Staying with my mum in a senior-living residence – not assisted living, thankfully not that as yet – can be terribly depressing. It’s easy to lose sight of the point of it all when you see not just where but how many of us end our days: bent, misshapen, fumbling, confused, attached to an oxygen tank or a walker or, if you’re lucky, a compassionate arm. Mealtimes are worst, for it’s obvious that for many of the residents, the dining hall – and it’s an airy and pleasant room – provides the high point of their daily routine. Most people dress well for meals, and I can see the dismay that my usual attire of T-shirt and jeans incurs, perhaps interpreted as a lack of decorum; perhaps a lack of respect. What do these people do all day, I ask myself, and then am ashamed of even asking the question. But I cannot imagine what it’s like to be inside their heads. I try, but I cannot.
So I feel something like pity, maudlin pity, and am ashamed of that as well. And of the small flicker of fear, a cold ember still, that hides behind my breastbone: will I too end like this?
If I were an artist, perhaps I’d be better able to picture the bones beneath the sagging flesh, imagine the child and teenager and young parent and career woman whom each of these people carry within themselves, layer upon layer of lived life. It almost seems as though it’s the weight of all those memories that bows them, in the end.
Then this morning at breakfast my mum yearns to watch Dirty Dancing, her favourite film, though she would hardly be able to see or hear it. I ask her why she likes it so much. ‘Because it reminds me of myself,’ she answers. ‘I used to go dancing all the time, you know.’ And for a brief instant I have a flash, not just of a young, vibrant woman in the swing and flare of a shoulder-padded 1930s dress dancing through the night, but of the imaginative power of the woman she is now: inside her head, she’s dancing and will be dancing still into her long goodnight.