Christmas Eve day, my Junior year of high school, saw me at my grandmother’s nursing home for their Christmas party. She was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, didn’t know us, didn’t know me; she didn’t understand the party. She was relatively cheerful, enjoying the activity around her, music, and the colorful paper on her presents which my father opened for her. She’d been there for about six months, maybe, and we visited every Sunday. I had become numb to the horror of losing her while she was still alive. I endured it.
Near us, the people who ran the nursing home had parked a man in a wheelchair, who they said my grandmother liked. She did smile at the sight of him – she always liked tall men, and standing he would have been over six feet. His name was Thomas Atkins. Unlike my grandmother, he had no family present. I eventually learned that he’d had no children and his ex-wife was his only living relation. We had brought presents for her; he only received what local churches had donated and wrapped. We were there with her, though it meant very little to her; he had all his mental faculties, but was alone.
I watched him as these packages piled on his lap. I saw him begin to cry, and become even more embarrassed by his tears. He was frustrated with the presents because a stroke had left him only one working hand. He was dependent on a staffer to have time to help him open those presents, as I’m sure he was dependent upon them for many things. And he was so very alone. I moved over to him.
I introduced myself and told him I’d like to see what was in the packages. I held them and he ripped them. They were all sets of pajamas. He was humiliated that he was being treated like an invalid, an infant, not receiving anything personal, or even adult. So I made some jokes about it and we laughed. It meant a great deal to me to see him smile, hear him laugh, to allow him to be a real human being with thoughts and a sense of humor. It impressed upon me just how much human dignity is contained in the ability to laugh.
One of the pajama sets had come with an old fashioned sleeping cap – red and white striped with a white pom-pom on the end. It was ridiculous. He put it on and we laughed about it. My parents took a picture of us, him in the hat. When we left that afternoon, I promised I’d visit the next day on Christmas.
And I did. I took him a print of our picture in a little frame. He kept it in his room, one of the few personal things in there.
Until I went to college a year and half later, Mr. Atkins and I were friends. He called me his girlfriend to the staff, and his favorite of my senior pictures was the one with my legs showing. He was a leg man for sure. I never minded and we both knew it was a silliness – we weren’t in a romance but a real friendship.
When he had a feeding tube removed in the hospital, I took a page from To Kill a Mockingbird and went to the hospital everyday for about a week and talked to him and read to him for the hour or so before he got his pain medication. When he was out of the hospital, I would go by a couple times a month and talk to him and eventually he was able to go for rides with me in my car. I had a convertible, which he loved. We would get snow cones or ice cream cones and go for drives to the lake or sit in the parking lot overlooking the Dornic Hills golf course. I learned that he had been in the oil business when he was younger, and he used to play golf at Dornic. He had been a wealthy man once, a bit of a jet-setter. He told good stories and was a charmer of the old school. He was fun to be around.
Then I went to college. And became a very self-centered brat, really. My grandmother had died and I didn’t visit him. I heard a family had “adopted” him and I was relieved by that. It made me feel less guilty that I had deserted him. I don’t know when he died or how. I don’t know where he is buried.* This is not a heroic story; I am no role-model. My memories of Mr. Atkins do not fill me with pride at my generosity, but with remorse at my abandonment.
I did give time and small gifts to him, and I did try to be his friend, to be kind to him, to brighten his restricted life some, and he was no relation of mine. But he was something special to me, too. I lost my favorite priest, my sixth grade principal who was a great friend to me, and both grandfathers my Sophomore year of high school. I was bereft of most of the men who had meant something to me, the men I loved. I still had my father, but he spent the year my grandmother was in the nursing home visiting her every single day. That is a devastating way to live, simply devastating. He was somewhat lost to me, and to himself, as well.
Mr. Atkins was my substitute for all of them. I could dote on him and be his special girl and make him laugh. Being his friend made me feel special, gave me the kind of relationship I desperately missed.
Once I saw a man in pain and I was able to relieve that pain a little. It was at least as much because I couldn’t endure his suffering, as it was for him. It was at least as much because I live in terror of one day being the old, forgotten woman utterly dependent on the fickle kindness of strangers. I was also drawn to him because he looked like my favorite grandfather, probably the same reason my grandmother was unconsciously lit up by his presence as well.
My relationship with Thomas Atkins was as complex as any human relationship – it was not one of pity, or as one-sided as some people would see it. His presence in my life was a blessing when I needed one most. I hope he forgave me for leaving him behind. In my imperfect life, that is surely one of my biggest regrets.
* I have since learned, thanks to Ardmore librarian, Gayle Belcher, the dates and places of his birth and death, in 1995, and where he is buried. I am so grateful to her for her help.
Copyright © 2017 Emily Fitzgerald. All rights reserved.