So as some of you know, old people have repeatedly been oddly obliquely related to my life for the past year or so. Last summer, I got paid to eavesdrop on old people and repeat everything they said in a robot voice, and I last school year I designed a ping pong paddle for the elderly and an old lady almost died while testing it.
So I wanted to live in France this summer, and the best way I found to do that was an internship that a lot of my friends have done, one that once again involves...old people.
The internship I'm doing right now is volunteer work for Les Petits Frères des Pauvres, a humanitarian organization where we basically hang out with old people and help them not be lonely.
It sounded pretty great. I like humans, generally. I like doing service for people. I kinda know what's up with old people from listening to their phone conversations all last summer...
It's been different so far than I thought, though. Talking to people I don't know makes me nervous. Trying to figure out what to say when there are awkward pauses in the conversation makes me nervous. Trying to figure out what to say in response to the things old people say makes me nervous. (Usually it's just "Ah, bon," and then they kinda nod and I kinda nod and we kinda sit there and don't look at each other until they start to tell another story.)
But it's more than that, though. I don't think I realized that these people are actually people, that they lived crazy lives, that they are just as rich and deep as everyone I know, even though they are losing their memory or losing their mind.
I hope this isn't crossing some privacy line somewhere, but here we go. I cut off their last names just in case.
Oh, Mme. A—
You really don’t know what’s going on, do you.
This is your apartment, you’ve lived here a long time. It’s nice, you don’t want to leave.
Your husband is dead, you know that. He was a dentist, you were a coiffeuse. “Un salon de soixante coiffeuses—!"
You know you like to go outside. You like your apartment, you like your neighborhood, you like your desk with the crazy wood inlays, you didn’t respond when I said that I’m studying design.
But you don’t remember the name of Virginie, you don’t remember that you’re not capable of taking care of yourself.
You don’t even remember that you like flan, that you like your tea with two bags, it doesn’t matter how strong. That’s okay, because Denise remembers it for you. “Elle prend toujours deux.” “C’est fort.” “Quand même."
I wish I could talk to you more easily, Mme. A—. Aileen is good, but I didn’t know what to say to you, and when I tried you just didn’t respond.
You’re so small, that was the first thing I noticed when you answered the door. The way you stood with your feet spread far apart. Your skin looks so fragile, thin, delicate, age spots and veins all across your arms and hands, that massive lump on your right forearm that I could not stop looking at.
We sat and ate pastries and drank tea in your nice little apartment, Mme. A—. I asked for water. You made fun of me because I didn’t want coffee or tea.
We used your nice silverware and china. I ate the crust on my flan because I didn’t want you to make fun of me again.
Virginie and Denise talked to each other, children, work, pourboires. Aileen talked to you. I ate my flan and drank my mineral water and I couldn’t talk, I just listened.
You’re proud, you’re charming, Mme. A—. You were a coiffeuse, you ran a salon. “Aimer votre travail, c’est important!” You ran a salon of sixty. Your husband was a dentist.
You don’t want the temporary lady to come while Denise and Virginie are on vacation. But you won’t eat by yourself, you won’t take your medications. Vous avez des problèmes de comportment, none of the restaurants in the quartier will let you in anymore.
You’re proud, you’re charming. But you can’t take care of yourself, Mme. A—. Not anymore.
Monsieur B—, no, call me Maurice.
Thank you very much, Maurice, for being happy and ready to talk to us.
For your little dog with white hair and red around the eyes who barked and ran when you answered the door. For your pipe smoking in its dish on the table. For the folded bed couch with a white covering.
Thank you for taking us down your street, telling us you liked living here, your hunched little body, your red polo shirt with seam halfway down your arm. That part of your face with the gray hair like fur, where you must always miss while shaving.
Thank you, Maurice, for taking us to that little café on the corner where the questionably gay waiter in the bright green shirt and apron and with a right eyebrow piercing was so welcoming and kind to us, said hello, shook our hands, “I brought two young Americans!”, told as about the specials, warned us that the beef special was thin slices of raw meat, “I know Americans prefer their meat à point."
Thank you for talking to us about your old job as tapissier, making period furniture until you couldn’t thread the needle after losing sight in your left eye, and we ate our salads and you ate your raw meat and told us to eat your fries. For spilling your wine, for being confused that we didn’t want any.
Thank you for telling us about your compagnon, the woman you loved but didn’t marry, Cambodian, met her at a coffee shop in some year of the 1960s, I think, but I’m so bad at French numbers—the one who died of Alzheimer’s four or five years before—and that explains why you’re so with it, it’s not you that had it, but her.
Thank you for telling us that you like surrealism and interior style under Louis XV. Thank you for telling us that you were raised surrounded by Catholicism but you’re sans religion.
Thank you for letting us be silent when I panicked and couldn’t talk and ran out of questions, for letting me have that nervous tic of running my hand through my hair, because talking to people is hard, you know?
Thank you for insisting at the end that we get something to drink (“You have to finish the meal correctly!"), for being confused that we said no to both tea and coffee, until I said, “Une petite tisane, peut-être,” and Aileen and I both drank mint herbal tea.
Thank you for insisting on paying €57,70 for the meal, a French meal done correctly, even though we brought money from the organization to pay. “I’ll let you pay next time."
That you for your kindness, Maurice. For your generosity. For your patriotism, for your pride.
Don’t worry, Maurice, we’ll pay for it next time.
Mme. L— First Visit
What’s going to happen when I’m old like you?
All these people in the maison de retraite. Their bodies are old, deformed, sagging like melted wax, spilling across the chairs, inching across the floor.
Swollen feet in wrapped slipper shoes. Stumbling into janitor’s equipment with a walker. Young man in a fedora with his father, or grandfather, slurring in a wheelchair, abdominal muscles held up by a blue band.
There is a certain look behind your eyes, in the way you stop and start in your slow, deliberate march across the floor, rolling idly in your wheelchair with one foot dragging on the ground. Sitting in a semi-circle while a young women talks to you like you’re all children. Weren’t you all brilliant minds, once!
Mme. L—, your white hair and blue shirt, your quiet voice that I couldn’t understand. No, we can’t sit here, the door is open, it’s too cold. No, we can’t sit outside, here is where we’re going to stay, allez-hop.
Micheline talking to you non-stop in that voice that was sometimes so high and sometimes so low, do you want something to drink? I want a Coke Zero, I want some multi-fruit, no, no more, please.
Your white hair like a cloud, curls, downy feathers, light, airy. The way you nod, up and down, bright eyes, smile. All those teeth you are missing. Holding Micheline’s hand and arm as you walk. I can see that she loves you!
The way you smiled at us at the end when the animatrice took your arm and took you away, bright eyes, bright smile, nod up down, merci au revoir, even though we hardly talked to you, could hardly say anything when Micheline wouldn’t stop talking.
“Thank you for all that you do, no really,” said the maids in their office upstairs.
And so we walked down past all those ladies in their march down the halls, sitting in armchairs, alone, waiting, and I thought about me when I’m old, lost my spark, dead behind the eyes.
Mme. L— Second Visit
Oh Mme. L—,
You are lovely, you know that? You are wonderful, you are loved, you are a daughter of God.
“Quels sont vos prénoms?” “Et j’habite où maintenant?” “Je peux tenir votre bras? Ca vous dérange pas?” “Ca fait mal, je suis mal aux hanches.” “Non, je peux pas m’en souvenir non plus.”
I don’t even care that we had the same conversation four or five times. I don’t even care that you couldn’t remember who we were or what we were doing or that we are going to the countryside in a few days. Because you are happy and lovely, and I cared about you. You are your pink sweater, you and your hair like feathers. Blue roofs and pale skies and soft light.
“À Corrèze vous êtes, à Corrèze vous serez.” “Oh, mais qu’il fait beau.” “J’aime habiter ici, tout le monde est gentil avec moi.”
You are so kind to us, Mme. L—. So happy, so beautiful. You are valuable.
You can’t remember our names, where we came from or why we’re in Paris. Why we’re in this garden to see you. But you sat in that armchair and you can quote Verlaine and Baudelaire, poèmes entièrs, and I wasn’t actually surprised at all.
I realized for a second that we could tell you lies, we could be mean, and it wouldn’t mean anything, because you wouldn’t remember it five minutes later. That it doesn’t mean anything that we’re doing something nice.
But it does mean something, in fact. You are no less of a person because you’re not carrying around a history book of cumulating events, a sac that won’t stop being filled.
People like you live in the moment, Mme. L—. It’s strange for the rest of us to think, especially me, so preoccupied with the past and the future. But you can’t remember the past or anticipate the future, your existence is nothing but the thin slice of now, this fleeting moment, which is in reality everyone’s reality, but I forget about that all the time.
And you’re no less of a human, Mme. L—, because your existence is nothing but the thin slice of now, je ne m’en souviens plus, à Corrèze vous êtes, à Corrèze vous serez. You might not remember your thoughts and emotions in a minute. But that does not make this love I feel and show for you any less valuable now.
We came, we saw, you weren't home, I was delighted.