For the past five years or so, I’ve been volunteering at a senior’s home. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since much of my book, Natural Order, takes place in an old age home. Originally, I wanted to start a literacy programme and sign library books out for residents based on their interests. But that never panned out, because the vast majority of seniors I was assigned to didn’t want to read; they wanted to talk.
In my experience, people’s lips get looser the older they get — provided there’s an attentive audience. I heard stories about alcoholic husbands. Unplanned pregnancies. British war brides who refused to disembark the ship when they landed in Canada. Ungrateful daughter-in-laws. The plight of AIDS orphans in Africa. Hobo uncles who rode railcars. Children who disappointed parents in life or in death.
I heard about the politics between staff and management. The frustrations of a failing body in spite of a mind that continues to thrive. The arguments over who exactly was responsible for the Christmas craft sale. I listened to what it feels like to have all former traces of life-as-you-know-it stripped away. Most of this made its way into my book in one form or another.
After my two-hour Sunday morning shifts, I’d leave. Sometimes, I couldn’t get away fast enough. I had groceries to buy. Errands to run. Work to do. I greedily grabbed what was left of my day.
It’s impossible to be in an environment like a rest home and not project yourself into the future: diapered, alone, dependent, angry at the injustices heaped upon you.
And yet, although volunteering at the home could be draining, there was always one thing I walked away with − an appreciation of my little liberties. Driving my car. Going to the mall. Riding my bike. Making what I wanted for lunch. People my age take these sorts of things for granted.
And I also came away with something else − the realization that there are so many stories in search of an audience. I’ll never get to hear even a fraction.
All but one of the seniors I used to visit have died. And while I was expecting their deaths, it was always a shock to walk into a room and see that empty bed. It felt like losing when I almost believed there was a slight chance of winning.
I was approached by staff about being assigned to more residents. There were others wanting stimulation. Company. The chance to talk. But I declined. I wanted to reclaim the freedom of an unplanned Sunday morning; to take advantage of all the opportunities that were open to me. I understood their finiteness in a way I hadn’t before.
This piece orignally appeared in the National Post's Afterword section.