156. Workplace Conversations

I work in a home for gentlemen with mental and physical disabilities. (I’ve given them false names in this blog post to protect their privacy.) As months have passed, I’ve taken part in many interesting conversations. Some of them make sense. A surprising number do not.

“Mummies,” exclaims Mark Twain, pointing to the cupboard.

I pretend to shiver in fright. “M-M-M-Mummies?”

“You fraid oh mummies?”

“Yes.”

Mark Twain grins. “Why?”

“B-B-B-Because they want to eat my nose.”

This brief dialogue (and variations thereof) occurs, on average, half a dozen times during each of my shifts. I suppose Mark Twain considers it his duty to warn me of the bloodthirsty spooks lurking in my workplace.

Charles Dickens is another gentleman with whom I have strange conversations. I gave him a coloring book for Christmas. Five minutes later, he stomped up to me and held it out.

“See wha I got?” he inquired.

“I see,” I said. “Who gave you that?”

“I dunno,” he replied gravely. “Somebody did.”

Charles Dickens has dementia and tends to talk in circles. Our conversations consist of the same questions and answers repeated endlessly.

Every now and then, however, these predictable dialogues are interrupted by something unexpected.

“You got a girlfriend?” he inquired one morning. It’s one of his usual questions.

“No girlfriend.”

This answer didn’t seem to satisfy him. “How many you got?” he demanded suddenly. “Fourteen?”

I sometimes ask him about animals.

“Tell me, Charlie. What noise does a dog make?”

“Bow wow,” he replies, grinning.

“Very good, Charlie. How about a cat?”

“Meow meow.”

“How about a pig?”

“Oink oink.”

“How about a lobster?”

He beams. “Mau mau,” he says with gusto.

It’s challenging to carry on conversations with some of the gentlemen with whom I work. Jules Verne, who suffers from depression, tries to stay cheerful by talking to himself. “I’m having a good day,” he says tearfully. “Nobody likes a grouch.”

Anton Chekhov doesn’t speak, but occasionally growls and yowls like Chewbacca. (He does a much better Chewbacca impression than I.) Victor Hugo mumbles rapidly in either English or Russian—I’m still not sure which. He’s also rather deaf. We often communicate through simple sign language, such as pantomiming the act of drinking coffee.

Just a few nights ago I had the most unexpected conversation yet. Edgar Allan Poe, an elderly gentleman with dementia, was sitting at the kitchen table as I worked in the kitchen. It was late. Everyone else was in bed.

His dementia sometimes causes him to act aggressively. On several occasions he has hit, kicked or bitten me. (It’s not every day I get bitten by a senior citizen.) He curses and mutters death threats during his aggressive moments. When he’s calm, he hardly speaks. He just sits quietly.

As I worked, I was careful to keep a wary eye on him.

“Easter’s coming,” he observed suddenly, breaking a long silence.

Edgar Allan Poe loves holidays, so his statement wasn’t unusual.

“It sure is,” I said.

“That’s when Jesus rose from the dead.”

I paused a moment in surprise. “That’s right,” I said at last. “Do you know Jesus, Ed?”

He smiled a toothless smile. “Yup.”

“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”

Edgar Allan Poe is on hospice care because of his declining mental and physical condition. The nurses aren’t sure how much longer he has left.

I believe God, who is usually more gracious than we think, is merciful in judging those like Edgar Allan Poe who can’t understand concepts like faith or salvation. All the same, my brief conversation with Edgar Allan Poe left me with an odd sense of peace.

Whether discussing my fear of mummies, the Resurrection of Christ or my (apparently complicated) love life, it’s often delightful to chat with the gentlemen in my workplace.

It’s certainly never boring.

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