Back to the old-aged home I went. I really wasn’t feeling like it today. I was tired and ill inclined to spend time in a place that weighed me down with its loneliness etched into its walls.
But I had promoted the visit as the weekly volunteer club activity, so was committed to going. The departure time of 3:30pm came and went as I ended up helping a student who had the wrong mark printed on his certificate. In the meantime, a few eager volunteers came into the office to find out when we’d be leaving. The “five minutes” answer I gave extended and extended until it was eventually 4pm. My Madagascan friend, who had been staking out the building for any sign of our departure, joined us outside. We chatted easily as we walked the short distance to the pink building. None of the students had come with me before: a girl and guy from Ecuador, a girl from France and a guy from Saudi Arabia who had hopped on board at the last minute. They had no idea what to expect. And, as was about to be reaffirmed, neither did I.
Each time here was completely different. On the last visit, we had moved between different rooms and finally landed with a ninety-one year old woman who was astonishingly astute. She wanted to know where we were from.
“I’m from Brazil,” answered one of the guys.
“No, man! Where are you coming from now?”
“Oh, we’re from the school down the road.”
She asked the name. “DF?
This continued for a while until she finally commented that she would never call her school that.
“What are you studying?” she asked, “Sex?”
We looked at each other in bewilderment and laughed. “No, English.”
She told us she had been a prominent businesswoman in her day with thirteen staff members working under her. She gave us her name and said she was sure we’d be able to find her if we looked her up. I asked what kind of business she’d had, to which she repeated the word and the fact that she’d managed a team of thirteen.
My sixteen-year-old Spanish student looked at me with a serious face, “You know, business, business.”
“Oh, business business.” I nodded.
Another woman was solely worried about finding her walker, which she feared she had misplaced somewhere. One of the students rolled his eyes innocuously towards her cupboard, on which the walker was folded up. Thinking there must be a reason she didn’t have access to it, I discreetly overlooked its whereabouts.
This time, since we were a small group, the nurse led us into a room with two sisters. I remembered them from a previous visit. Both sweet-faced and chatty, it was a pleasure to sit with them. One by one, the students introduced themselves, extending their hands and smiles. One of the women was sitting up in bed, the other in a wheelchair. They both seemed delighted to talk to us. A few minutes later, we were interrupted by the sound of a male voice greeting us. He told us he lived next door. He was tall and thin with a dimpled smile and kind eyes. After brief introductions, he broke into song. The room fell silent as the tune hung languorously in the air, reminiscent of an opera melody.
“You sing something in French,” he instructed the French girl. Slowly and shyly, she began. I was amazed at how beautifully she sang.
“Now Spanish,” she said.
“I don’t remember anything,” the Ecuadorian guy protested, blushing.
The man told us he played the piano as well, and I asked him if they had one in the building. He confirmed that they did.
At that moment, the dinner bell rang, calling the residents down to the dining hall. We spent the next fifteen minutes chatting, all of us oblivious to the time passing. Other residents began to pass the open door on their way to eat.
“We’d better go to dinner,” the old man said, “They won’t keep it for you, you know.”
We all shook hands again and promised to return next week for a grand singsong at the piano.
The appreciation on their faces was immense.
As we walked back to school, the Saudi Arabian student told me how sad and shocked he felt at the elders living there. In his culture, he insisted, that could never happen. Children had a responsibility to take care of their parents and grandparents. He was horrified at the idea that after all the elders had done for their kids, they would just abandon them. He was eager to return the next week with flowers and chocolates. I was touched and heartened by his desire to brighten the lives of those too often forgotten in Western culture.