Regular readers of this blog – I am working on my memoir again so I haven’t blogged in a while. This is something that I am working on, and as with most of my memoir related stories I might delete this in a few days as it is a work in progress. This hasn’t been edited by anyone, so I apologize for any typos or obvious mistakes. 🙂
I never thought when I went to clown school that I would end up being asked to entertain residents in a nursing home. But then, what kind of jobs did I expect to get after clown school? I can’t turn it down; a paid gig is a paid gig.
I used to hate nursing homes. My mother would drag her four children to visit every dying relative in our family, no matter how distantly related. For young children, nursing homes are incredibly frightening places full of, strange smells, scary sounds, and really wretched-looking people. The idea of performing in one terrifies me. But every performer loves a good audience, and there is not a more grateful audience than forgotten seniors with advanced dementia. I take the job, which ends up being the longest job I have ever had in my life. For over six years I would go to a nursing home in Westchester twice a month, then once a month. In that time I met many residents, but the closest to my heart was a woman named Rose.
I knock on Rose’s open door and watch her perk up from one of her many naps. She loudly exclaims in her scratchy high-pitched Bronx accent.
“Oh it’s the clown! Come on in!”
Propped up in an enormous vinyl chair, the kind you only see in hospitals with its huge padded back and large tray for magazines, she sits beaming at my arrival. She has a full head of snow-white hair chopped in a sloppy bob, and cats eyed glasses rimmed with rhinestones that were the height of fashion in the 1950’s. Her upper spine is deeply bent forward so that it seems she has no neck. Her entire body shakes as she speaks excitedly.
“Aren’t you going to sing me a song?”
To which I reply
“Father had a business, strictly second-hand everything from toothpicks to a baby grand…Second Hand Rose, I am wearing Second Hand clothes…”
Before I am halfway through the song she is clapping wildly with a huge grin across her face. This is Rose’s usual way of editing my performance so she can tell me the stories she has told me dozens of times.
“Can’t complain, can’t complain, can’t complain…you know I am 88 years old, which is not that bad. I am eight years above the national average. I should be dead. Everyone I know is dead. My mother is dead, my father is dead and my sister is dead. I could go any minute in fact…I could go right now.”
Then Rose performs a mini-fake death that is not even remotely convincing.
“Ha! Tricked ya! I am still alive! Can’t complain, can’t complain, can’t complain”
Like many nursing home residents, Rose has a way of saying the most morbid things bluntly yet with excitement. I guess when you are living at the last stop before the inevitable end; you can’t really kid yourself anymore. She goes on.
“I used to work in one of the largest Vaudeville theaters in New York. I was an usher and wore a very smart little outfit. I was not pretty like my sister she had Honey Blonde hair. Hair the actual color of honey! I had mouse brown hair, and mouse brown hair is only good on a mouse and even then it isn’t that grand. But I had a cute figure! I was a petite gal for the taller men. Not that I ran around. Anyway our managers watched us like a hawk. We had a job to do. Take a little bit of candy, flirt with a boy, chat with a friend and we were out of there. I kept my uniform pressed and my head down. I saw the greats I tell you! The greats! And you could be a headliner with that voice and that face! You could be a star in Vaudeville!“
My visits with Rose always go like this. After several months of my bi-monthly visits, her usual stories change. Instead of talking about her past she boldly tells me of big plans for her future.
“My sister and I are going to visit Jamaica…the islands…but because I am so sick…we aren’t sure I am going…you know how it goes….can’t complain…can’t complain…we have to catch a flight from Rye New York…I have to pack my things because I don’t want to upset my sister…the sea, the sand the dancing…maybe we will meet an important businessman who will want to marry one of us. But if we do he will want to marry her…she is the pretty one…she has honey blonde hair…hair the actual color of honey!”
She abruptly ends her story with a pronounced and violent coughing fit. Before I enter her room, one of the nurses let me know that Rose was battling pneumonia. At this point she is 90 years old, and her body simply can’t fight off the infection. I have been mentally preparing myself for this for months. Every other resident that I have gotten close to, simply left for the hospital and I never returned. Rose is the first that I have to watch fall apart before my eyes.
On my next visit to Port Chester when I go to Rose’s room the name placard on her door is empty, and her bed stripped bare. George, a Peruvian orderly that I know well walks in behind me and confirms the bad news.
“She died in the hospital. But the nurses said she had a calm death. She didn’t have any family left, but you know how she was…everyone loved her. So when it looked like she was close the nurses and staff gathered around her bed so she wouldn’t be alone. She was a nice lady.”
Standing there with my accordion strapped to my chest I start to cry. Tears roll down over my heavily powdered makeup and fell off my chin. One of the first things they teach you in clown school is how to properly powder your makeup. A properly made up face will not smudge through spit takes, a bucket of water, or tears shed on the news of the death of a friend. I realize how much I loved that woman. Her resilient optimism in the face of her own mortality, the loss of her family and her failing health gave me an unexpected light. I wipe away my tears and pull myself together. I have two hours to fill in the rest of my shift and the third floor is full of residents who want to see the singing clown. I have a job to do, and Rose wouldn’t want me to let anyone down.