We sit around the woman in the bed, sometimes in turns, sometimes together. We sit sideways in the standard-issue health-care-facility recliner, which is slippery and awkward. We sit in chairs swiped from the activity room next door which had been set up for church. We sit in double-parked wheelchairs and we sit on the floor. Sometimes we sit in the comfortable chairs in the hallway just outside the door, drinking the nice fruit-infused water from the water cooler down the hall. Each day a different batch of fresh fruit is placed into a container inside the water dispensing thingy, and each morning as we arrive at the skilled care facility in Scarborough, or wake up on the cot beside the woman in the bed, we discover what our steady liquid refreshment will be that day: blueberry-melon, or orange-raspberry, strawberry, cucumber. Staff RNs, CNAs, and hospice nurses come and go from the room, but over the past couple of days they have come as much to check on us as to check on our patient. They bring us sandwiches. 

The woman in the bed doesn’t need much right now.

We hold her hand, we fuss with the blanket, and we reorder things around the room. We desperately want to do something useful. We are rendered useless and idle by the reality. The only thing we can do that might possibly be useful is to just be here.

We agree that we have much to be grateful for. We are many, and have each other, and nobody demands drama. This is a very fine place. They have lobster rolls, and asparagus, and scallops on Sunday. There is a sort of a Zamboni the housekeeping staff rides up and down the halls on to clean the carpet. The staff are hands-down wonderful.

The woman in the bed — who is our mom, our grandmother, our stepmother and our mother-in-law, our friend and our cousin, all sorts of things, gave us all her many days of warmth and sincerity and a broad smile and a willingness to do whatever needed to be done. She did like the asparagus, back when she ate. Now, she eats nothing. A few sips of water now and then are all she asks for, and that is rarely. We hold the water to her mouth, and offer other things to drink, or a taste of this or that. She says no.

She sleeps. We feel a need to be busy, but there is nothing to our busy-ness. We must reconcile ourselves to not being in charge. Things will happen in their own time. There is not a danged thing we can do except be humble. We cannot order, orchestrate, engineer, or schedule. Nature takes its course. We are thankful that there is no pain, and that she knows who we are when she is awake, and that she smiles — but mostly, she sleeps. Sometimes, when there are many of us gathered, we almost begin to laugh loudly. No doubt that is perfectly fine with her.

We have in mind that somebody should be with her all the time. We burn holes in our iPhones with our eyes. We crank out knitted socks inch by inch. We do all the crosswords in the newspapers. We sit.

A medical student is here at the facility in a wheelchair. Everybody notices the friendly young man who seems rather unique in this place on account of his age. “What happened to him?” people quietly ask each other in the halls. Nothing; he is training to be a gerontologist, and will spend a week or two here in the role of a stroke victim, in a wheelchair, unable to use one arm and one leg, unable to do anything — anything — without assistance, eating pureed food and being pushed around. When he becomes a physician he will remember how a few minutes’ wait can seem an eternity.

This place offers, among its amenities, an art studio for more able residents. In that studio is a poster with a bunch of cute one-liners about art, including a recommendation to “Make friends with uncertainty.” I take that one to heart, in these peculiar days. 

Of course, the same poster also advises we “Invite dangerous people to tea.”

Our patient has always liked having classical music on in the background as she slept, so that is the routine here. The music website running on the tablet beside her bed seems to be plowing through a sort of eight-hour loop of the Top 40 Greatest Hits of Music You Have Most Certainly Heard Before. That’s just fine. The Mendelssohn comes around again, and I happen to notice the screen on the tablet, with the selection title. It is “Lieder ohne Worte,” or “Songs without words.” That about sums it up.