Mrs. Brown’s Last Room

Age restriction 16+ Of late I have been thinking of the connection between past and present, winter and summer, life and death. Some might consider the latter to be morbid subject, but I do not.


I remember reading a very insightful book years ago which was called "Time's Arrow and Time's Circle." It made what I thought was a very astute point: that the apparent tragedy of our human lives emanates from the fact that while everything else around us --- the seasons of the year, for example, -- go in circles, effortlessly repeating themselves, so that life feeds death and death feeds life, so to speak -- we humans proceed in a straight line from the cradle to the grave. It is with increasing pain, therefore, that as we age we must deal with the fact that while every spring is just as fresh and robust as the previous one and the one before that, we merely add years to our ledger, getting a little older and all which this entails, most of it bad.


April for the old man, thus, is not the same as for the young man. The old man poignantly remembers what the young man voraciously seeks. And so the old fellow is left with two options: he can mourn his own loss of vitality and opportunity, or he can boldly ride the wheel of the cycle of which he is an intrinsic part, shouting and celebrating, and, in effect, drinking a toast to his own death. It takes, we may argue, one hell of a man to actually do this, but one supposes it is possible.


So he will understand that he dreamed his dreams and had the chance to be happy, and now the time is near for him to feed the earth again with his flesh and bones. What is so awful about that? Do the autumnal birds complain? Do the trees cry out as they shed their leaves? Do the leaves themselves twist in anguish along the wind-blown and chilly earth?
Not at all. They cheerfully dissolve in order to feed the seeds of the new life that is over the horizon. But the homo sapien, the old man, because of his tormented soul, has trouble with this even as he may grasp its ultimate justice. He is an arrow flying through a circle, and he will find it hard to resolve this dilemma, no matter how many drunken toasts he drinks.
I remember the year 1975 when my first wife was in the maternity ward of a hospital in Bath, England, about to give birth to our new baby, who would soon become Danielle. One evening when I went to visit my young wife, I took a wrong turn along the labyrinthine hospital corridors and ended up in a wing which contained only extremely old women. Frankly, it was ghoulish, maybe because of the shock element -- I had entered the ward expecting to see a gurgling row of newborns and instead I was confronted with a throng of witchy white-haired old ravers who all seemed to be completely out of their minds! Had I stumbled into a time machine, and here was my baby 100 years later?


Obviously not. In fact, years later, back in America, I worked in many nursing homes while I was in graduate school. They always needed help and I could do weekends -- 16-hour shifts. Consider that, as an athlete and lover of women, I had always sought perfection in the human form. But in the nursing home, I saw the other end of the spectrum (I have written about this before). I saw human ruin and decay.
One gets used to it, just as I got used to burning bodies in the London crematorium I worked at for a while. Gradually, the idea sinks in -- as it did to Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy's famous story -- that you are not immortal. We all pass over the same mountain, we all wander through the same villages, we all tread upon the same burning highway, towards the sunset. Assuming we even live long enough to get to that point.


The young adrenalin freaks that I used to see in Moscow zipping along at 200 km per hour on their motorbikes do not understand this. Neither do the increasing number young people who commit suicide these days. The kid whose girl dumps him, says to himself, "I'll teach HER a lesson. I'll just kill myself, damn it. THEN she'll be sorry, won't she? And when I come back to life next week,...!" What about next week? She will find someone else next week, and that's all. Why? Because you are DEAD, and you will never come back to life. Think about that, young adrenalin freaks. You won't be coming back if you make that one big mistake --- or if someone else makes a mistake as you glide among them -- not ever.


Better to try for the whole cycle, living and enjoying each season while yet you are quick with life. Please accept the passing miracle, and try to be humble within it. We are but arrows flying through a circle after all.. But to sense what must be the wisdom of that circle, and to embrace it even as we go -- surely that is the best way.
I remember in one of those nursing homes when I was doing the night shift, and I had to go clean up an ancient lady named Mrs. Jones. She was just one of many on my rounds. She was completely out of it, was old Mrs. Jones, but her family insisted that we leave the radio on all night. The problem was that the station they kept it turned to was nutty as hell; it just played island music, loudly and on and on, like a bunch of Jamaicans having a good time at the beach. And on the desk beside her bed there was a black and white photo of Mrs. Jones as a young woman, emerging from the bubbling surf of some seaside day long, long ago.


So I wrote the following poem about her, and now I share it with you.

Mrs. Brown's Last Room

Calypso music startles us
who enter Mrs. Brown's last room
at midnight, making rounds.
We dab at her,
we in raiments of white.
The radio insists on limbo acrobats
and melon breezes, sharp --
the family said to let it sing --
this weary doll who wets
her cot seems far
from that cajoling spray.

During the sponge bath and diaper change
I turn my head to block
the stench and find
a photo on the nightstand there,
the one for whom the music
really plays: young and lithe,
she bursts almost
from the metal frame amid
a swirl of white-capped waves
and churning surf;
her vivid smile
assuring us that she
will never alter --
here among this rank decubitus --
nor wither into Mrs. Brown,
and so
she comes, abundant,
so its seems, and striding
from the waving sea.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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