be facing the Dumpster tomorrow.
Gladys’ adventure is the talk of the dining room at supper. After the requisite teasing, Gladys actually starts to enjoy the attention and laughs along with everyone else. But for some reason, Administrator Billings is giving me and Mr. Jimmers the hairy eyeball. Mr. Jimmers almost busts a gut trying to stifle himself and he winks at me a few times. The few people who catch this, assume, I’m sure, that he and I have something going on, you know, since it’s common knowledge that we’d wanted to room together and been denied.
While coffee (nasty stuff here) and apple pie slices (slightly better) are being served, the ever effervescent entertainment coordinator, Miss Rafferty, announces that those interested can stay and participate in a little after-supper entertainment. I hate these stupid games.
“Okay, everyone,” Miss Rafferty says, clapping her hands together for attention, “This is a good question (for whom, I think) for anyone who wants to answer. Here it is! If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” And Miss Rafferty looks around expectantly.
Immediately, Mr. Jimmers’ hand shoots up as though he’s in the third grade.
“Oh, oh,” I think, “This won’t be good.”
Mr. Jimmers says, “Well, I’d prefer to have dinner with a live person, wouldn’t you?”
Everyone bursts into laughter. Miss Rafferty looks annoyed.
“Mr. Jimmers!” she scolds.
“Well, really, who wants to have dinner with a dead person?” he persists.
I get up and tug on his arm to get him out of there. Miss Rafferty’s smile has faded. I pull Mr. Jimmers out into the hall.
“Stupid woman,” he grouses.
“She doesn’t mean any harm,” I remind him.
“Can’t abide stupidity.”
“You know,” I tell him, “You and I are getting to be grumpy old people. We need a new attitude. Maybe we need something to look forward to. I’ve been trying to think of a new hobby.”
“Rats,” he says. “The only thing I’ve enjoyed lately is pushing Gladys out the fire exit door. We need to have more fun like that.”
So fun we had. In the next few weeks, we morphed into geriatric mischief makers. It helped to relieve the boredom. Foil in residents’ pillowcases, and pinholes poked in ketchup packets, and the dining room menu board changed to “Sweat and Sour Chicken with Fried Lice.” One morning while everyone was at breakfast, we taped “Out of Order” signs on everyone’s bathroom door. We were highly amused. Not so Administrator Billings. We were politely and firmly asked to cease and desist.
One afternoon, Mr. Jimmers and I walked along in companionable silence to a bench in Cascade Park’s garden. A nice little breeze ruffled my curly white hair and autumn leaves blew on my sneakers. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. It’s just a new phase of life, I told myself. Everything is scary until you figure it out. And I’ve done phases before. Single life to married. Married to parenthood. Parenthood to widowhood. Now geriatric. I just haven’t gotten the hang of being old yet. I haven’t developed any internal bullet point instructions. I didn’t have a course of action.
That’s why I’m unhappy, I told myself. I’m afraid of the path I’m on because I don’t know where it’s leading and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I glanced at Mr. Jimmers and he looked lost in thought, too.
“I need,” I finally tell Mr. Jimmers, “To figure out what will make me happy now. Obviously what I’m doing is not working. I need a bucket list. Things to look forward to. Like a cruise. I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise.”
“My children would think I’m too old and worry the whole time.”
Mr. Jimmers looks thoughtful and glances at his watch. I know he doesn’t want to miss our afternoon movie and popcorn so we get up and stroll back into Cascade Park.
The next few weeks pass until one afternoon, the Heally and Jimmers’ children receive a frantic call from Administrator Billings telling them that their parents have been misplaced.
“Misplaced?” they all shout.
“Well, we can’t find them,” admits Administrator Billings, “But don’t worry.”
By the time both families arrive at Cascade Park, Gladys has found the note left in her denture glass. It says: “Dear Kids: Mr. Jimmers and I are running away to the circus—no, sorry, just kidding! We are in full possession of all of our marbles. We have packed our meds and have paid our monthly bill here and added extra for the salt and pepper shaker chaos that we caused. Don’t worry. We will write to you as soon as we’re settled. We love you all very much. Mom and Mr. Jimmers.”
A few weeks after their escape, the two families received an e-mail forwarded from the Sunshine Sparkle cruise ship.
“Dear Kids: We’ve finally figured out this phase of our lives. Here it is: Make peace with quiet; don’t confuse happiness with stimulation; learn to establish a new routine at every phase of life; and ride each bump with determination that you’ll figure it out. We got married shipboard and are going to live onboard. A permanent room for two here is cheaper than Cascade Park and more fun. Join us when you have vacation time. We cruise to Jamaica in November. Love, Mom and Dad.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” said each of Mrs. Heally’s (now Mrs. Jimmers) and Mr. Jimmers’ children, though they all phrased it in different ways. And each one worried, though in different ways, what mischief their geriatric parents would get into on the cruise ship.