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I sit in the worn plaid cloth chair. I tap my foot slowly to the jazz music playing tinnily through wall speakers in the background. The morning light is breaking through the trees outside the windows of the Commons. I’ve been awake for four hours already, one of the few residents of this Elder Care Home who can dress myself and so is not captive to an attendant helping me leave the confined of my bedroom. Around me are stacked a battalion of wheelchairs, parked together like cars in an over-crowded parking lot. In each chair is an inhabitant, snoring, drooling, slouched to one side or staring dully into the distance. We all share one thing in common. We are prisoners of sorts, waiting for something to happen each day to break the monotony.
Nancy, the R.N. on duty this morning, cheerfully strides into the Commons. She holds a pitcher of water for our tree. It stands in the room like a giant, towering overhead, daring us to be less than enthusiastic at the approaching holidays. Its lights are dimly lit because of the morning shine. There are boxes under the giant waiting to be torn open by the other elderly residents of our home. I avoid looking for long at these memos of happier Christmases in the past – Christmases when I had family, friends, people who cared. None of these presents are for me.
I am alone.
That word, alone, echoes in my head, bouncing off the sides never leaving my mind. Rose, the resident from the room next to mine, rolls in on her new wheel chair, a gift from her daughter. Her short, cherry colored hair is rolled in tight curls. She nods a curt hello to me. I smile back softly, distractedly, the creases in my face stretching. Nancy helps Rose over across the faded sea blue rug over to the tree. We are all so pathetic, unable to do anything ourselves – even roll across the floor toward the tree. Then, Nancy picks up a shoe sized box wrapped in green paper and hands it off. Rose opens the gift and smiles in delight, regarding a beige popcorn scarf sent by her daughter. I feel my eyes well up in tears.
I blink them away quickly, as the rest of the helpers enter to provide escorts to the cafeteria. It’s Bingo time. I grew up playing Canasta, Mah Jong, and Bridge – even poker. Never Bingo. In fact, I recall, once upon a time, thinking Bingo was a “low-class” pastime. Now it’s a lifeline. Though I’ll never let on that’s the case. I have some dignity.
Our games organizer is Margarita, who came recently from Mexico. She grabs hold of my arms with her tan colored pudgy hands and guides me to the Games Lounge, a barren room with some folding chairs, vinyl covered metal folding tables and an out-of-tune piano in the corner. As I stumble down the hallway I see the faces – some I know and some I don’t. Some faces are wistful because they are saying good bye to their visitors. Other faces are cheerful because they were opening gifts from their friends and family. Gliding slowly down the hallway toward the exit is a stretcher, forcing Margarita and I to the side as it passes. Beneath the blankets, I see something I recognize. I catch my breath. Henry Baker is gone, apparently passing in the night. His unmistakable Air Nike sneakers are still on his feet, though his face is thankfully covered by a sheet. The protocol here is not to discuss the passing’s. They happen too often. At least once a week someone I know is wheeled out of here, never to return. I frown slightly as I trudge into the brightly lit room.
Alone. No one has come for me. Not on my birthday. Not on Christmas or any other holiday. Alone.
I see a woman I recognize sitting at a table across the room. Beatrice is not anyone I would have befriended in the outside world. We share nothing in common except this home and weekly Bingo. I point to where she sits, so Margarita can seat me. There are a few more attendants milling around, ready to bring water to residents and hand out playing cards and chips. I reach for my card, the one I have always used. I search for my thirteen sky blue chips. My lucky chips. No color-mixing. Here for over 4 years now. More than 250 games of Bingo. Always the pale blue chips. The color of my son’s eyes.
Bingo begins. Margarita calls out numbers. In her rich Mexican accent, I am able to understand most numbers she called out, though she has issues with her “f’s” which come out sounding like “s’s.” Each time she says “fifty” everyone hears “sixty” and makes an adjustment accordingly. Certain I’ve got the rhythm now, I still place chips on my Bingo card. Mike, who sits next to me with his walker stashed behind him, rants on about birds. He’s a bird fanatic. Maybe if they let us outside for some fresh air, his appetite for bird watching could be satisfied. Instead, he dreams about and talks incessantly about breeds and their habits and songs Today it is the woodpecker. He describes, to nobody in particular, how woodpeckers can climb a tree.
“Woodpeckers are built to climb trees and to hang on to peck their food out of the tree. They are equipped with 4 toes and they are pointed so making climbing a tree is natural for them. Their unique feet can hang right onto a tree.”
I know from experience I don’t need to really listen, nor even respond with more than a “hmmmm.” Rapidly, the drone of his voice moves to the background, replaced by my own thoughts:
“All I need is B14. B14. B14” Margarita’s shrill voice rings out:
My heart skips a beat. Did she really just call my number? The last number I need for a Bingo.
“Bingo!” I shout, immediately surprised to hear my own voice, fragile and raspy, cracking like glass into a million pieces. I try to calm myself and take a sip of water.
“Bingo” I call again, more quietly this time. I can already image the feel of the tiny winning ticket that will be placed in my hand. Those tickets can be accumulated to buy small candies at the Gift Shop. The culmination of a 30 minute Bingo game may be, if one is lucky, a Peppermint York Pattie.
Margarita looks my way and smiles cheerfully. I know deep down she does not really mean it. It’s just her job to smile at me. Also, I know Margarita has problems and worries of her own, away from this facility, in her own place.
“Read your numbers Annie.” Margarita called sweetly over her shoulder.
I start to read “B14, I26, FREE SPACE, G57, and O38”. Margarita’s slow smile disappears and she slowly shakes her head.
“No, my Annie, I didn’t call B57, I called B67. You must have heard me wrong.”
Next to me, Mike stops talking about birds and looks at my card, confirming my mistake with an admonishing stare.
“Pay attention Annie, he says, you know Margarita has trouble with her “f’s.” I want to disappear. The disappointment is too great. What a stupid game, I think. All this effort and now to be embarrassed like this. Mike gently patts my hand. Another wasted morning in my life.
“Keep playing everyone.” Margarita calls. Yet, I do not want to keep playing. I shove the chips aside that stare out the window. What is my son doing now? What is wrong with me that he does not want to visit?
There is sudden commotion near the door. Two young girls and a mother tentatively enter the room. The have volunteered to spend time playing Bingo with us. I wonder who they are visiting. Certainly not me I reflect. Then the older girl, wearing impossibly shiny red rain boots, walks over and pulled a chair.
“Hello. My name is Esmee. I am eleven years old and I love your sweater!” She squeaks cheerfully.
Putting cynicism aside (after all, why would this child care to speak to an unknown old lady), I can’t help myself. A slow smile spreads across my face. I feel a pleasant tingling in my chest.
“Well thank you dear. How do you do sweetie?
“I do fine” she replies. “Let’s keep playing. I love Bingo. Do you enjoy playing bingo with your friends?”
“Dear, I don’t enjoy it very much. I don’t have many friends here and I play Bingo just too much for my liking. When you play that much you get used to it and there isn’t so much fun left in this game anymore.”
Esmee smiles, as if to say “I know exactly what you are talking about.” And in that simple smile, with its tentative promise of friendships and stories to follow, I see a way out of here.