Judged Conversation Overheard on the Bus in August
by Shannon P. Laws
The sidewalk on Magnolia sticks to my shoes
Maple Tree sap bleeds from the high branches
It’s not enough to stop me
I have a bus to catch
It’s early morning-cold. Crisp air flies in from open slit of bus windows in position for the promised afternoon heat. Wednesday morning in August and downtown is quiet. Half the town seems closed. Most are somewhere enjoying the last days of summer. Anywhere else but downtown Bellingham. Only the sounds of a traffic light clicking green and a seagull. The gull stands like a superhero on the top southeast corner of Mount Baker Apartments
waking us up
Two ladies get on the bus.
They don’t live here.
I know it.
They are the only known tourist on the 3
Oh good, they are sitting behind me
She must be a grandmother
“Are you warm enough?”
The other perhaps a daughter
“Yes, I have my LL Bean on”
They don’t know
Then, it starts—
For 25 years I’ve been getting a mammogram every two years because my mother had breast cancer.
She continues to talk about cancer the way old people talk about cancer
the same way middle-aged people talk about the weather
the same way younger people talk about nothing in particular
The list of what’s wrong with grandma’s body rattles off like the description of a 2001 Dodge Durango I am forced to read:
There’s a new growth of cataract in my left eye, arthritis in the knees effecting my suspension, my liver is having problems, might be backed up. Recent scans show no blockage in the arteries. Hips replaced. Doctor recommends a colon flush. Hypertension makes me jerk to the left from time to time. Engine still strong. Overall I’m in good shape
There is a growing concern on my mind about the condition and mentality of our elderly that I must address: Shut-ins.
Sparked by a recent incident, the following rant is an attempt by me to process the barbarian social cycle Americans have created. A cycle that involves the elements of the high cost of health care, our strong need for independence, and the elderly: our grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors.
Shut ins are defined as:
n. A person confined indoors by illness or disability. adj. 1. Confined to a home or hospital, as by illness. or 2. Disposed to avoid social contact; excessively withdrawn or introverted.
Yesterday, early Monday morning, I discovered that a shut-in lived directly below me in my condo complex. I have lived here for over a year and never laid eyes on the guy until yesterday when the paramedics rolled him off to the hospital.
From about 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. my roommates and I started to hear a knocking or hammering sound reverberating throughout the building. Monday morning is busy for all of us, people take showers, make breakfast, check e-mail, etc., so none of us gave it much thought. At first the reoccurring thumps sounded like someone was hammering. About an hour later I heard what I thought was a woman crying; this is when I called the police asking for them to investigate. I live in that kind of neighborhood. Perhaps someone was locked out of their home, building a shelf, hanging pictures, or a guy was trying to get at his ex-girlfriend threw a locked door… never in my mind did I think it was someone who was seriously injured and needed help.
When the police officer checked in with me 20 minutes later, we both tried to locate where the sound was coming from. Then he asked me, “Are there any elderly people living in your building.”
Oh shit! Right at that time the knocking was louder and I could hear through the floor the voice of a man yelling, “Help me!”
Sitting on the side of my bed watching the paramedics do their job from my second story window, I started to think about all the elderly family members, and friends I’ve had over the years who are shut-ins. Many different stories but all the same results: a person who is too weak to even push a vacuum cleaner or bathe themselves is living alone. What the hell has happen to us?
I remember when my Grandma was getting “needy”. A common factor, or line in the sand, is almost always one of two things: a car accident or a fall that results in a broken hip. These are signals family and friends should not blow off.
When my grandma broke her hip, my dad and his two sisters thought about putting her in “a home”. Grandma wanted none of that, AND she wasn’t going to give up her drivers license either. It drove my dad and aunts crazy. Grandma lived in a four bedroom, two bath home with a yard. WHO was going to take care of her, while she screams “I can take care of myself!” No one had the guts to tell her, “No Grandma, you can’t”
They had to wait until, a year later, my aunt stopped by for a visit unannounced. Grandma looked awful. My aunt learned grandma hadn’t had a bath all week because her leg hurt, that she hadn’t eaten because she was too sore to drive to the grocery store, but was too prideful to ask for help. It wasn’t until another fall, that grandma learned the hard way to ask for help. Where does this stubbornness come from and why is it so difficult for the kids to take up the role of parent for their parent?
As a former auto insurance agent I can not tell you how many calls I received from a disoriented elderly person who was confused about why their premium went up or why the policy was cancelled. “It was just a simple mistake, pressing the gas pedal and not the break” or, “The guy came out of nowhere! It was not my fault!” It is a fact that after the age of 75, the majority of drivers drive with the reflexes of a drunk driver. Many older people are unable to turn their head from left to right, or look over their shoulders to check behind them when they are driving. These are needed physical abilities for the simple actions of merging, or changing lanes. Personally, I feel all drivers over 75, should have to take a drivers test yearly.
Outside of the physical issue of getting older, my mind also meditated on the social issues. So many elderly are alone. They retired with a loved one to a remote area, one of them dies, then they are alone. Or, another story I hear often involves a family fight. Some sort of an event breaks up the family, and they stop seeing each other, often many years prior to those “needy” years, say when the kids are in their 30’s and the parents in their 50’s. Both sides, children and parent, have a “F You” attitude and hold a grudge for decades. It is so sad. Often around the holidays I’ll hear friends tell me they haven’t seen their parents for 10, 20 years.
My mom turns 70 this year. She lives by herself, about two and half hours from me. I am the only daughter. Perhaps in 4-5 years, I will need to live close to her and help her, EVEN THOUGH that stubborn woman says she will not need it. She has been saying this since her 40’s.
This really upsets me. In my mind I want to say, “Alright old lady, die in your own vomit a slow painful death, alone, on the floor in pain. Perhaps, in a week someone will notice you are missing and knock on the door. Perhaps, another week later someone may notice a smell and call 911. Perhaps.” I love my mom, I really do. Looks like I need to educate myself on what to expect. Regardless, the more we know, the more we talk, the more we keep calm, the more we love… the happier her golden years will be, for everyone. The questions remain: How can we fix this system? It is important to live well, but how important is it to us to die well?
Johnny Appleseed, died a good death. When he felt the time coming, he moved back to his simple home he built on his land. He asked his son to move his bed outside under a tree in the backyard.