Jona van der Schelde

When words wither away

courtesy of Jona van der Schelde

(The story took place two years ago, names have been altered)

Today was a beautiful day. It started off right when Rina recognized me during breakfast. That’s not always obvious in this Herzliya nursing home, that I’m recognized by the same person I’ve just last week fed porridge for about half an hour while mumbling words of encouragement. Each Friday, I help with breakfast in the dementia floor of the home. Rina is an exception, though. She doesn’t have dementia but Down’s Syndrome, making her one of the sharpest, sassiest ladies in the room. It’s also comparatively easy to feed her; others tend to distrust every incoming bite and make a statement out of each time I spill some coffee, looking at me almost triumphantly as if to say ‘I knew all along you weren’t to be trusted.’ Rina, on the other hand, loves being fed her daily mishmash of cream cheese, tehina and egg, with some medicine mixed in. She’s probably dealt with this feeding situation for most of her life and therefore a lot more agreeable than the rest. She gladly lets me help her to her heaping helping of chocolate pudding for dessert and lets out all kinds of noises that indicate her enjoyment. 

After I’d helped Rina I went to say hi at the Alef-section of the floor, a room in which most of the residents can eat on their own. There was Chava, my good friend with the ruddy grey curls who adores me just because I also have curls. From the moment I started to volunteer here, she took me in as a confidant. I always stop by for a chat, she will inadvertently switch between Hebrew and Dutch a few times during our conversation without missing a beat. Usually she pulls me in close and tells me something vague in a conspiratorial tone about the evildoery of one of the nurses, connecting it to something she’s reading in that day’s Jerusalem Post that’s always in front of her. After a few phrases, she loses track of her story, but it doesn’t matter one bit, because at that point we just happily affirm once again the fact that we both have curly hair and tell each other ’til next week’. 

I also wanted to say hello to Roza but from her room I heard noises that indicated that she was causing a ruckus and didn’t want to get out of bed today. Shame, because I had developed a pretty good bond with her since I accompanied her on the recent annual trip to the beach, where she had been continuously snickering and chuckling and I had one of the most special mornings of my life as I saw how the sight of the sea invigorated the ladies and made them look young again.

Today we’d have another trip to the beach, this time with the women from sections Gimel and Dalet, who are a bit further along on the dementia spectrum. I was very excited. I am quite familiar with the ladies from Gimel, even if they might not be with me. There is, for example, Miriam, who I help with breakfast every week while she looks at me like a mean sailor with one eye closed. She doesn’t say a word and she’s not the only one in Gimel. Sometimes they seem to simply have decided that their last words have been said, but more realistically and sadly, it’s the deterioration of their brains that has caused their linguistic neural pathways to be shut down and their mouths, too, as a result.

Anna is an exception, she’s quite the chatterbox. Every minute or so, she utters her catchphrase ‘tode otte pades’ which doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew nor in Russian which must have been the mother tongue of Annushka, as the nurses lovingly call her. Sometimes ‘tode otte pades’ means she’s had enough to eat, sometimes it means she wants some sugar in her coffee. Sometimes she might be reminiscing about her childhood and other times I think she just says it to break the silence. 

Inès, giveret Spier, feels no such urge. She is by far the easiest resident in Gimel, eats her meals solo, visibly relishing every bite and then reliably falling asleep in her wheelchair with a contented smile on her face. Sara is less uncomplicated. She prefers not to eat but looks at you with her big beautiful glimmering eyes as you keep trying, bite after bite. Her eyes grow even larger and more shiny when Yvonne, my favorite nurse and the light of the whole department, sings her an old Dutch tune.

Then there is Rivka. Today I’ll accompany her, which is definitely no punishment. She has a strikingly gorgeous and gentle face that makes you certain she’s never in her life done a mean thing, never snapped at a clumsy waiter, never scoffed at the good fortune of someone else or left a poor soul standing in the cold. She reminds me of my grandmother. Yvonne and I both think she probably has spent countless hours in the kitchen preparing for countless shabbats to spoil her children and grandchildren, that she was likely the silent engine on which the whole family drove.

In actuality, all we’re doing is guessing because Rivka doesn’t talk anymore either – a rich life behind her of which we know nothing and she perhaps only a little by now, like so many of the residents. All the memories, some beautiful and some undoubtedly heartwrenchingly sad because this is the generation that lived through the Shoah. Entire lives are contained in those memories, insurmountable amounts of pain, wisdom and, surely, love. 

It’s love that I feel most here in the home, especially on a day like today. The touching patience and loving care of the nursing staff, primarily made up of children of the Holocaust generation, Ethiopians and hijab-covered Arabs. It’s the most special microcosm that I’ve gotten to observe in my life. It is comprised of mostly women. Along with me, there were 3 other men that came along on the beach trip – all sensitive types that in the end rely on the female nurses to keep the whole operation running. Among the residents there are also barely any men. At first I thought they were in a different ward but Yvonne told me that dementia unfortunately simply occurs a lot more often in women. Once powerful, expressive women, that now only or primarily communicate non-verbally. With a disarming smile, a distrustring frown or an affectionate hand. 

That’s what happened in the van on the way to the beach. The ladies’ wheelchairs were all secured well but Rivka probably had the  feeling she could flip over at any moment when we were driving on the highway. I saw how she held tight to her wheels with her little fists. The never-ending ‘tode otte pades’-refrain by Anna also didn’t increase anybody’s peace of mind in this small space. I wanted to relieve some of her stress, told her it was alright and grabbed her fist. 

It took about a minute but in the end she relaxed. Her hand came off the wheel and the remaining 40 minutes of the bus ride we sat silently, hands clasped together. From time to time she’d squeeze my hand or rub her thumb over the back of my hand. Never have I felt so much love from and for someone who has no idea who I am. 

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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