One Saturday as Sandy walks around the TV room, I notice she is especially dressed up: frilly blouse and pressed slacks. A woman comes through the front door and I recognize her immediately as some kin of Sandy’s. I have not witnessed a visitor for Sandy in the five months that Mom has lived here, though I know she is often taken on day trips with her kids. This fifty-something woman has Sandy’s face, though without her many wrinkles. She’s got to be a daughter.
Daughter’s husband stands near the door, eyes on the TV, as if he got too close to these people he might catch what they have: some of them old and abandoned, some of them smelly but loved, all of them in various stages of dementia. Sandy notices him and says, “And how are you today, Sir?” He could be anybody.
He offers a flustered, “Pretty good.” He stands with his back to the front door, face toward the TV.
Carmel fusses over which blazer fits best with Sandy’s outfit. Sandy has gained so much weight recently that this blazer can’t be buttoned. Each meal she cleans her plate to the point that a person would not guess there had ever been food to dirty it. Eating is one of the few pleasures remaining for Sandy, and she does it slowly but thoroughly, enjoying each mouthful. Carmel has two more blazers in reserve draped over a dining chair. I piece together that Sandy is going to her granddaughter’s wedding.
“I just love your mom,” I say to Sandy’s daughter.
“Yep,” she says. “She’s a character.” She doesn’t look in my direction. I can understand this indifference for an infrequent visitor: get in, get out, ignore the rest.
Carmel guides Sandy’s arms into another blazer and says to me, “Well, what do you think?”
“She looks great,” I say.
As Sandy leaves with her daughter and son-in-law, I recognize the blazer Sandy is wearing—it’s the same one Stephanie wore in her obituary photo a few weeks ago, the photo that is still taped to my desk at home. Until this moment it didn’t occur to me that clothes get passed on to other residents when one dies. Initials crossed out on the tags or the toes of socks and new ones written in. Soon my mom will also be wearing another woman’s clothes. No one knows yet, which resident’s they will be.
One night my dad tells me that Delores has been at Golden Age for over four years.
“No,” I squeal. “No way. How do you know?”
“Camel told me.”
“I know,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
For weeks, thoughts of Delores wake me up each morning, a couple of times at exactly 3:19 am then just after 4 am. I’m not ready for my day to start, so I lie in bed and drift between sleep and prayers, prayers and sleep: please take Delores. . . please take her soon. For the six months I’ve known her, she has been stuck inside the same awful Groundhog’s Day scenario: When are we gonna get something to eat around here? And then when her plate of food arrives: Am I supposed to eat all of this? Many times a day she asks, begs, pleads: Is somebody coming to get me?
I tell my husband about Delores, stories that make me cry all the way home from Golden Age. He’s sweet and kind, but I know he wonders why this one woman would affect me so, given all I’ve been through with my own mother. “Delores has no one,” I say to him. “No one.” Dying alone may be a common fear, but few of us would ever imagine the horror of Delores’s situation.
After weeks waking up to variations of my morning prayer for Delores—“Please let her die. Take her home”—one morning I slip out of bed and go out on my deck. The sun isn’t up yet, so I turn on my exterior light and write on my Tibetan prayer flag “Take Delores.” The original purpose of the flag was not to write one’s personal prayers but to say prayers–typically blessings for long life, good fortune, compassion, strength, or wisdom–and hope they are answered as the flag disintegrates from exposure to the elements. Prayers were not meant to be sent to God but rather to share peace and goodwill with all.
Sometime after I received the flag as a birthday gift in July, I realized that I wanted my own prayers there, certainly not for public viewing but to make more concrete my most precious thoughts. I wrote in permanent-marker on each individual flag: “Alex find a path” (for my son), the names of Bruce’s three kids, “Healthy Bruce” (a wife’s prayer for a much older husband), “Joe See have fun” (written the week after my mom went to Golden Age), “Karen’s spark” (for my struggling best friend who thought she’d lost hers), and “Rhoades” (for a family whose son died). Each prayer was shorthand, given the small size of the individual flags strung together and that only God and I had to know what was meant. Perhaps this act was like a wish over birthday candles or upon seeing a falling star—each of us believes for the moment we say the words in our heads that eventually our hope will come true. Any believer will tell you that prayer is so much more than wishing, and these desires for the people in my life become much more concrete because they were recorded.
After a week of rain and sun, my flag words began to disappear into the colorful fabric. Anyone who looked even a careful while would struggle to see that my handwriting was nothing more than a part of each flag’s intricate design.