Sunday, August 31, 2008

Elvira Sat Alone

Elivra sat alone.

Elivira is a 90+ year old woman who lives at the same retirement center as my mother. I recently had dinner at the retirement home with my mother and noticed this woman sitting by herself at a table for two. I finally asked my mother about the woman. Mom’s response: Oh, that’s Elvira, she has Parkinson’s disease. I asked why she was sitting alone. Again, mother made the comment about Parkinson’s disease and that it was hard to understand Elvira when she talked. She also mentioned that she’d heard that Elvira’s family requested that she sit alone.
In counterpoint, there were tables – large and small – filled with people throughout the dining room. My mother, on a normal night, sits at a table with six other women. My mother never eats dinner alone. In fact – flashback to high school – she seems to sit at the popular table where all the other people want to sit as well. That night alone, two different women came up to mother before dinner and asked if there was space at her regular table. Go figure. Mom – 83 now – has become one of the popular girls.

Elvira, however, sits alone.

So what if Elvira is hard to understand. Companionship does not need words. Companionship needs nothing more than a smile or a nod of the head. Words, too often, are misunderstood or misinterpreted. What’s to misinterpret about a smile? A nod? A light touch on the hand to say, hey, I’m here for you? Elvira has none of that. She only has an empty chair across from her dinner after dinner, day after day, week after week, into the months and years of her golden years. How golden are the years when you have to eat alone – allegedly at the insistence of her family – at dinner when all around you are groups of people eating together?
Now, in the absence of truth, when only rumor abounds, is the alleged tale of Elvira’s family insisting she eat alone! Try as I might, three days after first seeing Elvira eating alone, I cannot understand what reason could exist for a family to be so inhumane! Was Elvira a horrible mother and this is their way of punishing her? Did/does – in their ultimate wisdom – family think she is better off eating alone, isolated from the companionship of others? What crime – real or imagined by her family – is so great that they would deny their mother friendship in her final years?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, or the many other questions that run through my mind every time I think of Elivra eating alone. All I see is a woman, alone in a room full of people. All I see is a family devoid of humanity forcing this upon their mother. I see no rhyme or reason to Elivira sitting alone night after night. I cannot – not even within the great scope of my imagination – understand the situation. I can only feel a deep sorrow that a woman – 90+ years of age – eats alone every night. I can feel anger – perhaps misplaced – at her family for insisting she eat alone.

I can feel shame at myself for not walking over and saying hi to Elvira that night once I heard the tale my mother had to tell. What harm is a smile, a nod, a hey, how’s it going, even from a stranger? Perhaps any of those things would not have made a difference in Elvira’s life. Then again, perhaps any of those things would have made the greatest difference in Elvira’s life.

Now, please understand that it is not like everybody in the retirement center ignores Elvira. I’m she sure has friends and people speak to her on a daily basis, smile at her, and ask her about her day. She does not live in complete isolation. But, at dinner, night after night, Elivra sits alone.