This is where you go when there is nothing more that they can do for you.
This is where you go when the insurance company will not pay for a hospital any longer.
This is where you go when there is no place else to go.
It is not a bad place. It is not a snake pit. No way.
It is better-looking than a lot of hospitals.
The walls are not painted that institutional green or tan. There are no ugly pipes snaking overhead.
Here things are . . . homey.
As if people still died at home. Which few do. Because today you go someplace else to die.
Someplace that only looks like home.
Which is so much easier on everyone.
Here the wallpaper is bright and the drapes are flowered.
Here the staff is large and friendly. And if they don't exactly break any speed records getting down the halls to answer the patients' call buttons, well, they know which patients can wait.
Most of the patients are very good at waiting.
I have been to places like this before. I have been to several.
So why does the alcove off the elevator still bother me?
There is a sign in the alcove. It says: "Wheelchair Storage."
But there are people sitting in the wheelchairs. Silent. Unmoving.
My friend is outside his room this day, and I stand and talk to him.
An attendant wheels a gurney past us upon which lies a tiny woman. The attendant pushes the gurney into a room, transfers the woman to a bed, leaves and closes the door behind him.
A few minutes later, the cries begin.
It is amazing that a woman so frail-looking can produce cries so deep and throbbing.
At first, they stop our conversation. Then we speak over them, raising our voices, pretending they do not exist.
The cries are not constant. They occur every 10 minutes or so.
And when 10 minutes are almost up, you find yourself waiting for them to begin again.
A youngish man with two daughters about 8 and 10, comes down the hall.
The girls run cheerfully off the elevator -- the first floor could be the first floor of a country club -- and hesitate only when they see the people in their wheelchairs.
Then the girls walk silently down the hall behind their father, grasping their fast food soft drink cups tightly.
They go into a room. After about 10 minutes, the youngest girl comes back out into the hall.
She turns and addresses her father, who remains inside the room.
"I want to go," she says in a quavering voice. "I want to go."
I know the sound of that voice.
It is not the sound of ordinary childish boredom or impatience.
It is the sound of fear.
I remember when I first realized my grandmother was not quite right.
Today, she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Then, she was merely old.
And her husband, my grandfather, took care of her with a single-minded selfless devotion.
A home? No, he would not put her in a home. She had a home.
I remember when I first realized my grandmother was not quite right, and I asked my mother in a quavering voice: "Will you ever be like Grandma?"
My mother took my hand. "No," she said. "No, no."
Yes. Yes, yes.
And there would be a home for her. Not a snake pit. No way. But a home.
Was there an alcove in that home with a sign that said Wheelchair Storage? I do not remember. I don't want to remember.
The little girl stands at the doorway of the room and shouts at her father and then turns and runs toward the elevator, dropping her soft drink cup on the floor.
The ice spills out and spreads across the bright tiles.
The father comes out of the room and slowly kneels and shovels the ice back into the cup with the side of his hand.
He looks up and sees me watching and shrugs.
I shrug back.
What can you say? What can anyone say?
There is nobody to blame. Not for youth and not for age.
The tiny woman begins to cry.