|Go to Sleep Softly
Author: M. George PM
Memoir - An experience I had in a senior citizen center in Hungary.Rated: Fiction T - English - Hurt/Comfort/Spiritual - Words: 3,299 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 2 - Published: 10-11-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2960204
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
note: I wish they had a non-fiction category. Anyway, one of my experiences in Hungary.
Go to Sleep Softly
IDŐSEK HAZA, I read. Literally translated, the words meant 'house of the olds.' They were spelled in block letters over the entrance doors of the building and the last 'a' was faded enough to be nearly missing, like a punctuation point at the end of a neglected sentence. I folded our map and worked it into my overstuffed shoulder bag.
Obviously, as a missionary, your life is about service, but just in case there's a missionary who doesn't feel the weight of God's Almighty Expectation, there's a rule about it in the little white book of missionary rules, which requires three hours of service a week. It was a rule we were struggling with. Hungarians could spend hours complaining about head colds, the government and the Catholic church, but try and offer help with any of the thirty eight woes they catalog, and suddenly it's, "No, thank you—you can't." And so, a week or so ago when a thick phonebook was wadded into our tin little mailbox, almost as a joke, I had flipped to the yellow pages to look up service. Under that, I found Service, Social. The long list of orphanages, homes for the blind, deaf, the handicapped, and senior citizen centers both surprised and delighted me. It was like a service gold mine.
Finding the obscure addresses in a city where there'd been no Brigham Young to prophetically design grid systems and directional numbering, however, took more effort. The one we eventually found wasn't even the one we were trying for (an assisted living home for the deaf and blind), but it was near the villamos tracks and by this point, close enough.
The home was a decrepit structure, a product of communism and abandonment, much like its inhabitants. We walked inside and I waved cheerily to the man at the front window, who glared back. Fine, I thought, dropping my hand. We'll do it your way. I informed him of our intention and it took him a few tries to understand what I was saying. Whether my accented Hungarian was the cause, or the unlikelihood of our offer, I wasn't sure. We were passed off to a series of supervisors, none of whom knew exactly how to deal with religious volunteers.
At last we were shown a wing on the second floor and granted permission to visit between the hours of nine and eleven thirty on Fridays, if we wanted. It was a long, poorly lit hallway and tiled with mute colors from the Stalin era. The rooms, as we glanced in during our hurried tour, looked like they were from one of those run-down facilities for the mentally ill typical in Stephen King movies. With a promise to return the following week with two handsome young men in white shirts and ties, we left.
I remember the first room very clearly. I remember standing in the hall and Elder Schwieger leaning in to mutter, "I'm coming with you— Christiansen's driving me freaking crazy." The nurse doing the rounds that day directed us to that room in particular because, she said, "She loves Jesus, too."
We walked in and introduced ourselves, politely formalizing the small woman curled on her side in the bed. Likely built in the sixties, the room was undersized and a pale shade of mustard green. On her dresser the old woman had arranged a make-shift shrine to the Virgin Mary and rosary beads hung off the white- iron bed frame.
"Here are some missionaries who came to talk to you," the nurse introduced us, nodded with an absent smile, and was out the door.
"I'm Calvinist," the woman explained, not very apologetically. Actually, she talked for at least three minutes, but Hungarian is hard enough to understand without senility and mumbling, and essentially that's what she said.
Occasionally we provided a prompt to keep her going, but for the most part we nodded and were good listeners. "I have no idea what she's saying," Elder Schwieger whispered through his gracious smile. Her name was Éva, my favorite Hungarian name.
"That's a beautiful necklace," I told her, nodding toward the medallion around her neck. The chain was glittery blue beads. I wanted to think a grandchild made it, but it was probably another patron of the idősek haza who still had good enough eyesight to make use of arts and crafts time.
"I can get you one," she replied.
As she urged me to come back next week, and questioned what colors I liked, I noticed a cockroach slightly smaller than my thumb, black-brown against the yellowing white sheets. A large diaper concealed her bottom half and one vein-covered leg stuck out from the blanket. It was from under the diaper that the bug emerged—I drew in a sharp breath, my throat thickening with nausea—and then it disappeared the same way it came.
My disgust sought something to blame. The workers, obviously, were the first offenders to come to mind, but I knew what money was like in Hungary—an awful, grimy thing there was never enough of. I imagined the nurses were just more of the people I was trying to convince to have faith—underpaid, overworked and powerless against . . . what? The system? The world? To blame the cockroach on the world was to blame the guy in charge of the world, and that was a dangerous place to go.
What mattered was I knew there was a cockroach roaming where Éva slept. I could blame anyone I wanted for how it got there, but it would be on me if it bug resurfaced minutes later. Before I could think about what I was about to do, I reached down and grabbed it, threw it to the ground and squashed it under the heel of my sensible black shoe.
Éva didn't notice, continued talking. My hand shook—hundreds of invisible insect legs still scratching against my fingers.
"Dude," Elder Schwieger muttered. "That was pretty savage . . . I would have done it."
"It's fine. Whatever." The problem with boys killing bugs for you is they have to notice them first, which you can't depend on happening.
As promised, Éva had a necklace for each of us next Friday. Mine had transparent, gold beads, and a plastic medallion on the end with a sticker of the Virgin Mary on one side and Christ's crucifixion on the other. A tiny cross hung beneath Christ's feet. I wore it for a week, displayed predominantly outside my ironed collars, before my bag strap accidentally broke the string, then I kept what beads I managed to save in a plastic baggie.
Éva had a neighbor. Their rooms were separated by a small adjoining wall; it was only a step to visit the next room. "Hello," I greeted. An old man wobbled to his feet just as I entered.
"Hello," he returned and smiled. I warmed instantly at the gesture. So few smiles here.
"My name is Sister George," I introduced myself. "I'm a missionary from America. Can I talk with you for awhile?"
"Of course," he said. "I'm András." The Hungarian equivalent of Andrew. He told me his last name too, but I can't remember it.
As I was used to doing, I pulled out the framed and battered picture of my family and pointed out my siblings and mother. He smiled, called them pretty and nice.
"Do you have a family?" I asked.
He stared at me, then his face crumpled and his eyes misted. The pain in his expression was so sudden, so real—flashing openly in his features devoid of shame or pride. Staring felt intrusive, and I wanted to leave, but didn't. Someone needed to see it.
"They're all gone," he whispered, "I'm alone." And then, as if this were the first time he had remembered, his back hunched and quiet sobs shook his shoulders. His trembling hand sought the bed post, trying to find an anchor.
Stunned, I slipped my fingers under his and squeezed, guiding him gently back to the bed.
"I'm alone," he repeated.
"I'm so sorry," I whispered, wishing I had something better to say. I kept hold of his hand until finally he straightened and gazed at me with clear eyes. It was as if the memory left and would only pain him further when someone (like me) reminded him again.
In half an hour, I would leave with my companion to go home. For a few weeks, I would return weekly, but that too would stop. My eyes felt hot either because no one knew this man's lonely despair, or because someone did. Someone who always had and always would. And even though I desperately needed the miracle of God's love to be true in that moment, I don't think I was convincing myself. I think it was just true.
"Can I read to you?" I asked. "I like to read out loud to practice my Hungarian."
He nodded. I removed a book of poetry from my bag, one I had chanced upon in a bookstore. It was a bilingual edition of Attila Jozsef; one page written magyarul and the other in English. Attila Jozsef was the Edgar Allan Poe of Hungary, so not all of his work was cheering, but I chose titles like "Spring" and "Mother" (though that one turned out to be rather depressing). At length, I found a poem called "Lullaby."
It was seven stanzas long, and the last line of each stanza was the same. Aludj el szépen, kis Balázs. It meant: go to sleep softly, little Balázs (a Hungarian name rougly the equivalent of Blaise). The poem was written by Jozsef for the young son of a composer friend.
Concentrating on my pronunciation, I read the first stanza.
The sky is letting its blue eyes close;
The house its many eyes closes, too.
The quilted meadow lies in a doze:
Go to sleep softly, little Balázs
As I read the last line, András' voice blended with mine. I stopped and looked at him. He said the words again. "Aludj el szépen, kis Balázs."
I imagined a mother in the late 1930's reading the words of a well known poet to her little boy, who would remember them so many years later. I continued to read. At the end of every stanza he recited the last line with me. Go to sleep softly.
"How do I sound?" I inquired when we finished.
"You aren't understandable at all," he replied. "But you have a very lovely girl's voice."
I can't remember the name of the only person I understood completely. He seemed younger, somewhat, than the others, and lucid. He used an old wheelchair which he controlled with a remote that didn't work properly all the time.
He had two roommates, one with a skin disease covering swollen legs and the other with no legs, and only one stump for a left arm. The blinds had been torn down, so the room was refreshingly brighter than the others. After the usual introductions, he asked whether or not I was a hajadon.
"A what?" I asked. I racked my brain and a thousand memorized note cards, but could not recall ever hearing that word. (I looked it up later and learned it was a maiden out of wedlock, single woman, spinster or virgin).
"Do you have a boyfriend?" he tried again.
"Not right now," I replied with a wry smile.
"You should go out and taste the Hungarian men," he said. "They're an exquisite flavor."
"I'll think about it," I promised, then pulled out my picture in an effort to change the subject to safer topics. "This is my family."
"Your mom is very beautiful," he remarked.
"She's married," I informed him, replacing the picture. He was friendly, but lacked András's odd but sweet charm. He seemed . . . a bit greasy on the edges.
"Would you open that drawer?" he asked, gesturing to the nightstand by his bed. "I have pictures, too, in there."
I opened the drawer and found a cracked leather picture case, which I carefully removed. "Is this it?" I asked, undoing the small clasp. Roughly eight tiny bugs burst from the exposed pages onto my hand. I gasped and shook out my fingers. Most of them fell off.
"Were there bugs in it?" he asked casually, as if it amused him.
"Yeah, just . . . a few." I shuddered, handed him his pictures. It was evidence to myself how much I'd changed that I could repeatedly have bugs in my hands and continue a conversation as if they'd been nothing more than lint.
He extended the first wallet-sized photograph to me. "This is my first girlfriend, when I was seventeen."
She was very pretty, looking over her shoulder in black and white. He detailed for me her finer features, then showed me the next picture—his next girlfriend. Each picture depicted a different beautiful girl, or as he showed me more, beautiful women. Seven girlfriends and two wives. One daughter. The affection he still felt for each one endeared me to him, greasiness and all.
"And this one. Who do you think this is?" He freed the last photo from scratched plastic. It was his first love, probably his only true love. A handsome, light-haired young man had smiled once, confidently and playfully, at the photographer.
"Is it you?" I guessed, smiling, unable to help myself.
"There I am."
Glancing between the two, I marveled at what fifty plus years had done. I could find no semblance of the debonair boy in the withered man in front of me. He stared at the picture in my hands with longing and envy.
"Twenty one. The girls, they loved me, they would say to me, 'Come here, beautiful boy—dance with us, kiss us.' They chased me. And I loved them, too. I've always loved pretty women."
Even now, the memory alone kept him company, though none of the pretty women were with him.
I thanked him for showing me the pictures, but declined a lunch date, saying my companion and I had a teaching appointment (for the most part true). As I stood to leave, his roommate, lying prostrate in his bed, mumbled something at me in a raspy voice.
Using the polite term reserved for teachers and betters, I asked him to repeat himself. As well as he could he got upright and released an angry stream of Hungarian that, due to his cracked voice and the speed of his diatribe, I didn't understand at all.
Seeing my blank face, he paused, then spoke slowly, though still in the harsh rasp, "God isn't real."
The room chilled. "God loves you," I replied, though uncertainty halted my voice. It was the second phrase I learned after "I know the gospel is true." Our eyes held for a minute. His were clouded, both literally and figuratively, with life—and I knew what mine looked like. Wide-eyed, innocent and blinking.
But I was right. Wasn't I?
Despite the logic, despite my own doubts, God did love him. What kind of world was this if He didn't?
But how, I couldn't help praying, do you keep track of us all? I—with family who loved me, my faith and American rights—theoretically had less of a need for God's attention, but I wanted it more. So who got it?
The man growled then sunk into the bed, closing his eyes and turning his head away.
"God loves you," I repeated, this time with conviction, then left.
On my way to leave, I heard the cries of pain. At the end of the hall, in the corner room, I searched for the source of the sound, hoping I wouldn't find it.
Ratty drapes were drawn over the single window, casting the room in eerie shadow. Two beds lined opposite walls. In one, a diminished form lied motionless, I hoped sleeping. In the other, a man hovered, his mouth open in wordless struggle, halfway to sitting up. Our eyes met briefly and then he collapsed onto the bed, moaning and crying. Again, he tried, pushing against the restraints of his broken body. I rushed to his side and grabbed the wrist of his groping hand, cradling him as best I could between my neck and shoulder, helping him the rest of the way.
The eyes, only the eyes, of the patient in the other bed shifted to watch me.
At least he's alive, I thought, fighting not to drop the dead weight of the body in my arms. He wasn't light and he smelled bad. He breathed heavily, but it was the fading pant of relief. His age-spotted temples glistened with sweat. I was breaking two missionary rules, first by going into the room alone, and second by being in such close physical contact with a member of the opposite gender. Oh well. I had increasing evidence to suspect I wasn't getting an easy pass into heaven anyway.
"Would you like me to help you turn over?" I asked. He turned his head and said nothing for several moments. Then he nodded. I shifted him to his side and eased him back onto his pillow.
He mumbled a few unintelligible sounds, seemingly content, then his face contorted and he groaned in agony.
As fast as I could get him upright again was how long it took for his cries to subside.
Elder Schwieger came in the room. "What's wrong with him?" he asked, after absorbing the scene.
I shook my head. "I don't know. I think it hurts when he's lying down a certain way, but I'm not sure what to do."
Elder Schwieger took over my spot and tried to help, with the same results.
Likely drawn by the man's cries, a male nurse strode into the room. "What's going on?" he asked, sounding both bored and annoyed. "Lajos, I'm tired of this—stop it. Enough!" His voice rose almost to a shout.
Elder Schwieger and I stepped back. I flinched as the nurse yanked the man into a position on his back and he gave a muted yelp. "Sit still and be quiet," the nurse ordered.
Him too, I thought, closing my eyes. God even loves him. I looked at my wrist watch. Almost eleven thirty.
I turned to find the other patient still staring at me. He looked how a skeleton would look as a person. "How are you?" I asked softly.
He didn't answer, but his mouth split into a toothless smile. A tiny wind of breath escaped, but no sound. I smiled back, or at least attempted to.
We exited the building, squinting against the harsh light of the winter sun. Three ambulances were parked haphazardly in the front parking lot. Five men lounged in the middle one's open back, smoking cigarettes, waiting for death. We left in silence, waiting one block over on the sidewalk for the tram car to come. As my companion and the other elder chattered on about the sweet lady they had sang to, I only felt glad it wasn't my job to remember everyone. It was too awful to consider one or any person as forgotten, and so, I believed.