When you get real old, honey, you realize there are certain things that just don’t matter anymore. You lay it all on the table. There’s a saying: Only little children and old folks tell the truth. ~ Sarah Louise Delany
There was music playing as we entered the room where a small group of cotton-topped faces were being entertained by a woman strumming a guitar and singing standards. Some were sleeping, others were listening intently, and a few were singing along. Most were in wheelchairs. The cake was cut and passed around by staff members as eager to enjoy the dessert as they were to share it with their precious residents. We looked around at the faces in the room – so many stories in those eyes, so many memories etched in each wrinkle. Each face – a voice just waiting to be heard.
It was hard not to be mesmerized by Thelma. She sat in the center of the room, tapping her shiny gold-shoed feet in rhythm to the music. It was her birthday – she was 101. And she was happy about it. She was alert and well-dressed, with lovely red nails and hair in a bun. Meeting her was magical. “Do you love to dance too?” she asked in a New York accent that hadn’t faded over the years. “You know, you have to work hard to get to dance on stage.” We talked about ballroom dancing, and she recommended I wear a green gown because it would complement my blonde hair. “It will make an impression on the audience.” Her son, she said, was a dancer, and had traveled from New York to California to pursue his dream. She said she hadn’t heard from him in a while, likely because he was busy with his budding career. “How old is he?” I asked. “Twenty,” she smiled. “I’m here on vacation, you know. But there are so many old people here at this resort.” She asked where my friends and I were from, and when we said Texas, she was shocked. “You traveled all the way from Texas to Baltimore? Why?” One of the nurses gently corrected her, but Thelma rolled her eyes and laughed. “I lived in New York for years. My father bought a house in the suburbs – I could never live in the city in one of those apartments. But I’ve come to Baltimore. This resort is nice, but I don’t socialize with the older people much. I’m here on business.” Her business was dancing, and she believed it should be everyone’s business. She told me I looked like a flapper – quite lovely for 19.
I think that, if I was a dancer in that green ball gown, I would have a perfect partner in Mr. Hoover. Reclining in a custom wheelchair that was heavily padded to make his twisted body more comfortable, he strained to sing every lyric of the Cole Porter songs the guitarist played. “He’s one of our favorites,” a nurse whispered. “He can’t talk, but he can sing.” Most words were difficult to understand, but three were clear and crisp. “Delightful. Delicious. De-Lovely!” He reached for my hand as I sat next to him and Ron, a precious man who loved to laugh, and then he sang for me. There was no sound, yet I felt every note.
Someone else felt every note of the music that day. Idra, a petite woman with lovely curled hair, sat in her wheelchair in the corner. I immediately noticed her hands, clapping in perfect time to the strums of the guitar. At first she was distant, and I was told she had a reputation for being a bit cantankerous. But one question changed everything. “Did you play piano?” She beamed, and introduced herself. She talked about the music, and how she liked her “home.” I offered her a lap blanket, and she began to cry. “This is the nicest thing – that you would bring something for me. It’s really for me?” She then asked about my friends, and the tears came again. “I had a friend. We were friends from kindergarten on. But she died. She was my very best friend. And she’s gone. I miss her so much.” She said she had made some friends at the nursing home, and she really loved her nurse, but there was no one like her best friend. Then she smiled. “I’m sorry I cry. But I cry because I’m happy. You’ve made me happy.”
I watched as Amber embraced Woody, a well-dressed man celebrating his 91st birthday. She held his hand, and he stroked her long, blonde hair as they enjoyed the music, and laughed as they tried to remember the words. Amber had wished for a grandpa – and in that moment, her wish had come true. I couldn’t help but think that, for Woody, holding hands with a pretty lady was one of the best birthday gifts he had had on a long time.
Courtney snuggled next to Jo, a spitfire in a wheelchair who loved to move around. But she calmed down when she saw that smiling face and heard her name. She grabbed Courtney’s face and kissed her forehead. And the happy tears flowed again.
The faces. The voices. The stories. And the wash of sadness happens again – not because I don’t feel I have anything of value to give, but because I’ve waited so long to embrace the moment. I was told that day, “It costs nothing to reach out and hold someone.” Oh, but the riches received in that touch – in those smiles, in those tears. I pray I sing, even when the words don’t come. I pray I am never afraid to cry happy tears. I pray that I’ll always love birthdays. I pray that, if my mind slips a bit, I see myself at a resort. And I pray I always want to dance. Thank you, Thelma, Idra, Woody, Jo, Ron. And you, Mr. Hoover, are absolutely “de-Lovely.”