We’ve arrived early to set up the cake and juice, distribute hymnals, and help our audience to their chairs. They come slowly, quietly, with shuffling steps in a parade of canes, walkers, and wheelchairs – the wounded survivors of old age. As they wend their way through the halls to the gathering room, I am impressed by their determination to grasp these scattered moments of sound and song as they soldier through yet another week of muted silence.
Today is Sunday church at Avery Place and residents come to worship, sing, and savor a slice of Diane’s coconut cake. The motley gathering is led into the room by tired employees anxious for a break in the tedium of their day. I try to remember names, but my memories are visual. Like them, I am mute, unable to remember.
Behind the piano, the gray-haired woman in a wheelchair silently cradles a baby-doll throughout the service, later juggling baby and cake on the ridges of her lap. Without words, or name or history, I create a memory of a mother or caretaker who once loved little children unwaveringly. Or perhaps she was a caregiver, a neighbor or nanny who baked cookies and nursed her charges through measles, chicken pox, and broken hearts. Or perhaps she struggled to raise her orphan grandchildren.
To my left, another resident ambles slowly but steadily to a chair where she drops gracefully into her seat. When the music starts, she proudly holds her hymnal upside down and joins the group as we sing “I’ll Fly Away, oh glory, like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away . . . “. I’ve seen her before, but each time she speaks less, her words flying away until one day all her words will have migrated to heaven.
Off to the right we have set up a place for those who come with family. One lanky man tethered to an oxygen tank, is wheeled in by his wife who acts as if this pale being is the once energetic man she has loved for a lifetime. She guards him faithfully, holding his hymnal, bringing him cake, lifting the glass to his mouth. Never impatient, she finds his words for him.
Next to me a woman turns and asks the page number of our next hymn. Without prompting, she quickly finds the page, following the words and keeping tune. Unlike the others, she is lively and articulate. I am left wondering about her story. Perhaps she is alone without family and this is her choice. Or, perhaps her family is too busy to take care of her and this is their choice.
My brother-in-law was once here and although this was not his choice, his family loved and cared for him until he lost his words and became unsafe to himself and others. Here he found a cocoon that kept him safe long after he lost his words. That is how we came to Avery Place, how we came to Sunday Service. He is gone now but his wife comes every Sunday and in between she talks to the moon and hopes he has found his words again.