“A Living, Pulsating Allegory”
“We should dwell less on lamenting what dementia patients are incapable of and focus more on bringing out and celebrating what they are capable of doing.”
Dr. Rick Gunderman ’83 quoted that line from a caregiver in an Atlantic Monthly piece we reprinted in WM a few years ago.
In her recent essay “Baby, Do You Pay Here?” in the Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal, Jamie Ritchie Watson shows us how simultaneously painful, funny, frightening, and sometimes even tender such “bringing out and celebrating” can be.
Jamie wrote the piece from notes she kept when she worked in a geriatric-psychiatric ward more than 35 years ago while pursuing theater in Los Angeles. The essay’s long journey from inception to publication is a fascinating read in itself. (Read “A Writer’s Drawer.”)
It’s a lively, honest, insightful, emotional roller coaster of a read. Jamie has written for WM before, and I knew she could write. But I didn’t know she could write like this! The people she worked come alive in this piece. It’s like a play on the page. Even Jamie’s dry sense of humor serves to illuminate her “characters:”
There is Betty who calls cigarettes “potatoes” and all her friends “baby.” “Hey Baby!” she says when she sees me… It’s hard to know if Betty really likes me or if she’s just an expert brown-noser…
Bill, a hefty man, is a notorious visitor to the Bingo room or for that matter to any room where patients are smoking. As Bill approaches the room, patients yell, ‘Here he comes! He enters the room at a limping gallop focused intently on the ashtrays. He snatches a hot cigarette butt and stuffs it in his mouth. Walking away, Bill pats his behind—his signature “kiss my butt” gesture after eating cigarettes—his way of flipping us off. The Bill phenomenon creates a sense of urgency and an aura of secrecy to smoking sessions.
But, as Jamie writes, “It’s not all a frightening work of art.”
Some souls are bared to reveal genuine goodness. There’s Oda who cradles her imaginary baby in a makeshift bundle, and Mary who just wants everyone to get along, and Helen who loves to listen to good stories because she can no longer read them. There is Betty who has lost all the right words but struggles to connect with a kiss on the cheek…
Jamie’s take on working with Betty, Bill, Oda, Mary, and Helen, et al, is not far from Gunderman’s entreaty to focus on “what they are capable of doing.” But she takes it a step farther, recognizing and accepting the gift they had to offer.
“Unlike their families, I didn’t know the residents before they arrived,” Jamie writes. “I accept them for who they are when they pass through the doors. I don’t mourn the loss of their previous personas. Just as I accept them, they appreciate me for what I have to offer whether it’s a cigarette, a story, or a walk to the store. Expectations are manageable and we all live in the moment.”
It’s an observation reminiscent of what philosopher Jean Vanier says take place in the L’Arche communities he helped found, places “where people with and without developmental challenges live, work and strive together.
“Those in need and those who come to help are all being healed and are all, together, becoming more human.”
So if you’re looking for a quick end-of-summer read and some people unlike any you’ve likely met, step into the world Jamie Watson remembers in “Baby, Do You Pay Here?” If you’re like me, you’ll not soon forget it.
Jamie Watson served Wabash students in many way before retiring in 2015: as director of the Bridge Program and LIFE Program, as Associate Director of Admissions, as a mentor in the many plays she performed in on the Wabash stage. Prior to her career in higher education, she acted professionally and continues to appear on the stage.
Thanks to Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal editor Mary Akers for permission to link to this essay.