I used to volunteer at a retirement home on Friday afternoons. The building had four floors divided into different sections. I’d never been to the fourth floor, but I knew that the doctors and nurses were always around there. One day I was helping a ninety year old lady, insistent on ridiculing herself with a passive aggressive attitude I hadn’t confront in the nineteen years of my life. “Oh, and an English major? This must be charity work for you then,” she said.
We looked up book titles on Amazon for thirty minutes. She learned you didn’t have to go connect through Google to get onto a website. She wanted to learn how to use email, so she wouldn’t have to rely so much on her husband. When she smiled, her whole face lit up— an illuminance that out-shined her greying eyes, white hair, and ravines of creases and wrinkles.
Ten minutes later she was writing an email to her daughter, who was only a year or two older than me. The woman’s inbox contained several unread titles– one of them read, “Mom, do you have ingrown toenails?” (I think she knew I read it and was a bit embarrassed). She didn’t seem to mind me watching her type at her slow pace, deleting every other word because of a typo or backtracking what she had already written.
Hello! How are you? I am in the library right now and a very nice college student is helping me with all this technology.
I let out an embarrassed laugh.
Dad is doing better now. He’s up to walking 3 minutes everyday. The world’s always looking brighter! I love you very much and miss you!
I pictured a hospitalized man, as ancient as a wise oak tree. The image struck its roots into my brain. He had an oxygen mask and the monitor beeped rhythmically in the background. Every once in a while his body would stir, and he’d tilt his head to the only window in the room to bask in rare sunlight and to catch a glimpse of the trees bustling at the wind’s invitation. Every once in a while he’d try to get up on his own, take off the mask and unplug the needles and cords stuck up his arms. He’d find his legs too weak to support the rest of his body, fall back onto the white sheets and start all over again. He’d stubbornly grunt and furrow his brows. His insistence would gather the attention of nurses, who’d rush to his side and try to stabilize him.
“I can do this,” he’d say, but then feel his legs give out.
One of the nurses would tell him not to do something so reckless again, tucking him back neatly into bed, inserting the needles back in place, and putting his oxygen mask back on.
How could this fragile, petite woman be talking about all of this so happily? She wasn’t glassy-eyed. She didn’t ask for her daughter’s hand to help her get through a tough time. She didn’t even wince once, she fully dedicated herself to mastering the keyboard. Just a fragile, petite woman. She hit the “send” button delightfully. We went over how to check and send emails twice and I suggested we write down the steps to help her remember.