"These poor people, " my friend commiserated. "I feel so sorry for them, trapped in bodies that don't respond, with minds that are deteriorating, and then having to live in a place like this," she said as she swept her hand in front of her, indicating the sprawling nursing home before us.
"If I ever get to the point where I can't function independently, I think I'd just rather not live. What kind of quality of life can that be?" she wondered as we pressed the security button and waited to be buzzed in.
We made our way to the activity room, a sunny oasis with large windows and cheerful pastels on the wall and the furniture.
Aged men laughed heartily around one table as their game of dominoes took an unexpected turn. Another woman with wispy white hair and a toothless smile nodded and hummed to a melody heard only by her, even tapping her bent fingers on the armrest of her wheelchair.
A man who sat alone in his wheelchair nodded pleasantly as we walked past and answered animatedly in syllables unattached to any meaning after I asked him how he was doing.
A group of women, some of whom we had seen before, congregated around a large table near the middle, huddling close as they talked over something intently.
My friend and I set about our work of visiting and distributing some fruit to those in the activity room. One of the aides stopped by our table. "Good to see you two this morning, " she greeted us.
Muted cries that sounded like weeping came to us from the large table of women in the center.
"Is everything OK with them?" I asked her.
"Yes, bless their hearts. Paulita's husband, who usually visits her everyday, had a small stroke and is recovering in the hospital. Her family and all of the staff explain this to her everyday, but she forgets and wakes up in the morning thinking that he has died. It takes a lot of convincing to get her to understand that, and then she wakes up having to go through the whole process again.
I inched closer, not wanting to intrude, but to see if perhaps there was a way I could be of help.
Paulita wept openly, her hand over her heart, as if to hold the beating organ together.
A plump woman known as the Singing Lady for her penchant for loudly singing corridos from the 1940's patted Paulita's hand and sang a slow little tune to her.
A slight woman in a wheelchair, Sofia, appeared to lose interest with the goings on and slowly pushed herself in her chair down the hall, back to her room.
My friend came up to me and whispered, "I don't know how she's pushing herself in the wheelchair- she's got arthritis really bad in her hands and shoulders. I guess she got tired, though. She doesn't really talk anymore, so it's hard to tell." I noticed her fingers were contorted into unnatural positions as she slowly disappeared out the door.
The other ladies continued their comforting of Paulita, patting her and consoling her, sometimes with real words and sometimes with just sounds. Although a number of them could not remember their own family members, empathy and compassion were deeply embedded and well lived.
Paulita was calming down though her pink- cheeked face was wet with tears. She sniffled and smiled a bit as we passed out the last of our fruit.
I noticed Sofia slowly pushing herself back into the activity room. An aide went over to see if she needed help, but Sofia waved her away.
She alternated from one large wheel to the next, making her course somewhat crooked, and it was evident from her expression that each push hurt. Still, she pointed her chair to Paulita's table and arrived just as we packed up the last of our stuff.
Paulita watched as Sofia painstakingly pulled the wheelchair up beside her. Without a word, Sofia drew something from her lap and handed it to Paulita. It was a box of Kleenex.
When Paulita hesitated, Sofia pulled one out and gently dabbed Paulita's cheeks. As carefully as if the upset woman had been one her own children, Sofia finished swabbing Paulita's cheeks, then kissed her own life worn hand, pressed that palm into Paulita's forehead and patted it. She smiled at Paulita as she slowly turned her wheelchair around to head back down the hall to her room.
Quality of life, indeed.