Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nursing Home Sketches: Eugene

Despite the heat, I customarily sat outside everyday in the courtyard to get away from the arctic air conditioning and dreary ambience of institutional housing. There were two courtyards, one that was beautifully landscaped with trees that afforded some shade against the fierce sun, and the other that was treeless but had a little babbling pond where a couple frogs lived briefly. I would sit in one or the other for as long as I could withstand the heat, reading some Latin American literature or studying Spanish grammar. There almost never came any other resident, I suspect because most of them were immobile.

However, I could always count on seeing Eugene at some point in the day, since he liked to sit and even dine outside. Eugene suffered from gout and his swollen legs prevented him from walking, so he sat in a wheelchair which he couldn’t drive since he also had broken his arm. His stay was temporary and he went home a week before I did. The CNAs would pilot him to the courtyard and leave him there, often forgetting to retrieve him. Once I came upon him late one afternoon and discovered that he had been sitting in the hot sun for hours and was thirsty and sweaty, worn out with the heat. I got out of my wheelchair and pushed his back into the cool hallways where the nurses could take care of him.

I liked Eugene instantly. He was simple and straightforward, and I knew I could talk to him honestly about sensitive subjects without fear of offending. Since I was down South for the first time, I was keenly interested in its race relations, which I have come to feel are a unique product of the history and circumstances of this region. It feels different to me from what I experience in the North.

So one day Eugene and I were talking about whites and blacks in Florida and how segregation still prevails in subtle and not so subtle ways – the blacks live there, the whites here and so on. Relations are genial, but there is always a deep sense of unalterable and insurmountable difference between the two communities. One of my neighbors in Ocala, a lovely person with a big heart, once told me point blank that she would never enter the black neighborhood, implying that she feared its lawlessness and animosity. Having been raised in a very mixed New York nabe and educated in its public schools, I could never understand this mentality. It is natural for me to be among people very different from myself.

Eugene and I spoke quite candidly about these attitudes and at one point he floored me when he divulged that his father had been shot down in the street, right in front of the boy Eugene, by some crazed racists. I couldn’t imagine the pain and fear that this must have caused him, and yet he was not scarred by the event. He bore no hatred, his soul was free of its distortions.

I admired him. But I was impressed also by the nearness of history, by its power to reach out and shake our complacency. I lived through the Civil Rights Era, I remember vividly King’s I Have a Dream speech and his assassination. And yet I think of this almost as ancient history, a period whose struggles have no visceral connection to the concerns of the present. But here was Eugene, a living bearer of that history, who magically brought it all back to life. That day he taught me the meaning of that history, as experienced by lone individuals, and the magnificent courage of such persons who suffered its shocks without losing their humanity.

Unsurprisingly, Eugene viewed his current physical distress with equal equanimity. Severely tested, he wasted no time on idle complaint or bitter reproach. The day the CNA abandoned him to the sun’s lashing, he uttered not one word against such negligence.