A Memoir by Chandra Misra

One lazy afternoon, just before one of those summer three-day weekends was about to kick off, once again I had the pleasure of looking at the Ocean City beach with my little boy. Suddenly Sanjay, my son, handed me a fragment of what must have been a magnificent conch shell – a remnant of a masterpiece of creation – an exquisite Sharad.

As he asked me what it was, I tried to imagine the “whole” of the organism – before the churning sea and time broke it into pieces. The shell must have been an elegant exoskeleton, a prime example of its species. Now all that remained was a chunk of pink and white fragment, its scalloped edge chipped and scratched. Its complex shape, intricate design, and brilliant colors had vanished after the crashing surf took its toll.

Looking at the piece of shell and trying to explain what it is to a three-year-old boy, provoked several thoughts in my mind. I thought of the residents of the St. Mary’s Manor, where I have been working for the last few months. St. Mary’s is a retirement home or nursing home, where older people stay when they can’t take care of themselves. Many Americans spend their golden years at such facilities now-a-days. Families are unable to take care of the elderly because of social changes, creating situations where both the husband and wife have jobs outside of their home. Most of St. Mary’s residents must use either a wheelchair or a walker in the unit where I work. They are unable to walk or speak coherently. Their debilities come from a variety of diseases or, often, just from ripe old age. Many of the residents had responsible jobs when they were young and contributed immensely to their families and the society.

My thoughts wandered to Nora, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease for the last five years. Her friends, who knew and loved her when she was in her prime, still see her as the loving mother, the warm-hearted wife, and the fun-loving sister she used to be. They knew her as a community leader, a confidant and friend, a lover of laughter and music, and as one who loved to wear beautiful hats.

My memory shifted to Mr. Cryor, who is now ninety-four years old. He used to be the editor of a prominent newspaper in Philadelphia. Now he can hardly see because of his old age and retinal damage. Some of the nurses, who have been working at St. Mary’s for a long time, remember the war-time stories he used to tell them. They tell me about Mr. Cryor’s days as a war reporter, who covered the dangerous zones in Nazi-occupied Poland. He apparently performed many courageous acts, but he always shared most proudly the story of how he single-handedly carried two wounded soldiers to the Army Center and saved their lives. Today, he can hardly walk to the dining room which is only few feet away…

I handed the little pieces of pink shell to my son and told him it was a small piece of a big shell. He seemed pleased with my answer and said, “I love you, Mummy.” It was so easy to please him with an answer.

“Is it true?” I thought to myself. My mind has been crowded with questions ever since I joined St. Mary’s Manor. I joined this place with the intention of helping some of the elderly people for my own satisfaction.

To the busy caregivers, it is difficult to imagine that these elderly people were once young and energetic. It takes a lot of time and energy to feed them, walk them to the bathroom, change their clothes and tuck them to their bed at night. Often many of us lose our patience when we have to wait for them to swallow their medicine, or simply answer our questions.

As we run short of time, we urge them to hurry up so that we can finish our job. The work takes so much time and energy that often they have to endure our angry outbursts. Unable to protest, many residents just go along with the care-giver’s choice and take their outbursts silently. It must be very painful to be so helpless.

Suddenly, I heard voices and the laughter of nearby children, which brought me back to reality. “It is time to go home, Mom,” said Sanjay.

I looked at the piece of shell which I had given back to him. “Would it be possible to look into the eyes of the residents and imagine them as fragment of that big conch shell?” I wondered. “Can we give them the respect and the loving care they deserve?”

Unfortunately, the experiences and thoughts of the aging in our country are often dismissed as reminiscences of the good old days!

Chandra Misra, a first-generation immigrant from India, came to the USA in 1977 with her two young children to join her husband, who had immigrated a few months earlier to work as a corporate research scientist in suburban Chicago. They moved to suburban Philadelphia in 1984. Chandra earned her nursing degree from Gwynedd Mercy University and worked as a critical care nurse at Albert Einstein Medical Center, Philadelphia. Later she worked as a Drug Safety Associate and as a Medical Scientist at various Pharma companies.

By becoming a nurse, Chandra found confidence, comfort and hope as her dream to help people was fulfilled. “Nursing brought my future into focus and made a difference in my life.” For her, the USA is the land where her dreams came true. She loves to write and to let people know about her experiences. She lives with her family in North Wales, PA.