by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on December 27, 2021. It is republished here with the author’s permission.
Damn, it was cold when I went to the VA hospital on Tuesday evening. The thermometer in the Subaru showed that it was a solid two degrees Fahrenheit outside. I grabbed my bag of grapes and walked through the parking lot to the entrance of the hospital. I kept my head down as the wind blew across the frozen tundra. There was a clear sky, and the air had that Arctic feel to it. It was not a good night to be out of doors.
I show up at the VA most Tuesday evenings to visit the vets in the psychiatric ward on the third floor of the building. Usually, I am there with several other volunteers from the American Legion. Since it was Christmastime, most everybody else was out of town, so only Jim and I were there to spend time with the patients. Jim brought sodas and sugary snacks, mostly homemade Christmas cookies, for the veterans. I always bring grapes, so that we provide at least one thing that qualifies as healthy. The patients like the grapes as much as they like the other snacks. There are never any grapes left over.
Christmastime is the busy season at the psych. ward. The third floor is packed at this time of year. The holidays bring out the best in people, or they bring out the worst. Folks who are already living on the edge tend to fall off when Christmas comes. The loneliness and the grief become overwhelming. The season of mandatory happiness is too much for the people who struggle to find any joy in their lives. The lights and the laughter simply accentuate their own darkness and tears. It’s not a good time.
Jim and I set up our array of goodies. Vets shuffled into the break room to grab bowls of popcorn, plates of cookies, cups of soda, and handfuls of grapes. Not many people wanted to talk. If they did talk, they were mostly talking to themselves. A woman my age sang off-key to herself, and then laughed about it. She went out of her way to help other vets carry their food to a table. It helped her to be helpful.
One of the nurses shepherded a young woman through the break room. The young woman never spoke. She glared at everything and everybody. The nurse, and other people, asked the girl if she wanted anything to eat. She just gave us all that stone-cold stare. Pain and silent rage. I know that look very well.
I thought about our loved one, who was at that moment in jail. Our girl has not had a Christmas at home for three years. This year she sits in jail. Last Christmas she was in a place just like the psych. ward. The year before that, she was in another jail. I was lost in thought until a vet asked me for some soda. I cleared my mind, and I gave him a cup of Diet Sierra Mist.
Some of the vets talked among themselves. Some just sat and watched “Wheel of Fortune.” For a while, even I was watching “Wheel of Fortune”. That’s depressing.
Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t notice much for holiday decorations in the psych. ward. It’s just as well. Why remind these people of a holiday that they can’t share? They all seemed happy that Jim and I were there. I don’t think that it was just because we brought snacks. I think it was because we bothered to show up. Sometimes the best thing a person can do is to show up. Just be there.
Jim and I hung around for a while. We talked with the patients. Some of them were new to the place. Some of them we knew from previous visits. Some of the patients don’t ever get better. They get recycled. They go to a halfway house or someplace else, and then they come back to the ward again, and again, and again. Some people can’t heal anymore.
Jim and I left after about an hour and a half. The attendants on duty let us out. The doors are always locked to prevent an “elopement”. Yeah, people in pajamas try to leave the ward and go somewhere. I don’t know where they try to go. I don’t think that they know either.
I walked through the windswept lot back to my car. Next time I have to bring more grapes.