When we visited an old age home last week in the run-up to Christmas, we took along used clothes, and a snack for the inmates. Preparations were underway for Christmas, i.e. the crib was being made up and fronds were enlisted to give the stable the right look. In the distance an old lady was having her hair cut in the winter sun. Other ladies sat on benches looking vacantly ahead of them. A few giggled.
After waiting uncertainly to be ushered into their presence, we decided to mix among the inmates who were seated at tables at a refectory. I alternated between ‘Good morning’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ and looked hopelessly around to hold a conversation when someone said, ‘Why are you running?’ I froze. I promptly sat down at the table beside her and tried to make conversation.
Gina Lopes, for that was her name, she said, was easy enough to talk to. She asked me if the little boy was my son. When I ventured asking her how long she was in the home, she said brightly, ‘I only came for dinner.’
Since she didn’t look the part, I engaged in small talk and waited till a care-giver joined us at the table. She said Regina had been in the home for the last four years and her mind is often unhinged. How could this pleasant person sitting in front of me be insane? Of course her hair was cut a bit too short and seemed to be shorn of any lustre. I remember her greeting me with, ‘You are handsome.’ ‘You look very nice too,’ I sputtered.
I recalled a chilling short story by Columbian writer, Gabriel García Márquez. In that story María de la Luz Cervantes (27) needs to use the phone because her car breaks down and she has to inform her husband – a circus performer -- that she will not be home before seven. She gets a lift in a bus ferrying sedated mental patients to a sanatorium and is trapped within its walls, against her wishes. When she desperately tries to plead her case she repeatedly says, ‘I only came to use the phone,’ which is also the title of the story. Her husband thinks she has run off with another man and leaves her to her horrific fate even though he has discovered where she is.
Out of their circumstances, many are pushed to spend their lives in old age homes. Christmas perhaps will be just another day. Amidst the grand buffets and rollicking times, there are people for whom a square meal may be a mirage. Several times when Gina was at table she insistently inquired of the caregiver when food was going to be served. The caregiver chuckled and motioned for her to have a little more patience. It was business as usual.
This Christmas let’s share some of our dinner with the needy. Let’s try to listen to them and understand their stories.------------------------------------------------------------------------
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 21 December 2014. Pix taken by Agnello Fernandes of Nazareth Home for the Aged, Navelim, Goa.