Until That Day Comes This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

February 19, 2012
Hail batters against the wafer-thin windows as the room fades to a dark graphite. He feebly reaches to the lamp, his fingers slowly extending like the legs of a spider. He reaches his arm as far as he can go but cannot reach the tattered string cord. He lets out a faint grunt and slowly slides farther down into the rough bed. His atmosphere smells of stale urine yet he hasn’t realized that he soiled himself again. He tries to close his eyes but is irritated by the churning of a white machine of his bedside table, pushing a tapioca-colored concoction of protein and nutrients straight into his stomach. He yearns so badly to grasp his hands firmly to the two sides of the cold, metal bed and rise from it all on his own, as he did for so long. But those easy days have come and gone, and now he only possesses a lifetime of beautiful memories and a lifeless body. Four doors down the hallway lives another man, who lies back on his bed, cringing at the noise of the harsh plastic crackling beneath his maroon sheets. The deep red bags beneath his eyes swell like balloons as he stares deeply at the ceiling. He lets out a muted sigh. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of his arrival at the home with his wife Elanor. But following her death two days after moving into the home, he spends his long days alone in the cavernous room that he spent much of his life savings on for the two to share in their last years. Now he has been left there to wonder why some cruel force took his Ellie away from him before he could say goodbye.

In some ways, Elanor was lucky. She fell asleep and never woke again. A painless transition into the great beyond. Others, like my grandfather, did not share the same fate. While his mind and spirit continue to live on today, he has lost most function of his body after suffering a severe stroke three Christmases ago. Many people say that my grandfather is the lucky one, as he is fortunate to still be alive. But what is the point of living if you are trapped in a lifeless body every day for the rest of your life? For most of my life, my grandfather was a hearty, happy man, living the American dream with a loving wife and large family in their home of forty five years. But since his unexpected stroke, his perception of home has shifted. For him and so many other unfortunate souls, home is now the Hannah Dustin Nursing Center. With its unwelcoming facade facing the street, most people pass by the building as if it were abandoned structure left to be eaten by nature. Inside the hallways and bedrooms are gloomy, topped off with the eerie glow of fluorescent lights. Its residents spend their days littered outside in the dark hallway, sitting quietly and observantly, hoping something exciting and new will come through the large double doors. Their happy expressions have longed passed, now replaced with stoic stares and cloudy eyes. This is where my grandfather is left to sit in his wheelchair, with his useless arm and leg left to drag along like deflated balloon. My grandfather is somewhat of an exception here, as he always has a steady flow of family, friends and acquaintances. But for the majority of these visits, he is treated as a charity case, as if it is a deed to God to go visit the poor old stroke victim. He is no longer treated with the respect and authority he once received as an important member of the community. Fortunately, his ability to notice these particular types of visits has long dissolved; he no longer cares. He spends his days flooding in dreams of his past. It’s evident in his eyes as he stares blankly through the frost-filmed windows, to the high school across the street where he once made something of himself as principal for over forty years.

People come and go from Hannah Dustin; rooms emptied then suddenly become the home of a new person. While this happens everyday, there have been a few special residents that have become an extended part of our family. One of these people is Irving Karelis. There isn’t a single thing about Mr. Karelis that isn’t interesting. In my thirteen months of knowing him, he has worn the same outfit every day, always crowned with the same tattered Boston Red Sox hat that has faded from inky blue to a swampy green. Every afternoon he can be found by the television in the meeting area, enjoying his daily “drink:” a swig of Dewar’s in a medicine cup. His quirky demeanor complements his equally unique past 90 years. Born and raised in Haverhill like my grandfather, who is ten years his junior, he was a pitching prodigy who got recruited by the Boston Red Sox right out of high school in 1941. However, the attacks on Pearl Harbor soon hit and he left his dream of playing for the Red Sox to fight for his country. He returned to Massachusetts after the war concluded, where he took his money from his short baseball career and started a jewelry shop in downtown Haverhill. Unlike most soldiers returning from the war, he did not settle down with a woman and have children. In fact, he did not find his soulmate until the ripe age of 50. That’s when he met Elanor.

“Ellie. Everybody called her Ellie,” he remarked with a playful smile. “She was really something special.” The two spent almost forty wonderful years together, catching up on time they had lost from meeting so late. As they neared the end of their 80s, their ability to live alone together began to chip away and soon it was settled the two would move together to a private room at Hannah Dustin.

“But poof!” he exclaimed. “She was gone so fast, as if forty years dissolved away to nothing.” He now spends his days now slowly shuffling his wheelchair with his feet up and down the hallways. Some days, he refuses to come out of his room. And while he has become a staple to us when our family visits, he has few to actually call his own. He and Ellie never had children and his step-daughter only visits him about once every four months to harass him about money or her mother’s will. Her visits typically span ten whole minutes, with her storming out of his room and onto the elevator in bug-eyed sunglasses and a mélange of ill-fitting designer labels. Needless to say, his door is closed for the rest of the afternoon on those days.

Someday, Mr. Karelis and my grandfather will pass on to a new place beyond the grey peeling wallpaper and the cold steel beds, where they will be reunited with those whose day already arrived long ago. But until that day comes, there is nowhere for the two of them or anyone else in their position to go. Before I was forced to see the truth of life behind the doors of places like Hannah Dustin, it never occurred to me how fortunate I am to have the luxury to go where I want to go and see who I want to see. People who lived long, healthy lives like the rest of us have now entered the final phase, where they are left to become walking shadows in psychotic-inducing silence. Their families seldom show their faces, treating their existence as if they were dead. If only they would open their eyes and see that beyond the space-age wheelchairs and advanced joint therapy, the gift of communication is the best medicine.

Yet here we are in 2012. People, especially us teens, are busier than ever between school, sports, friends and don’t forget Facebook! But what if we were to cut out the fluff that fills our clocks and replace it with a little meaning? What if we, instead of wasting hours clicking away on a computer or shooting computer-animated terrorists, take a trip to our local nursing home and have a conversation with a person yearning for another voice besides their own? A simple chat with one of the residents in these desolate places can brighten up their entire month. The opportunity for them to tell you about their lives and for you to tell them about yours brings them smiles that they haven’t experienced in a long time. And who knows: maybe the discussion can bring about a true friendship, one between two breathing people rather than two screens, because nobody ever said friendship has an age limit.

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