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Inside looking out: Once upon imagined lives

Published October 06. 2017 08:35PM

Years ago, my mother lived her last days in a nursing home.

When I would visit every other day, I noticed a few patients were in their same places. Mary sat in the hall mumbling the Hail Mary prayer over and over again to nobody who was there to listen. The nurses named her Hail Mary, and all day long she spoke the same prayer while people ignored her as if she was a permanent piece of furniture in the hall.

When I looked at the deep lines mapped across Hail Mary’s face, my mind imagined her long ago as a beautifully spiritual woman tending to her children, helping them do their homework at the kitchen table before they said the blessing at dinner. The day I fabricated this memory, she looked up at me with tired eyes and said, “Pray for our sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Then there was Joan Groan as she was called. Permanently bedridden, Joan would bellow ear-piercing shrieks as if she was being tortured in a Chinese prison. The first time I heard Joan groan, I had thought the nurses were heartless when they didn’t run to attend to her. I asked why she seemed in such anguish and I was told she was just crying out for constant attention.

So I thought that perhaps Joan was a nurse herself back in the day, helping the sick, comforting the frightened, tending to every patient’s beckoned call. One day I peeked into her room. She stopped her wailing and reached her hand out to me. I held it briefly, calming her for a moment until her painful outcry resumed when I left to see my mother.

Mom tolerated Hail Mary and Joan Groan pretty well considering their rooms were next door to hers, but when Sunday morning came, she became incensed if her 10 a.m. time slot for her hair appointment was not kept to the exact minute.

One such morning, I found her in a state of anxiety. At the time I was a Eucharistic minister at a Catholic church and a priest suggested that I bring her Communion.

“Mom, I brought you Communion. Can we go back to your room where it’s more quiet?”

“Why do they keep me in the hall waiting so long for my appointment? Can you do something about this?”

“Yes, Mom, but can we go to your room first?”

I wheeled her next to her bed. The clamoring from Hail Mary had risen to a higher decibel and the incessant shrieking from Joan Groan got so distracting, I began to shout out the Scripture reading of the day.

But as I read, a silence suddenly swept across the room. Nothing came from Hail Mary or from Joan Groan and no footsteps from the nurses’ sneakers squeaked upon the much-traveled floor in the hall.

After the reading, I took Mom’s hand and we said the Lord’s Prayer aloud in another moment of perfect silence. I gave her Communion, and right after she said, ”Amen,” Mary mumbled her prayer again, Joan resumed her wailing, and the nurses bustled down the hall.

There was a man in the home I remember vividly to this day. The nurses seated him in the main dining room in front of a window that looked out upon the courtyard. He was a big, bald man, appearing to be strong and healthy in his body with long, thick arms that extended from his broad shoulders. He looked like Mr. Clean. No matter what might occur nearby, he never flinched an inch and continued to stare out that window as if he was waiting for someone to come.

I imagined he used to be one of those guys who came to help when someone needed his strong arms to move a refrigerator or a couch or maybe he would come to the rescue of a friend and impose his large size to protect his buddy from harm.

I had asked a nurse about this man and she said, “That’s Big John. He never speaks to anyone, but he will nod or shake his head to our questions. He was delivered here about six years ago. A monthly check arrives to pay for his care. Every day we roll him out of his room at 7 a.m. and put him right next to his window. Then at 8 p.m., we roll him back.”

I realized that these three human beings had lost their independence they once had in younger years. How sad it was to see that their minds had robbed them of their dignity, too.

I was told that no family or friend ever came to visit them. I can only believe that after they had crossed over to their final resting places, Hail Mary, Joan Groan, and Big John had found the peace of mind that they so much deserved.

Rich Strack can be reached at

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