Norman spends most of his day in a yellow room down a long white hallway. His quiet face is still against a starched pillowcase. He is a very old man, born in 1899. We call him God because he is the oldest person we’ve ever met. God is the oldest person we’ve never met.
Norman has a look about him, hard to describe. I’m in his room four times a day, and I’d swear there is paradise in his eyes, though all I can really see is a faint smile that seems continual. It’s good that he smiles. Since his stroke, he cannot speak. Well, except for a single word, the word “one.” Every time I see him, he tries to speak more words, or I think he does. He mutters, “one,” and then he seems to get frustrated and I hear again, “one.” Or sometimes a variation like “one one one.”
It’s all he can say, and the word means everything.
I began kidding him some months ago. I told him that four times a day he is right about the time: at 1:11, a.m. and p.m., and at 11:11, a.m and p.m. So now, when his bedside clock reads one of those times you can hear him call out from his room, “one, one, one” for 1:11 and “one, one, one, one” for 11:11. We can all hear his voice, loud, as it fills the silent hall and all the other yellow rooms with all the other people lying in their tiny beds. It’s like the tolling of the church bells in town, a way to measure time. Four times a day, whenever I work on Norman’s wing, whenever I can be in his room at the right time, I see him laugh and I see a sparkle in his eye.
Everybody hears Norman call out, but I’m the only person who understands what he’s saying at those times. Those one’s are our little secret, our code that makes his world right, worth recognition. It is during those times that he is happiest.
Norman is my special one. I try to take my breaks in his room. I sneak him pieces of cake or pudding from the cafeteria. I feed him as though he were a baby. He opens his mouth like a little bird and hums “one” after every spoonful. Then we both giggle.
The other nurses in the home think it odd that I spend so much time with him. A lot of them think he’s no longer all there upstairs, but I know different. Because we have our secret code and because I really listen to his tone of voice and the number one’s, I can understand his language as no one else can.
Sometimes the other nurse’s aides come to me and ask, “What the heck is he saying?” I follow them into his room, and there he is yelling “One, one, one, one, one!” I can tell by his inflection that he’s saying, “Dumb ass, I want to sit up now” or “Go get my urinal. I gotta pee.”
In the early days of his stroke, they tried to teach him sign language, but he refused to learn it. So we’re stuck with the one alternative—so to speak—and we either learn his one language or remain in the dark. Sometimes he’s just blowing off steam and his “one, one, one” means nothing. But he always has that twinkle in his eye when he’s kidding.
He gives the new nurses’ aides a hard time, yelling “one, one, one, one, one” while they play charades, grabbing his water glass or a blanket and holding them up for him to see, or rolling the head of his bed up and down, all to no avail. I think he gives them a hard time just because he can. He can tell them apart from the rest of us by their unstained, perfectly ironed uniforms. By shift’s end, those uniforms are drenched with perspiration and a few unmentionable spills. Some of the new nurses’ aides never come back after the first day; some stay but only for a short time. They call it “burnout.”
Norman is a stroke away from being the man he used to be. He was a father once: Small pictures of his children watch over him from his dresser. No one comes to visit him anymore, though. Some of his children live too far to come on a weekend. And the ones who live within driving distance stopped visiting a while ago. I guess it’s too hard for them to see him the way he is now. It would be hard, since none of them took the time to learn his language.
Norman is locked inside his own head, but he’s a good listener. He listens to my chatter about my little world, the world of the farm, my gardens, the dogs, my love life. I brush his gray hair with a silver comb. He smiles like a baby and falls asleep muttering, “One, one.”
Toward the end, we called Norman God because he had been in the nursing home longer than anyone ever had.
* * *
To this day, every day at 1:11, a.m. and p.m., and at 11:11, a.m. and p.m., I still think of Norman. I bellow out his song, and I believe he can hear me. I imagine he lives on in some other world, making purpose out of the existence he now has. Where he is, Norman has his words back, and I know he has other special ones who take the time to listen to his stories. There are no limitations or impairments now, just bliss and happiness. Yes, that is how Norman exists now.
I had hoped I would be the one who was there for him in the end, and I was. I was the one to feel his spirit rise out of his body and linger, watching as I got him ready for his next journey to the funeral home and beyond. At the moment of his death, I felt Norman’s spirit rise up and pass right through me like a hot breath of fresh air.
I was the one who was there to fold up his clothes and pack them into his small suitcase along with all the pictures in their frames. I saw myself as though I were above the room. I watched myself closing those two brass suitcase latches one last time.
Does all of life come down to one small suitcase? I know Norman would have the answer to that. In the world where Norman exists now, I know he has many words more than one.
For in the end, God is One and stands alone.
[Photo by (a)rtwork on Flikr]