Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Union

Working for the past 2 months near the campus of my alma mater and so a couple of times a week lunching at the Student Union.

Earlier in the week while I was there: An extremely old couple hobbled in, clutching hands. Both were past 85, probably past 90, all hunched over and skin-and-bone. Both wore baseball caps. The man also carried a backpack. He carefully led his wife to a table right in front of me and made sure she was seated, then slowly made his way off to the food court.

As soon as he left, the woman turned around and smiled broadly at me. I initially smiled back. But then she kept staring at me and smiling. I then got irritated and bent to my food, consciously ignoring her.

Within a minute, she got up from her table and staggered past me, into the broader seating area. "Oh fuck," I thought, by this time figuring out that something was wrong. I'd made eye contact with her. Sans her husband or anyone else, I was now responsible for what happened to her. I stopped eating and turned around so I could watch her. She continued wandering aimlessly around the huge room. I didn't know at what point I should step in and guide her back to her table. As long as I could still see her, I thought it was OK to just let her be. And I was curious as to what her husband's reaction would be when he got back with the food.

When he showed up minutes later, he at first looked toward their table. Seeing no one, he then scanned the room and spotted his wife. Then made eye contact with me and said to me as he passed: "That's my wife. She has Alzheimer's."

I didn't know what to say back. I HAD been keeping an eye on her, but I didn't want to say to him, "Yes, I know. I was watching out." I didn't know if that would be condescending or make him feel bad, like he had been remiss in some way. What I did was just nod back without smiling and keep eating. But afterwards, that felt cold. I felt that I SHOULD have said something friendly to him.

Once he got her back to their table, he pulled out 2 small hamburgers from the Wendy's bag. Nothing else, no fries or Cokes or anything. He fed one of the burgers to her, and within 15 minutes they made their way out again.

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A sad thing that the above made me think of:  A 2-year-old mindlessly grinning at me wouldn't have caused irritation. A 2-year-old wandering off by herself sans parent would have made me immediately get up and go fetch her. A 90-year-old, though, displaying the same behavior... my reactions were the opposite. What might have been cute in a 2-year-old was horrifying to me in a 90-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer. Both at similar mental capacity, but at opposite ends of the life spectrum. Why a 2-year-old's naturally undeveloped mental behavior not in any way deemed frightening but a 90-year-old's naturally deteriorating mental behavior frightening? (Well, obviously, I guess, that I saw in the old woman a horrible portent of my own future agedness. And a realization that I had not had a realization of The Life Spectrum. Which is a bell curve, not a trajectory moving constantly upward, as you think when you're young.)

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