He is so very old. At first I think there must be a mistake; but with recognition comes acceptance.
The frail figure in the hospital bed is unmoving, so still I wonder if he even lives. But then a nearby monitor beeps, and I hear a gentle snore. Wispy gray tufts float off the top of his head; more responsible hairs cling stubbornly around the temples and ears. A thin mustache mourns its lost glory, and stubble encroaches his cheeks and neck—not fashionable stubble, only the unstoppable weediness of one who has given up shaving. Skin the color of tea, lighter than mine, mottled by liver spots.
There’s an empty chair beside the bed. Although I try to be quiet, he must be a light sleeper. Eyelids fluttering, he searches the small room until discovering me.
A cough, and the rasp of a voice that isn’t used much. —Who are you?
The real answer would be ludicrous, so I tell the truth instead. —My name’s Darshana. You can call me Dar.
I nod, but he isn’t looking at me. Thankful for a moment to collect my thoughts, I wait for the pale hazel eyes to circumnavigate the chamber. Facing me once again, he squints and frowns.
—Who did you say you are?
—Darshana. Dar. What should I call you?
—I don’t know. His head slumps back on the pillow as he mutters. —I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Dar?
The monitor is labeled, so it’s not much of a guess. —And you’re Ashoka?
More muttering, almost as if he’s trying the name on for size. —Ashoka. Yes. Me.
His eyes are on the move again. He wheezes a bit and clears his throat. —I’m thirsty.
—I’ll get you something. I’ll be right back.
An empty coffee cup, apparently clean, sits on the nightstand across the bed. I collect it and venture out in search of drink. Although a water fountain graces the hallway not 10 feet from Ashoka’s door, he is asleep again by the time I return.
I use the time to consider the surroundings. Bed and monitor notwithstanding, this clearly isn’t a hospital. It’s too small, and less sterile. At the same time, it lacks the personality of a real home. The prints on the wall are uninspired watercolors of boats. The nightstand and dresser don’t match and are bare of photographs or knick-knacks.
After a time he wakes, and I repeat our introductions. The water is no longer cold, but he gulps it greedily when I hand him the cup.
—Ah. I get so thirsty. You thirsty?
—I’m fine, thanks. Let me know if you need anything else.
His forehead wrinkles. —I need… There’s something… He shakes his head in disgust. —I don’t know. I don’t know!
—Just relax, it’ll come to you. It’s ok.
—Don’t tell me what to do. What are you doing here? Why did you come here?
—I came to see you. And to… help, if I can.
A snort. —Some help.
He finishes the water and shrinks within himself as his eyes close, dart open, close again, longer this time, longer.
Although he shifts restlessly for an hour, he does not wake again. I decide to return tomorrow, although I’m still not sure what to do. Before leaving, I refill his cup with water.
When I gently open the door the next day he is again, or still, sleeping. And dreaming, if the rolling of orbs beneath closed lids is any indication. His brow is knit, betraying the stress of his vision.
Waking brings no relief. —Where?… He peers around. —What time is it?
—A little before noon. Do you want something to drink?
—No! Yes. I don’t know. I need to… There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. I have to be there, when it’s time.
He can barely raise his arms; I can’t picture him leaving the room. —It’s all right, you don’t need to go anywhere now.
—How do you know? It’s important, I have to be there…
—I don’t know! I told you, it’s gone, it’s all… I can’t think of it. I don’t know, but I have to. I have to.
Lost hazel eyes look to me for an answer. —What should I do?
My words of reassurance and comfort feel empty. Even though he is calm when I leave, helplessness makes me despondent. This isn’t good enough. I need to do more, but I can’t see the way. My mind endlessly replays Ashoka’s question: what should I do?
I’m still running in mental circles when I push open the door the next day. And again am shocked by the figure on the bed, this time because the old woman is a complete stranger.
Where is Ashoka? Even as I imagine the possibilities, the simple truth hits me: This is the wrong room. Ashoka’s door is on the other side of the hallway.
—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.
As I start to leave, a smile breaks out across her face. —Beth?
There’s no one else around. —No, I’m not Beth. Is she here? Do you want me to find her?
She’s not even looking at me. —That’s where they go, around the back. Up the steps.
—I’m sorry, I don’t…
—In the drawer, in the drawers, the ba da ba. Ba da ba ba ba.
She nods happily to herself, content with the nonsensical syllables. I don’t know where her mind is, but I’m glad it offers solace. Fighting back memories of another woman traveling to dementia, I finally grasp the reality of this place.
There are many rooms, each housing a man or woman approaching the end of their allotted span. They have come here to end their days. That’s where they go. This is neither home nor hospital. This is a house of death.
Ashoka, at least, knows who I am. —You again?
—Me again. Here, I brought you some apple juice.
He squints at it warily before sipping. —It’s all right, he concedes. —Thanks.
—Don’t suppose you figured out where I’m supposed to go yet?
I feel like I’ve been apologizing a lot lately. —No. I’m sorry.
—Ah, not your fault. Me. Got an empty head, full of nothing. I should remember.
—Sometimes you just need to stop trying. Let it come to you in its own time.
—What if it’s too late?
All I can offer is a rueful smile. —At least you’ll know what you missed.
Neither of us is much for small talk. Long silences are broken only by my offers to open the window shades or adjust his coverings. I resolve to bring a deck of cards tomorrow so we can pass the time more agreeably.
Eventually Ashoka naps again, and I set out to explore. Perhaps there are some communal games or books to borrow.
Two others have found the common room before me. An elderly woman stitches a quilt that overflows her lap, and a similarly old man sits nearby in a wheelchair. An oxygen tube sprouts from his nose like a plastic mustache and wraps around to a tank behind the chair.
He sees me and waves.
—Howdy, young lady! You’ve come to the right place.
—The party! You know what they say: two’s company, but three people makes a party.
He has to stop every few words to get more oxygen, but that clearly hasn’t dampened his spirits. The quilter knots her thread and looks up.
—Just ignore him. He always talk crazy.
She extends a hand. —I am Julie Weifu. It is very nice to meet you.
Her thick accent and precise speech betray her origin. Somewhere in China, I suppose.
—Always a pleasure to have a pretty face around, chimes in her companion, also offering his hand. —I'm Bill. I’d tell you my last name, but it’s hard to say and harder to spell.
I have to smile. —Mine’s harder, I bet.
—You bet? Hear that, Julie? She’s a gambling lady!
He reaches into his pocket. —I’ll wager a quarter. What we used to call two bits. Julie here can judge, if she promises not to play favorites.
—Very well. Julie takes his quarter while I fish out a similar coin.
Holding both quarters between us, Julie points to Bill. —Say your name.
—Tkachenko! He spits it out with glee. —That’s T-K, nothing in between.
Julie looks my way.
—Thanthuvaaya, I pronounce carefully. —With two A’s just before the end.
Julie considers a moment, then turns to Bill.
—Her name is harder. You are loser.
—You coulda just said I lose, no need to judge me as a person! But he’s still smiling as Julie gives me the coins. —What’s your other name, then?
—Darshana. But Dar is fine, I add as I take an empty chair.
—Welcome, Dar! Guess you’re not a resident.
—Good of you. Sure it’s appreciated. Wish my kith and kin paid their respects more often.
He laughs at himself. —Paid their respects! Shouldn’t have said that, I’m not dead yet!
Julie pats his arm. —You will be here when rest of us are gone.
—We’ll see! We’ll see. Think Sam’ll be next. He’ll get a military funeral too, same as me.
—When did you serve? I ask.
—Second World War, ’43 to ’45. 89th Infantry, the Rolling W. Not many of us left now.
Julie, stitching again, nods. —My husband also fight. On battleship, in Pacific. He was shot in leg, so he limp. You not get shot?
Bill shrugs. —Naw, I was lucky. Real lucky. Only one German ever came close to killing me.
—It’s like this. I shouldn’t even have been over there. You know, the first thing you do is get a physical examination. They line you up, and different doctors examine you to see if you’re fit. I stepped up on the scale, and I only weighed 108 pounds! I was a beanpole back then. And the doctor looked up at me and said, You’ll never make it, son. You’re too light. You have to weigh at least 116 pounds.
But he said to go on with my examination. So I did. And when I got through they said, Wait outside until your name is called, and we’ll give you the results.
When they called my name, I went in to a little room, and there was a captain sitting behind his desk. He looked up at me and said, What’s wrong with you?
I looked at him and said, I don’t know, sir. Is there something wrong with me that I should know about?
He said, No, I’m asking you: What is wrong with you?
I said, nothing that I know of.
Very good, he said. He took his pencil and erased 108 and said, You now weigh 116 pounds. You’re in!
But about that German, the one who almost killed me… When we got to Germany, our unit would come in after the artillery and mop up. In one town, my commanding officer came up to me and said, Put on your helmet and pack your gun. We’re going to the hospital.
We went there to pick up some soldiers who were posing as patients. There were 81 soldiers hiding out in that hospital, but we only captured 80. See, one of the soldiers I found was a young kid, couldn’t have been older than 15. The hospital didn’t have proper heat, so he still had his army coat on under the sheets. It must have been two or three sizes too big for him, he probably only weighed 108 pounds. He shouldn’t even have been there. I took his army coat and told him to go home.
Never thought I’d see him again. But a few days later we heard about a big champagne factory in the town, so the first sergeant and me and two others decided we’d raid it. We went there one night and discovered it was mostly underground. We were going from floor to floor with our flashlights and holding up the bottles to see if they were clear. Because if they had any sediment, they weren’t good enough to drink.
After a while we heard somebody walking behind us. We turned around, and there was that German kid! He said his uncle was the factory foreman, and we were thieves, and he was going to report us. He had guts, I’ll give him that.
I shone some light on my face and said we just wanted some champagne. Neither of us said a word about the hospital. So he said, Well, you won’t find any to drink here. Follow me, and I’ll show you where the champagne is ready for shipment.
He took us to the shipping room and asked, How many bottles do you want? The first sergeant said, Bottles? We want a case each!
So we each got a case and went back to our unit where we were sleeping, and we started drinking champagne. And I got so drunk that when I tried to go outside for a leak, I fell down a whole flight of stairs. Nearly cracked open my skull right then and there.
I blame the German kid. He almost killed me with that champagne.
—He probably tell same story to his grandchildren. All your fault! teases Julie.
—Maybe, maybe. Always wonder what happened to him.
—Do you have grandchildren? I ask Julie.
She spreads out the quilt to display a large embroidered oak tree. —Many, many grandchildren. Three daughters, two sons.
Julie points to the five lowest branches of the tree, each labeled with a hand-stitched name. Her finger traces the branches higher as they split and grow. —Three grandchildren from first daughter, two from second daughter, three more from first son, one from third daughter, four from second son. Thirteen grandchildren! And nine great-grandchildren, she adds, tapping the little leaves that crown the tree’s canopy.
—Congratulations, I tell her.
She beams. —This quilt for youngest great-grandchild. Just born five months ago. I make quilt for every child, every grandchild. Every great-grandchild. Almost done now. I must live long enough to finish. Then I can die.
—I hope you’ll live long enough to welcome more great-grandchildren into the world, and give all of them quilts. It’s a beautiful custom.
—My grandmother made me quilt. I bring it with me when we escape China. We could carry very little, but I could not leave behind my grandmother’s quilt.
—I think she’d be very proud of you.
I rise and wave farewell. —I should get back. I’m so glad I met you both.
—Pleasure’s ours! says Bill. —Drop by anytime.
—I hope we see you again soon, says Julie.
Ashoka is sitting up in bed when I return. —What are you smiling about? he asks.
—Am I? I guess because I understand something I didn’t before. I was wrong about this place. This is a house of life.