when i was growing up, i did more than my share of community service with the Royal Ambassadors. from our headquarters at Raimund Heights Baptist, we prepared and delivered fruit baskets and gifts to widows and widowers in the neighborhood. we visited people in the nursing home. for birthdays. for whatever days. and not only did we drop off the goods; we stayed. with each person. we hung out. for what seemed–to my preteen mind–to be many hours at a time. every time i turned around, it seemed, i was at a forced shindig, attempting to eliminate the social age gap, defy conventions, and prove once and for all that 10 year olds could party with people in their 90s.
i don’t know that we ever made that point, but in the process of trying, i observed quite a bit. i would very quickly become nauseated by that smell–the strange air that filled the houses and rooms of the elderly. every place smelled the same, and it was a scent i’d never picked up under any other circumstance. i always wondered what it was. and i wondered why the years had supposedly given people wisdom but had taken away the impulse to wipe food from their faces when they missed their mouths. or how the food made its way out of their mouths once it was in. what had happened to their “once you’re in, you’re in” policy? there were more questions…why couldn’t they think of cool things to talk about? where was their excitement about all the new things in the world, things i was discovering every day? did they not have anything interesting to think, to say, to do? but there was one other thing, something that especially perplexed me, that i noticed during so many visits, as well as at Christmastime when the older people in my family or at church got presents: the careful way they opened gifts. at Christmas or on my birthday, i would get a wrapped box, tear off the paper, and rip through the box, shedding the useless exterior as if my new toy, or gadget, or even shirt or pair of pants was an impatient snake, just dying to show off his new skin, leaving the old in an abandoned pile of worthlessness. my elders, on the contrary, would save the box, save the paper, save the bows and ribbons…it was almost as if they thought the gift WAS the paper and the box, as though the actual thing inside was like the pit of a plum. and more than that–and as a perfect companion to it–i was always struck by the feeble way in which they did all of this. strangest of all, they would take a knife and cut the thin scotch tape holding the paper together or keeping the box closed. that’s what i thought about the most: cutting the tape. “hey, it’s a shirt box with two pieces of Magic Tape. does anyone have a blade?” “hey, there’s one piece of 99 cent tape holding this wrapping paper together. can someone get a buck knife?” that was the one thing i understood the least. how can anyone need a knife?
and so there i was. in my apartment. a previously normal guy. healthy. strong. normal. last week. but this week…
i received a package in the mail. at first, i didn’t move it. i was afraid of straining myself. so it sat in front of the door. later, i became determined: i pushed it inside. there. now i’ll wait for someone to help me pick it up and move it into the living room…tick tick tick. no, i’ll just see how heavy it is… to my surprise, it was incredibly light. i’d been home for maybe three days…i was feeling better than i had when i was first released from the hospital. i picked it up and pushed it until it was in the middle of the floor. i opened it…it was a little box with a simple flap. i pulled out the contents. there they were, wrapped in clear plastic. now, to open the plastic. it was…
TAPED. scotch tape. two pieces. okay… i took the bag in both hands, and tried to pull it apart. nothing happened. i tried again. to no avail. then i tried peeling the tape. then i tried grabbing the bag where the tape was, and pulling upward. nothing. try as i may, i could not pull this tape off. scotch tape. clear and thin. “when it doesn’t really matter, use Scotch tape.” but i still couldn’t. remove. the tape. it might as well have been duct tape. might as well have been a steel case, welded shut. i wasn’t getting into this package. period.
my only option was to get the scissors, which involved an undesirable walk to the kitchen. made it. returned. sat down. indian style. put this package in my lap. and then i did it. i don’t mean i opened it; i mean i did it: i became every perplexing geriatric birthday boy and girl, every person celebrating their 94th Christmas, every widow with a brightly colored and bow-topped package in their lap. i had become what i had never understood. the ten year old was now on the other side. I was THEY. weak. feeble. powerless. i only hoped that my home smelled okay and my face was clean.
but clean face or no, and whether the apartment smelled like roses or mothballs soaked in pee, the reality was that this home was now the private residence of someone who was incapable. of everything. for the moment. and if you feel sorry for me, send your sympathy card already opened…i don’t feel like walking to the kitchen.