Essays

Of desperate memorials

They smell of despair.

Nursing homes. They smell of despair. I do not like to visit them but all of us, at some point, be it early or be it late, will go to a place like that. Either for our own care or for that of another. And you will know it, from the moment you walk in, where you are.

There is the constant beep-beep-beep of heart rate monitors, the sharp noise of unwatched televisions and shouting adverts, the hiss-hiss of air pumps, the crinkle-swish of paper curtains, and the disembodied wailing (oh, the wailing, just this much less worse than the sighs)… Those are the noises and the markets of a place of mourning, of pre-mourning, and once you have heard them, you will never forget.

Nursing homes are antiseptic and yet befouled, not by the effluvium of humanity that must be dealt with in ways not discussed in polite company, but by a scent that cannot be traced to bile or excrement. Instead, it is of sweat and of the knowledge that this is the very last “home” in which one will live.

Most of us, if not all of us in some form, fear death. We fear the end. We are aware that it is coming, it stalks us, but few of us are held witness to it like a patient in a nursing home. They know and it is written all over their faces, too many gaunt and hopeless, and it smudges the air so forcefully that you can taste it when you breathe in; it is so palpable that it makes your fingers sticky if you rub them together.

Too many, too many know, too many dying so slowly, suffocated by centimeters, drowning by the ounce in a place that no amount of colored beads or tie-dyed t-shirts or oddly folksky traveling comedians or artwork or posters or pianos or bingo can stop the starkly plain knowledge of where they are and where they are going.

I cannot bear them, you know, I cannot, but I go because I must, but it husks me out as much as the person I visit has been husked out, their essence scooped out with a tiny, dull-edged spoon that marks more than it helps. I hear her groans; I smell her despair; I feel this misery that makes my joints, my knuckles, my bones, my kneecaps ache and ache because I cannot take her out of there. I cannot restore her to what she once was. I am as powerless as she as is everyone who walks and haunts and ghosts those institutionalized hallways.

I cannot bear the scent of pre-mourning. It is the stench of sadness mixed with desperation. It is the stench of decay – unchecked, unhidden, unstoppable.

All nursing homes smell of it. They all do.

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