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The Devil's Waiting Room : Tracy Kidder looks beneath the surface of retirement homes, revealing that inside those aging bodies there are hearts and souls still lusting to go around the block one more time. : OLD FRIENDS By Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 352 pp.)

September 12, 1993|Paul Hemphill

When it became painfully clear that our parents could no longer take care of themselves in the house they had occupied for more than 20 years--they were in their mid-70s, he bent with a stroke and she slowly vegetating from Alzheimer's--my sister and I arranged for them to move into a "retirement home" in our hometown of Birmingham, Ala. The words delightful and wonderful blinked from the slick brochure describing Fair Haven, where they would "progress through life's golden years" by attending services in the "lovely chapel," reading books, playing bingo, dabbling in ceramics.

My old man blew through that place like a tornado, and they're probably still telling stories about him. He had been a long-distance trucker, a King of the Road ("3 million miles without an accident chargeable to myself"), and he wasn't about to go gently into that good night. He banged through his repertoire of Hank Williams tunes on the majestic baby grand in the lobby, clicked his heels as he raced past the widows lining the corridors in their wheelchairs, mocked the do-gooders who came to console "the inmates," as he called them, and drank straight from the bottle he kept in the trunk of the car he defiantly parked out front. They ran him out within months, after he overturned a table during one of the "delightful" breakfasts, and he died at home, alone.

My mother hung on there for four more years, so ravaged by her disease that we could never be sure she knew that the love of her life had passed. In due time she was dispatched to the "health care unit," a euphemism for the junk heap: incontinent, cinched to a wheelchair, fed and drugged by nurses, her opaque eyes signifying nothing, unaware that two doors away her oldest surviving sister lay strapped to her bed like a rag doll. It was limbo for her, in the purest dictionary definition of the word ("a place of oblivion to which unwanted persons are relegated"), and for the two children and seven grandchildren who came to visit her before she finally, blessedly, died in her sleep, this "gracious way of life for those who look to the future" would become a nightmarish chamber of death.

*

That said, I find "Old Friends," a novelistic treatment of a year in the life of a retirement home, all the more remarkable in its bittersweet way. Only the colorful sales brochures promise us a rose garden when the time comes to deposit our aging in "their last place on earth"; they are, after all, the places where we dispatch our loved ones to die. But Tracy Kidder has managed to look beneath the surface of the modern "nursing" or "retirement" home and reveal that behind those doors and inside those wasted bodies there are hearts and souls still lusting to go around the block one more time, no matter how reduced the circumstances; to go out, as one of them says, "with some dignity."

Operating as he did for his best-selling "Among Schoolchildren," which found him perched in a fifth-grade classroom for an entire school term, Kidder became a constant visitor for a year at Linda Manor, a 121-bed retirement home on what once was rolling farmland just west of Northampton, Mass. Except for one brief passage, where we learn that nearly half of all Americans who make it past 65 will spend some time in a nursing home and that more than a million live in them now, Kidder eschews the facts of aging to focus, instead, on the daily lives of nearly two dozen Linda Manor residents who soon become friends of ours, like characters in a novel. "Inside Linda Manor, upstairs on Forest View, the lights in the corridor brighten," the book begins, beckoning us to come on in, have a seat, let's see what the gang is up to today.

And what a gang it is. Most are past the age of 70, there by the grace of Medicaid and Medicare, an eclectic group drawn from all walks of life. There is Eleanor, 80, a former actress who now runs the Linda Manor Players; Zita, who wanders the halls at all hours, sometimes trying to pick the flowers in the carpet; Norman, given to plunging into the woods in search of his departed wife; Fleur, a petite 92, clutching her purse at the nurse's station, saying this is a nice resort but it's time for somebody to call her mother to fetch her, time to go home now; and Ted, a railroad telegrapher during the Depression, tapping out his thoughts in Morse code on his electric recliner.

Through it all, Dora sits by the window in her room and, whatever the weather, takes a fountain pen and records the same entry in her diary every day: "Beautiful morning here. . . ."

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