Death is an unpleasant fact. At a certain age, it becomes a fact that is harder and harder to put out of mind. When you are seventy-something and living in a retirement community it can become pervasive.
Such is the case at Riderwood, a retirement community in suburban Maryland where my widower father lives. The man who sat with you at dinner last night might be in the hospital the next, in the nursing home a week later, and dead a month later. On the other hand, they might die suddenly of a stroke. As if you needed any reminder of life’s fragility in this age group, death notices are prominently published in the lobby. You can check out their names as you get your mail.
I spent most of my day yesterday with my father in his retirement community. Mostly we hung around Riderwood. I joined him on his daily exercise. During allergy season, this means an indoor walk between the campuses’s many buildings. If you know the stairwell system you can walk a loop continuously indoors for the better part of a mile. This is possible due to the many enclosed elevated walkways between buildings.
With no interruptions, it would be a brisk walk of twenty minutes or so. However, it was hard to us to walk for more than a couple minutes before stopping. My father is extremely sociable and he seems to know half of the community’s thousands of residents. When he sees someone, most of the time he wants to find out how he or she is doing. The said answer usually is, “Could be better”. Very often, we learn that someone’s spouse or friend is ill.
Illness and death comes with this territory. The successful master of retirement living at Riderwood has to roll with death’s punches. You are in a compulsory boxing match with death. You need to keep your wits about you so you can avoid the punch, for there will be another one tomorrow. Invariably though you know that your body will betray you. In that event, Riderwood is prepared for your decline. When you can no longer navigate inside your own apartment, there is a campus assisted living facility. Next to it is a nursing home, where my mother spent the final five months of her life.
Most Riderwood residents understand that they are living on borrowed time. Their apartment may be their latest home, but their final days will likely be spent awkwardly in assisted living, then precariously in the nursing home. There, likely quite gradually, death will take them. This is actually the good news. Since the nursing home is local, your Riderwood friends can come to visit you. It is not as good news to spend them in a nearby hospital, surrounded hopefully by family, but likely bereft of the companionship of many of your many Riderwood friends.
Once or twice a year, Riderwood holds a memorial service for those who have died. Since my mother passed away last November, she was on the list of residents to be memorialized. My father asked me if I would attend the memorial service with him. He dressed for the occasion in his darkest suit. My mother would have been proud.
Outside the chapel were the pictures of many of those who had died. I found a picture of my mother when she was about my age. Inside the chapel, an organ played solemnly. My father and I took our seats on the right side of the chapel, which was reserved for families of the deceased. We looked at the names in the order of service. My father checked the names of the residents he had come to know. As the names were read, I realized that a number of spouses must have died within a few months of each other. Morris Questal must have went first. His wife Julia was not too far behind him.
The service was non-denominational but certainly had a theistic theme. “Oh God, our helping ages past, Our hope in years to come, Be thou our guard while life shall last, And our eternal hope”, we sang. The Riderwood Balladeers, a sometimes off-key men’s chorus of seventy-plus Riderwood residents sang Gentle Annie by Stephen Foster, Think of Me and Sevenfold Amen.
Altogether one hundred and six names were read aloud. They represented the residents who had died between October 2005 and April 2006. As my mother passed away November 10th, she was thirteenth on the list. After each name was spoken aloud, a bell was rung. If a family member was present, you raised your hand. An usher passed you a white rose. For about a third of the name read, no one family member was present to receive the rose.
One of the residents (Jane K. Myers) wrote a poem, which she read. It said in part:
Do not grieve because you miss us.
Listen, and you’ll know we are near.
We still meet you in your dreams.
And make mischief in your rooms.
We will whisper in your heart
And tickle you inside your brain.
Love entwines us all your days
I found myself a bit choked up, although I tried not to be. My mother may be gone nearly seven months, but the grief was still nearer than I thought. In some respects, my attendance was an act of courage. I can understand why my sister and wife passed on attending this service.
After the service, we wended my way from the chapel to my father’s apartment. My father held the fragile white rose in his hand. “I was glad you could come and represent the family,” he said. “You have done your duty.”
“Dad,” I said gently, “I came to honor my mother, and her life, and to support you. I was my privilege to be with you tonight.”
“What should I do with the flower?” he asked somewhat pensively.
“You could take it and put it on Mom’s grave,” I suggested.
“Yes, but the wind might carry it away.”
“You have Mom’s picture on the dining room table. Why not put the flower in a small vase and place it next to her picture.”
I gave him a final supportive hug, and then exited down the fire escape toward my car. It had been a long day.