My day began with the usual bedlam and rush, galloping against the clock while bustling the kids out the door in a cloud of slapped together sandwiches, half tied school ties and a permission slip signed mid dash.
Finally at work, my day as activities officer in the dementia unit started with collecting Maria from her room and taking her to breakfast; a task deemed too time consuming for the nurses who had to shower and dress a seemingly endless procession of naked bodies in an absurdly short amount of time and then point the dazed residents in the direction of the dining room with a hurried,
“That's it Elsbeth, keep going, you’re nearly there.” Or, “No Dot, that's the office, go left. No LEFT!”
Maria needed an inordinate amount of coaxing, pleading, distracting and hugging to get her even halfway to breakfast.
I found her sitting on the end of her bed, clean and dressed, lost in anxious thought, wringing her hands together nervously.
“Buenos dias Maria,” I said cheerily in my best Spanish. “Como has dormido?” I questioned, knowing too well that I wouldn't receive a greeting in return or any information about her previous night's sleep.
I held out my hand to her in a friendly gesture and instantly she took hold of it and began wringing it as if her two hands weren't nearly enough to wring and she needed a third. With a searching, pleading look in her eyes she focused on mine. I offered my other hand which she grasped and wrung as well. I gently pulled Maria towards me in the hope that she'd stand up but she wasn’t ready. We stayed like this for five minutes; me giving gentle intermittent tugs, like a fisherman checking if he had a bite, until finally she stood. I smiled at her but was met with her customary tormented expression.
I moved her walking frame into position. Maria took hold of it and headed slowly towards the door. We passed a collection of old video tapes that sat quietly on her shelf, holding the evidence of the thirty glorious years that Maria had delighted theatre and opera goers of Spain. So began another day of jumbled thoughts and flickering memories of a life lived oceans away.
We arrived at the dining room to find it very busy as usual with all hands on deck. We even had a few relatives visiting for the day sharing the load. Maria refused a chair and, as was her bent, began to slowly weave in and out of the dining tables, occasionally opening her mouth at just the right moment for a watchful nurse to pop in a spoonful of cold cereal as she shuffled by.
In the meantime I positioned myself in front of the tables with my guitar and readied myself to sing. I did this at the request of my manager, who'd noticed it seemed to bring a degree of calm to the normally chaotic mealtimes.
Flipping through my folder of songs I caught sight of Louis Armstrong's ‘What a Wonderful World’; always a good one to start with. So after clearing out an array of morning frogs and strumming a short introduction, I launched into it.
“I see trees of green, red roses too....,” I sang to the best of my ability. By this time Edna and Joe had finished eating and started a little, gentle, almost rhythmical, thigh slapping while Alice tapped her slippered foot and Stewart and Bonny smiled and rocked in time to the music. Most of the other residents were still eating or being fed which provided a small cacophony of varied and interesting sounds that made for a colourful accompaniment.
Colin and Ben took advantage of the moment their assigned nurse was busy wrestling Gloria's teeth back into her mouth, after fishing them out of her porridge, and snuck quietly out the door while Maria continued her slow but steady circuit in and out of the tables.
Next I sang ‘Blue Moon’; a clear favourite amongst the residents. To my surprise, when I finished the song, I noticed Maria had stopped and was standing next to me. I glanced at her and smiled.
Her face held a look of trepidation. She stayed put, looking out over the dining room. A nurse moved toward her, deciding it was high time she was escorted back to her room since no spoon had graced her lips for some time.
However, before the well-meaning nurse was able to do this, Maria took in a short, sharp breath of air, parted her lips slightly and allowed a tiny note to escape. It was a scratchy, wobbly note, but a note nonetheless. She coughed, cleared her throat and began to sing, albeit haltingly. Instantly recognisable, it was 'Habanera' from Bizet’s opera 'Carmen'.
The clatter and chatter, the confusion and slurps, the burps and coughs, slowly lessened as a hush began to spread through the dining room and jaws dropped as person after person realised what they were witnessing.
Suddenly emboldened by the increasingly captivated audience, Maria's voice spilled out and down the hallways reaching even the ears of the bedridden.
As if transported to another time and place Maria's animated features were vibrant with excitement. Her right hand, finding courage, let go of the walking frame, and like a captive bird released from its cage, took to the air, gesticulating freely, helping tell the story of the aria.
After the final note was sung a moment of silence followed, broken almost instantly by spontaneous applause. Maria looked quite stunned as the clapping and cheering continued. But as it slowly died down she became agitated. I gave her a reassuring hug and led her out and back to her room leaving the dining room occupants to carry on with the tail end of breakfast.
I helped Maria onto her bed. Exhausted, she lay down, closed her eyes and immediately drifted off to sleep.
Not quite ready to resume my duties I sat quietly on the chair next to Maria's bed with faint strains of Habanera still playing through my mind.