I had never seen anyone as old as Sally Simpson. She couldn’t tell me how old she was. She couldn’t speak. She was confined to her bed in a dreary nursing home, steeped in the stench of urine and stale institutional food.
was a young teenager, a volunteer in a nursing home run by Catholic nuns. On my
first visit to the Sacred Heart Home, one of the nuns assigned me to Sally
Simpson, to bathe her and comb her hair. Sally was immobile; she just lay in her
bed, little more than a skeleton. Her skin was dry and ashen, loosely hanging
from her gnarled bones. And she was covered with bedsores. The nun quickly
showed me how to bathe Sally and left me alone with her.
Fifty years later I
can recall details about Sally's body, how her breasts were nearly non-existent,
how her pubic hair had turned white, how I twisted her few strands of long
white hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. Nearly afraid to touch her,
afraid of her fragility, I carefully washed her, redressed her, and tucked her
back into her bed. It was a strange intimacy with an ancient woman I didn't even know. And I have no idea if she was even aware of my presence.
For all these years I have been haunted by the only facts I
knew about Sally Simpson—that she had never married and that she had been a
nurse. Her aloneness was stark. A woman who had spent her life caring for
others was lying in a bed in a dreary nursing home, covered with sores of
neglect, unable to communicate.
When I went back to the nursing home one week
later for my volunteer work, I learned that Sally had died not long after my visit the previous week. At the time I was
shocked and saddened, horrified to think she died so soon after I cared for her. But now, fifty years later, I have a different perspective.
I am relieved that she died then, and I am comforted knowing that she was clean
and her hair was tied in a knot at the nape of her neck.