The moment I step off the elevator, Georgia takes my hand and looks into my eyes, “It’s so good to see you,” as if she’s known me a long time. Her hands are soft, her eyes kind but worried. She’s lost her coat, she says, and her daughter has taken her gloves. Can I help her get them back? Some days are better than others for Georgia, and every day something different has been taken or lost.
Some of the residents walk while others are wheeled into the activity room by attendants. It’s Friday and the start of afternoon book club at this Alzheimer’s facility in Portland. The residents have been reading Bob Hope’s Don’t Shoot: It’s Only Me. But today we’ll dive into some nature poetry. My friend Leia has been volunteering two hours a week every Friday afternoon, and she’s invited me to join the group.
We start by reading Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” I read the first line, and Leia coaxes me to raise my voice. “Honey, they can’t hear you.” Some of the residents have poor hearing. As a college professor, I have to speak loudly, often repeating assignment details and due dates. Although my students aren’t clinically deaf, their minds are in the digital world during class, their fingers navigating the tiny key pads of cell phones deep in their coat pockets, even while their eyes stare fixedly at me. Over the course of several weeks I grow accustomed to the volume of my voice, but spring semester ended two weeks ago, and I’ve gone into hibernation for the summer—writing and working with horses, animals who communicate by touch not voice, so I have not heard much of myself lately. I start again, feeling as though I’m shouting, and half expect the residents to wince or the walls to shake, but Patricia and Georgia only smile as if now we’re getting on with it and they can appreciate Oliver’s music.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees.
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
When I pass the book to Chuck, he wants to know if Oliver writes about husbands. I don’t know, I say, and show him where to begin. He can’t see well, and the words seem to jump around on the page. Poetry never seemed quite so alive, but Chuck gets frustrated. Phyllis passes him her magnifying glass, a whopping hand-held device with a light, and the words settle down in the order Oliver put them.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Chuck reads better with the magnifying glass, but he still struggles, repeating the same line and with some difficulty. But no one minds. A good line is worth repeating.
Phyllis takes the magnifying glass and tries to read to read the next line, but the punctuation discourages her. “This doesn’t make any sense,” she says, and passes the book to Patricia. When Patricia reads about the sun and clear pebbles of rain, there is an awe around the table I would give up a year’s salary to see in my college students.
The next poem is about a white owl, and Leia says, “I’ve never seen a white owl.” Patricia and Phyllis shake their heads. They haven’t either. But Ellen has, and she’s reading the poem. Ellen, an African-American woman, sits at the head of the table and commands our attention. She is usually quiet, sitting with head down, hands folded in her lap. But Mary Oliver is talking to Ellen, and Ellen is awake.
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddha with wings…
Patricia, with her sharp nose, papery cheeks, and wide blue eyes gazes around the table. “That would really scare me,” she says, her veiny hands gripping the edge of the table.
Ellen glances up from the page, her eyes cloudy. She looks at no one in particular and says, “Owl is checkin it out. He’s doing research.” Her words are round, well fed, and she punctuates her thoughts with a cluck of her tongue. “Animals are there in the forest. But they know how to hide.” Ellen is talking back to Mary Oliver.
it was beautiful
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—
“Animals leave their print on the land,” Ellen says, pointing a finger in the air. “It’s nice to think on these fineries.” Everyone nods except Chuck who has fallen asleep.
After poems about swans and hummingbirds, we introduce a little aromatherapy. We’ve dabbed cotton balls with essential oils of cedarwood, lavender and lemon, tangerine, clary sage, and glued them to index cards. We pass them around the table, asking the residents what thoughts they associate with each scent. When Patricia smells tangerine, she swings her arms as if waltzing. Her sweater with its pink macramé roses lifts and falls with each swoop. She recalls her years as a dancer, singing Tangerine, a song written in 1941 and popularized by Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra.
Tangerine, she is all they claim
With her eyes of night and lips as bright as flame
Tangerine, when she dances by, senoritas stare and caballeros sigh
And I’ve seen toasts to Tangerine
Raised in every bar across the Argentine
We spend the second hour in the downstairs courtyard planting two raised beds built waist high so the residents don’t have to bend over. When Georgia reaches the door she stops and looks up. “The sky—it’s so blue.” I’ve heard Alzheimer’s referred to as a second childhood with all its wonder and discovery. I know there is also a dark side, but I see only vague hints of it today. As we rake the soil with hand claws and dig small holes for Better Boy tomatoes and Parador zucchinis, Georgia repeats that her daughter has taken her gloves and her coat is missing. I tell her not to worry, we’ll find the coat and retrieve her gloves, and isn’t it nice to feel the dirt with our bare hands? A small suggestion returns her mind to this moment. If only my own mind were so easily soothed.
We turn over the soil and find walnut shells and whole peanuts left there by squirrels. We pick out popcorn-sized chunks of Styrofoam fallen into the beds from the building’s eves, where starlings have pecked out the insulation. Phyllis uses her walker to reach the second bed, where she digs a small hole with the hand shovel for another zucchini plant. There’s a little bruising visible on the back of one hand, the veins so near the skin’s surface. We put in a total of twelve plants, a mix of vegetables and herbs, and sprinkle wildflower seeds into hanging pots around the perimeter of the courtyard. No one is left out of this activity. Sallie, with her permanent gape and wild white hair, is wheelchair-bound and unable to see inside the beds, but she appreciates a whiff of good soil. I scoop some into my hand and hold it under her nose, the hairs on her chin catching a ball of perlite. “Good,” she says. The courtyard is filled with the perfume of purple and white lilacs, the trunks of each tree leaning on the thin wooden fence separating this courtyard from the bustle of shoppers and skate punks on the other side.
When I leave at the end of the day, Georgia hugs me and tells me to come back again. I’m smiling as Leia and I walk toward the car in the sunshine. I can’t help myself.
Poems cited in this entry: “Wild Geese” and “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field” from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.