On my way to work, I pass by a nursing home. It sits right on the corner of a large, busy street that is the main thoroughfare on this side of town, and a smaller street that fronts older homes and a few small businesses. The nursing home is, by any standard, a handsome building. It is a three story brick Victorian with 2 rounded turrets and a wide porch that wraps around the front of the building, filled with wooden rocking chairs. The trim around the many windows is done all in white and there are two large bay windows on the second and third floors that face out onto the street. It looks like a pleasant place to live and offers a similarly pleasant name; something with "sun" in it, I think.
While not well-known, but certainly not held secret, the third floor of this nursing home is an Alzheimer's facility. As everyone does know, Alzheimer slowly eats away at your memory and mental capacities, making you in turns forgetful, delusional and, finally, nearly vegetative, until your brain can no longer tell your body to keep on living or you die from something else. Alzheimer's patients have the rather disturbing tendency to go wandering, and given their deteriorating mental state, many will not know where they're going or possibly even who they are. Which is why all of the exterior doors on an Alzheimer's wing are alarmed and why most of the patients have bed and chair alarms to alert the staff if the person tries to get up.
It has happened a few times that on my way home from work, I have seen an old man in a wheelchair seated at the third story bay window, looking out over the intersection. Since I travel the smaller street, I have had a couple of minutes to consider him as I wait for the light to turn. He sits, unmoving, possibly asleep. There is no one else around him. If he is awake, he sees to his right (and mine on the corner) a gas station. Diagonally across the street he sees a low grassy hill that partially obstructs a large, squat church that clearly spent money on space and not aesthetics. To his left, across the busy street, is an old office building. The exterior of this building is completely covered in a grey mesh made of either concrete or metal. Whether artistic or meant as an insulative layer, from this distance, it makes the building look like a cold featureless box. And at this time of day, there are no cars in the parking lots of the office or the church. The traffic on the main road flies by while people wait idly for their chance to speed across the larger road on their way home. As the window faces east, he does not even get to see the beauty of the sunset, but instead, the steady encroachment of the coming night.
And how awful that night must seem to this man. The approaching end (and subsequent beginning) of another day spent in a place that has alarms on all the doors, more like a prison than a home. The approaching night of death. The approaching night of the complete obliteration of the self from an insidious disease. Who is to say which inspires the greatest dread? And what does he do as the waning day gives over to darkness but sit and look over a cold scene, seeing people still in the quick of life hurry past? Does he draw comfort from that? Does this view inspire some hope in him? Does he seek it out? Or does the staff simply park him there, thinking he enjoys it when, perhaps, it saddens or terrifies or does nothing for his diminished mind? And what would he say to me, to us, to a world that has seemingly forgotten him? What lessons, what wisdom, what knowledge is being lost?
I do not know. What I do know is that on the nights I see him, I go home and hug my wife all the harder and am just a little more grateful. And a little more afraid of the coming night.