Annette's lips are blue, her complexion ashen gray. She leans heavily on her purple-wheeled walker, a portable oxygen tank protruding from the basket, as she maneuvers slowly through the heavy double doors to the unit. Although it's clear that she's anxious to reach her destination, Annette will stop to rest three times as she makes her way down the hall, using each 'break' as an opportunity to share her latest health crisis with whoever is nearby: "The doctor tells me to stay in bed, but you know me-gotta get my sugar fix!"
The unfamiliar visitor might think that Annette speaks of candy, but we all know what she's after. Although she looks perilously close to collapse by the time she makes it to the last door on the left, her face lights up as she leans down to kiss her 98 year old mother, Alice, whom she visits daily. Annette will trade her walker for the handles of Alice's wheelchair (to which staff have affixed an oxygen tank holder-not technically allowed), and the two will make their way down the hall to visit friends, dispensing cheer along the way. Annette does most of the actual visiting, as Alice is deaf and very demented. Alice adds to the merriment by shouting loud, seemingly random (or maybe not so random) comments, such as "I like chicken!" and "You're fat!"
There is much doubt among the staff as to whether Alice actually recognizes Annette anymore, and she certainly can't hear her. Annette misses visiting only when she's hospitalized for one of her many serious ailments, but she has been known to come directly to the nursing home from her own hospital bed upon discharge. Husband Harvey, a mild-mannered man, knows better than to try to stop her, and he can often be seen trailing along, a few steps behind, carrying bags of goodies. Staff members implore Annette to be careful, to take some time for herself, to rest-all to no avail. She looks half-dead but happy by visit's endů.even when Alice cusses her out.
Into another part of the facility heads Brianna. Brianna is almost three years old, and has been visiting her great-grandmother several times a week since birth. Initially carried, then pushed in the stroller by Grandma Guida, Brianna now runs like the wind. In spite of this, her journey down the hall takes almost as long as Annette's, as residents flock to kiss her, ask her age, and press a gift of candy into her hand. Eventually Brianna and Guida make their way to "Nonna's" room; Brianna will spend the next few hours accompanying her great-grandmother to Bingo or the hairdresser, all the while listening to her endless, vitriolic tirade for 'dumping her in this hell-hole'. When Guida's nerves get too frayed, she and Brianna will take a walk outdoors so Guida can grab a cigarette.
Jimmy's progress tends to be faster than that of Annette and Brianna-he's actually hard to keep up with. A wiry man with his signature ratty baseball cap, he always clutches a well-worn insulated lunchbox as he trots down the hall. We're his first stop of the day: He's here to bring his 89 year old 'baby brother' Bill some homemade soup. A notoriously finicky eater, Bill somehow manages to gain weight, due in large part to Jimmy. When Jimmy leaves he heads to a second facility to see his ex-wife and her sister. (We don't ask questions.) He'll joke and share the latest weather report as he goes about his appointed rounds, but he doesn't linger. His car is a relic, and nobody's ever seen him wear more than a thin quilted jacket even in the dead of winter. It's also rare to see him without a smile, even when wracked with the cough that plagues him each year from September through May. We're pretty sure he doesn't have a doctor, but he'll nod and assure us that he's 'taking care of himself' in response to the litany of staff advice that follows him out the door. We've all wondered what will happen to Bill when Jimmy's no longer around.
Loyalty notwithstanding, nothing lasts forever. Few of us looked forward to Ivan's visits-he was a difficult man, given to screaming obscenities at anyone who displeased him (and just about everybody did, sooner or later). His world view was overtly paranoid, and he was quick to attribute evil intent to those who took care of his wife, Magda. He yelled at her too, but still he appeared promptly at noon every day for seven years, right up until the day he died.
Magda hasn't stopped crying since. The rest of us took the loss more stoically, but even those voicing frank relief at Ivan's departure had to admit, he never missed a day.
Other folks' presentations are less colorful, but no less faithful. Day after day, rain or shine, sweltering heat or freezing cold, they appear at the door and begin the long trek down the hall. It would seem that love comes in many forms.