No Man Is An Island by John Donne sat on the bookshelf next to the window that looked out at the cherry trees. “I haven’t done so many things I used to love. It’s been years. I used to love sailing,” he said. He had gained weight; his stomach much larger than I ever remember it as a child, his eyes squinty under the shadow of his disheveled hair. Few came to visit him anymore. His wife had all but abandoned him, and here I was with little to say. I asked him when the trees had bloomed; I told him I was going to be a teacher; what was he reading, I asked. He either responded with deafening silence or short quips. Why should I care? We’re family, I say. “Barely,” he responds. I am not his granddaughter by blood.
“How are you?” I ask, with more genuine interest than anything I’ve said previously. He pauses, and I think maybe he didn’t hear me. I give him time. “Older,” he whispers. I laugh awkwardly; a refutation would be futile.
He speaks about his life as though it’s an event that’s passed.
The nostalgia of the place is all but oppressive. Old jazz standards play on the stereo. Bingo every day at 5. Free coffee by the door. People greeting you as you enter and leave. Photographs from the ’30s and ’40s line the walls. It’s all a distraction from what its visitors know to be true: people come here to fade away quietly. The possibility of a future seems remote.
All of the reminders of the past seem not to comfort him but to instead remind him that he’s no longer as mobile as he once was, and his memory is poor. He no longer calls me the names he used to. He says, “You’re prettier than a cherry tree in bloom,” in stark contrast to the cruel comments he used to make about my hips or pointy nose. He’s softer around the edges now. Perhaps he’s trying to make up for past meanness with niceties, but I preferred the engagement- the man with tenacity, with a hint of cruelty, who was present, who had a future.