There is an assisted living center in my town that I often visited as a young police officer. Our police department frequently received 9-1-1 calls for medical emergencies, thefts and other incidents. The police and fire staff referred to the center (sadly) as "God's waiting room" since most of the residents were elderly and in poor health.
One day I responded to a call regarding an old gentleman who was refusing his medication and very emotional. The center staff felt that a police officer would encourage more cooperation. Upon my arrival I was led to the gentleman's apartment. The staff member knocked on the door and a tall, slender man in his 80's emerged. The staff member introduced me to the gentleman and said that I was there to help.
The old gentleman's eyes were red and he had a habit of bursting into tears for no apparent reason. I was told he had mild dementia. Looking around the room I noticed that he was an artist. There was a french easel set up near a window and paintings were all around the room. Clearly the gentleman was an accomplished painter, as his still lifes and landscapes were all well designed and executed.
"They tell me you don't want to take your medication," I said to the gentleman. He eyed me and moved over to his easel where he took up his brush and resumed painting. " Does the medication make you ill?" I asked. The gentleman told me no, he just didn't feel like taking his medicine. He slowly opened up a bit about his wife, whom he lost a few years ago. Then he burst into tears again. " You must really miss her," I said. He wiped his eyes and looked at me, nodding affirmatively. His eyes had the thin glaze of cloudiness that age brings. But they were penetrating and intelligent.
I complimented him on his paintings but he didn't respond. He just continued to paint intently, almost as if I was no longer in the room. After a bit I told him that I was sorry he lost his wife, but at least he still had his art. With this he stopped painting, looked at me and said, " Yes, a loyal companion."
Eventually the assisted living staff member returned and the gentleman finally agreed to take his medication. I wished him well and returned to my patrol duties.
There would be many more trips to the assisted living center during my patrol years. Sometimes to render assistance but frequently to handle death calls. I can remember numerous times when I would wait for the coroner to arrive. I would look around at the photos in the apartment. Pictures of grandchildren, family and friends. Small collectibles from a long life and travels. What stories they must have held.
I think it was writer Christopher Hitchen's who said of life's slow unraveling that it all comes down to a bed. When we are old and infirm we languish in a bed, in a room, before crossing over the vale. Ideally, it would be nice to have some of the things that mattered most to us nearby. For most of the old souls who departed at the assisted living center, they were fortunate enough to die with their pictures and momentos nearby.
I don't remember when the old gentleman passed away, just that sometime down the road his room was now inhabited by a cheerful old woman. But I figured that when his time came, he was surrounded by his paintings, his easel and brushes. He was surrounded by his art. By his "loyal companion."