But there are people here. They spill into hallways, litter common areas and huddle in sunny spots. Some drift, some amble, some meander, some roll. There is not much purpose in their progress. They simply seek to fill the days with something other than sleeping and remembering. They are broken, they are used up, they are worn out.
Still...they think and breathe and feel. They are not yet disposable. Just dispensable.
But there is no market for second hand people. Once they were respected and admired. Once they loved and were loved. Once they were the the backbone of their communities and this country. Once they fought for all the things we take for granted today. But they no longer have any value in a society that prizes youth, beauty, vigor .and productivity. They cannot be repurposed or refurbished or recycled.
They have no place...so they come here. And they are the lucky ones.
Unease dribbles down my backbone, as it always does when confronted with frailty, vulnerability, or mortality. Its pools at the base of my spine becomes a ball of chilly dread. It's hard for me to breathe in a place like this. But the tanks and canulas and coughs remind me I must. So I do. Deeply.
My guide is cheerful, like the murals that mask the gray of cinderblock walls. They are everywhere. She chatters and twitters and greets the residents by name. She feeds us bits and pieces of their life stories. She catalogues their missing limbs and maladies. She is not a resident. She can leave any time she pleases and this, I think, fuels her desperate delight. As it would mine.
We take turns wheeling her husband of 65 years around the facility. His hair is white and his voice tremulous with age. He is still big and he still looks deceptively strong. But this man strapping man who once carried me on his shoulders with ease...cannot rise from his chair unassisted. It seems impossible that the tickle monster, piggyback giver, popcorn popper, boogey monster chaser and deerslayer still exist somewhere inside.
It hurts to see him so....diminished. I don't like to think of him that way because I don't like to think of myself that way. It scares me far more than any other kind of disaster. For what can be more disastrous than the loss of autonomy, dignity, independence and sanity? Nothing, I think. Nothing. And everyone in this place is living what I fear the most.
I would avoid it if I could. But I know there isn't much time left.
During our visit, I see flashes of the man I once knew; silly and cheeky and wry. It reminds me that he's not really gone. Yet. And the same is true of all those seemingly vacant people milling around the halls. They look so empty, but really they are brimming over. It makes me feel both better and worse. Better to realize there is something left inside those worn out and broken bodies. Worse to realize that so many of their stories may never be told.
We are German people. We are stoic. We are not comfortable with flowery sentiment or displays of affection. But when we leave, I hug them both long and hard. Despite my heritage, it is hard to let go.
I take a last glance back before stepping outside.
My secondhand people are smiling. They are not vacant. They are not diminished. They are not less. She kisses his bald head and he beams up at her. They are happy.
I turn to see a woman at the window looking out over the calm, clear water, listening to big band music on an iPad. Her head sways gently from side to side. A group of men play cards to her left. Their movements are slow, but their laughter is quick. I look back at my secondhand people, who are now on their way into the dining hall. She greets other secondhand people and calls them by name. One man waves a bandaged stump in reply. They all laugh.
I begin to see that my own fears have clouded my vision. Maybe this isn't just a warehouse. Perhaps it is a haven and a respite. Perhaps it's a tranquil stop on the last leg of a harried and hectic journey. Perhaps it's comfort and security and rest.
My heart though still heavy, lightens just a bit. I leave knowing my secondhand people are safe and comfortable and I can forget for a while that this might be the last time. And I can stop worrying about my own secondhand fate.
There are worse things.
This is the place we visited. It was really quite impressive despite my initial unfavorable impression of the place. It was clean and very well run, with lots of amenities. I'm glad places like this exist.