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Now in three more seconds, we take a right turn-yup, 1, 2, 3 trees, that means we’re at the railroad tracks. Hold on! I forgot my bach urtext today. Oh well, I have it memorized. Winging it? Pff, not a problem. Wait. I wonder what happened to that pivot table. Guess I’ll go ask Michael about it.
It’s been long enough so that I can recall every bump in the road, every turn, every stop en route to Hawthorne Senior Care Centre. I must admit, a senior care facility doesn’t exactly epitomize chaos, but then again, I didn’t have the usual experience.
I started my hunt for low-stress volunteer hours when I was in eighth grade. Stepping into a room which had the words “Volunteer opportunities at Care homes” hastily scrawled with a green sharpie onto a piece of paper which had been ripped out of a notebook(and had clearly seen better days), I waited with three other brave souls for our initiation. The teacher walked in, appraising us slowly-she clearly was not surprised at the size of the turnout. As she started giving her talk with an air of world-weariness, I felt a little relief. At least the place wasn’t far(a light ten minute jog for our car) and I could contribute what I was most comfortable with-playing the violin.
My interview was scheduled for 3:30pm on a Tuesday, and I entered the double doors with trepidation, my nose filling with the smell of antibiotics, sterilizers, the indescribable ‘old people’ smell, and my eyes filling with the sight of thirty or so wheelchair bound seniors, 4 attendants running around, trying to dispense medication for all of them, and my ears filling with the sound of groaning and random yelling originating from obvious places. For half an hour, I sat on the bench in the lobby. Then I started wandering around, wondering if I was ever going to get my interview and where I could get a cup of water, cause I was thirsty, dang flab it!
Somehow, I found myself outside a door with the nondescript label: ‘Vicki Robertson, Volunteer Coordinator’ on it and knocked. I heard a hurried voice beckoning me in, and I walked into what looked like Document Review at a law firm. Papers strewn everywhere. Post it notes posted by the stack on every square inch of the desk. The phone blinking with what was undoubtedly 14 calls on hold. Vicki eyed me uncertainly, then vocalized her concerns: maybe I was a little too young to be volunteering at a Senior Care facility. I duly promised her I was mature and responsible enough, then offered to play for her. It turned out that the piece I picked, Schubert’s “Ave Maria” was exactly the type of piece they needed during the late afternoons, when the seniors would get restless and undergo what they called “Sundowning”-a euphemism for being aggressive, emotional, and confrontational. I was slated to start on Fridays at 4pm.
As a performer, I’m used to a reasonable amount of applause at the end of each piece. But my first piece, Bach’s Prelude from Partita No.3, flew off my bow and over the heads of the residents. No applause. No muttering. No response. Being ignored hit hard, and it was like a cannon volley into my gut each time I finished a piece to a silent room. Later I learned that, in fact, no response was a good thing; usually there were at least one or two outbursts per afternoon.
After a few months, I got my first one-on-one experience with a lovely old lady called Margaret. The first few times I visited her, we talked about her children, her parents, her education, even the potted plant next on her bedside table. The more we talked, the more I realized our circles overlapped, like one big venn diagram. I played for her a few times. Then her condition deteriorated severely over the next couple weeks; she needed more medication than ever, and I doubt she cared or even knew that I came in dutifully every Friday at 4pm sharp with my violin. I remember one time when I walked into her room only to see Margaret lying motionless with her eyes open. The only signs of life came from the spit bubbles which popped away ever so often.
The next week, Margaret was dead.
I was not in tears. I did not have a meltdown. I did not go home and contemplate the meaning of life. I quietly set up in the main dining hall and performed my usual program. How else was a child supposed to deal with death?
This year, I also started on a project designed to reorganize Hawthorne’s chaotic and outdated process of using paper to record attendance. This meant that some poor soul(usually me) would have to copy all the data from the record logs onto a “master” copy of each resident’s attendance for every month. It was messy, inefficient, and ultimately unreliable-individual sheets for each day got lost all the time. I proposed my solution: I would take the time to create a user-friendly spreadsheet in Google Sheets that would allow anyone with access to the document to add attendance for each activity on a phone. After three weeks, I unveiled my masterpiece: a 200 row long spreadsheet with automatically scrolling dates and a click-to-add system that would allow easy edits of each resident’s activity. Now it is used by all members of the recreational therapy team, saving headaches, stress, and the environment.
I still have experiences that say to me, “This is life. Here I am, reality and all.” Just in the past week, I was halfway through Bach’s Chaconne when a resident I didn’t recognize came up to me in her wheelchair, didn’t stop, knocked over my music stand-sheets flying everywhere- and proceeded to insult me using variations on every bit of profanity I knew and then some. It took a few minutes before the attendants got there and scooped her away. Meanwhile, I was still playing my piece, unfazed by the scene in front of me- the truth is that one can get used to anything. This is how I find order in chaos.
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