by Kirk Boys
Don’s group home is painted the same yellow as a sunflower. And it strikes me as odd that a place that holds so much sorrow within would be so bright on the outside. To see it you need to be willing to get off the main road. You need to know where to turn.
I volunteer for the library. My job: select and deliver books to people who can’t make it in on their own. My client, Don, is one of those people. He lives near Renton, Washington. There is no sign; you have to know where to turn off the county road, maneuver down a long, steep driveway at the bottom of which you take a sharp right, and the group home is there, hidden in plain sight.
Four other people live with Don. His caregivers are all from the Philippines and they are very good at what they do from what I can tell. The other residents at the sunflower colored house are there, like Don, for medical reasons. They all require full-time care and more often than not, this is the last place they will live. This past July, Don turned ninety-seven. My father would be the same age if he were alive.
Don can’t see very well and his hearing is even worse, so I end up shouting at him. Not angrily of course, although, it is frustrating when you have so much to talk about and it’s so hard to communicate. I know this.
When I walk into Don’s room he smiles. That causes me to smile too.
The first and most important thing I noticed about Don is that he has an open mind. I find this remarkable for a man with ninety-seven years of living life a certain way. For example Don had not read a lick of fiction since his high school English class. So I bring Don fiction. He is open to reading anything though. I brought him Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume on my third visit. When I asked him what he thought of one of America’s most avant-garde authors, Don said with a smile, “Pretty good.”
He appreciates the smallest kindness. He spends most every day in his room, sitting in his wheelchair reading or napping. I usually find him facing into his closet, a book in his lap. He likes that spot because the light pours through just so.
I visit Don every three weeks. He causes me to experience aging in a very personal way, to consider how it must feel to need someone’s help to use the bathroom, someone to clean you up after, to wear a bib when you eat. To make the simplest decisions like taking a sip of orange juice knowing it will cause you to choke. That is the kind of person Don is though. The kind who is willing to take that risk for the sweet taste of reconstituted orange.
I had three library clients before I got matched up with Don, but each has passed on.
My volunteer coordinator at the library warned me, “Try not to get attached.”
I didn’t believe her. After all, I just deliver books.
Each of my clients has been different, their taste in books, what they wanted or expected of me. Diane was eighty three and was very specific. “I don’t want any romance or suspense. Don’t bring me biographies or memoirs or nonfiction of any kind. No sex or violence, I only want books on tape and I am most fond of cat mysteries.” Diane’s home had stuffed animals on display. A moose head was mounted in the home’s community room. There was a cougar on the prowl. A wild boar and a lynx stuffed in life-like poses prowled above the dining area. There was an elk head, a deer and buffalo too, their eyes glassy, as if unsuspecting of their fate. Diane never complained about the dead animals that stared menacingly down at her while she ate her meals. They would have bothered me.
Diane’s request for cat mysteries on tape seemed a tall order, but I looked around and found Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Had Sixty Whiskers and The Cat Who Read Backwards on tape and I took them to her. Mostly though, Diane and I would talk. In her tiny room she told me stories about her life. She bragged about her grandkids.
“Both girls are exceptionally bright,” she said.
We’d known each other about a year when I got a call. A lady told me Diane had died and the cat mystery tapes had all been returned. She said, “There is no need for you to come back.” And that was that.
Don is only able to read large print. I go to several libraries and scan the large print stacks in hope of finding something I like and Don might enjoy. I want to believe this is not self-serving. That pushing my personal literary taste on Don is not a way of validating my own taste in books. But I must say, Don is one of the best read ninety-seven year olds in King County.
This is how it usually goes. I gather four or five books and I head over to Don’s. I knock on the door and wait, after a minute or so, Cynthia answers. She is petite with short hair and kind eyes. Cynthia almost never smiles, her demeanor is deadpan, but there is something about her. She has this warmth, a confidence, a knowing that shines through.
“Hi, is Don here?” I always ask. This is a stupid question of course. Don’s not able to go anywhere. So I guess I am really asking, is Don still alive? I hold my breath for that split second. It makes me sad to tell you this, but it is the truth. Bringing books to Don a few undeniable truths jump out at me. They come unexpectedly and they are powerful.
“Back in his room,” Cynthia says, turning and pointing with a sort of made-up annoyance. I think Cynthia actually likes seeing me, but doesn’t want to show it, thinking it would be unprofessional. Cynthia is one of those matter-of-fact people. The ones who have the attitude you probably need if you are going to spend your days with people nearing the end of their lives. Cynthia wears a light blue caregiver outfit. She likes Don and Don likes her too. I can tell.
In the living room I see five brown recliners in a semi-circle, facing the TV. Only two are occupied. In one, a man sits, his head is laid back and drool is streaming from the corner of his mouth. His name is Joe. When Joe is awake, he screams and groans. No one is quite clear why. Maybe he wants something or he is in pain or just wants people to know he is alive and pissed off about it. Or it could be, he just wants someone to take notice of him, but that’s mostly me just guessing. Don told me he found Joe irritating.
The TV is always on the Filipino channel. A game show or soap opera of some sort blares in the background with beautiful Filipino women talking fast or singing. Just behind the recliners, out the living-room window, I can see Lake Washington. No one else can. They are faced the wrong way.
In the other chair, Lily sits with her black and silver hair knotted in a bun atop her head. She is missing a good part of one leg, from the knee down. Her stub is wrapped in heavy bandages.
“Hi there,” I say.
“Hello,” she answers politely. “He’s in his room.” She points.
I have offered to bring books for Lily, but she declines. I guess she would rather watch the Filipino channel. I don’t believe she understands Tagalog. It is as though Lillian is marking time and it breaks my heart.
I head back about then, past the table where the residents eat, their places set for the next meal. There are no lights turned on, instead, natural light fills the room with a dull gray. There is a faint smell of urine. If you were to ask me what color is sadness? I would say it is gray, without question.
“Sure you don’t want me to bring you a book?” I ask Lily, one last time.
“No thanks,” Lily answers. I feel bad for Lily. I feel bad for Joe too. It looks to me that getting old is frustrating, lonely, painful and hard. I can see it in her face. I see it in her weak excuse for a smile. They both look miserable. Then Lily looks at me as if to say, “Why are you acting so jolly buddy? Don’t you see how we are here? Don’t you see I am missing my leg, or that the guy next to me is drooling all over himself? Don’t you see this existence we’re living, here, in front of the TV and the Filipino channel? What the Hell are you doing here with your books and smiles?”
I find Don in his room, his back to me, hoping to catch enough light to read. It’s hard to tell if Don is reading or asleep, so I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Hi Buddy,” I say, trying to catch his attention.
Don smiles, “Well … hello … there,” he answers. That smile of his is worth a million-billion dollars. That smile is worth all the trips to the library and the long drive and the sadness of watching people trying their hardest to live out their remaining days in dignity. That smile of Don’s lights up the inside of the Group Home.
“How are you doing?” I shout. Then I wait. It takes a long while for Don to answer.
“Pretty good, I guess,” he says ever so slowly.
“How did you like the books I brought you?”
Don stares back at me, silent, our eyes locked. I feel uncomfortable at first, then, my patience begins to wane. There is so much I want to say, so many things I want to ask Don. Among them may be things I wished I had asked my dad before he was suddenly gone. But Don’s response is painfully slow. He can only hear half of what I say, so I repeat the question. “Did you like the books?” I shout louder this time.
As I wait for his response, I look around his room. There is a twin bed with a faded navy comforter. A single white pillow lies at the head. Next to it, on a small table, sits a Big Ben alarm clock. I notice how its ticks fill the long pauses. I observe what Don has brought to this room after nearly ninety-seven years on this earth. An old computer monitor rests on a small desk, its hard drive fan whispers, nearly imperceptibly. Two flannel shirts hang in the closet, next to some tan pants and a sweater. There are a few pictures taped to the wall. His kids, his sail boat, his wife, the pictures are old, tired, their color nearly gone, the people in them appear to me as ghosts from Don’s past. I wonder if he has somehow outlived them all.
“Life is more than one room,” Don says finally as I stand to leave.
It’s easy for me to forget, in the sparseness of his room, how smart Don is. He did research at MIT, worked on perfecting radar during the war, and then as an engineer for Boeing. He begins to cough. It happens every time. His torso heaves and his eyes water as this deep, rattling, choking, cough takes over his body. He coughs so ferociously that I begin to go for help. For I fear this to be his last cough. Then it stops, as abruptly as it began. Don swallows hard and looks at me and smiles, as if to say, “Fooled yah.”
I sit back down and begin going through the books from my last visit. I show him the cover and ask, “How did you like it?”
“Good,” he answers to a few, “Not so much,” to others. “You haven’t let me down yet,” he adds.
I don’t always have the endurance needed to stay long with Don. I don’t much like that flaw in my character. I don’t flatter myself believing that my visits are that big a deal in Don’s life or that I impact the quality of his days. It’s more convenient for me to think that way. Maybe the truth is that I don’t want that responsibility. I always feel different leaving Don’s group home. Three weeks from now, when I go back, I will have forgotten that feeling. I need to be reminded how fortunate I am. The group home does that.
When Don and I are finished, I walk past Joe and Lily and out the front door and into my car. There is a cold breeze. The air smells new, fresh and clean. I make the hard turn, then straight up the driveway and out onto the county road. I think about what the coordinator at the library said, “Don’t get attached.”
Kirk Boys is a writer living outside Seattle. He holds a certificate in Advanced Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. His work has been published in Storie-all write, an Italian literary magazine, in The Springhill Review, and was recently honored as a top twenty-five finalist in a Glimmer Train short story contest. He has two daughters, and four grandkids under the age of five, including twins. In addition to his library outreach service, he is a volunteer mentor for young writers at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.