T he sterile smell hits me once I walk through the doors. The carpeted floor and hand sanitizer canister aren’t the only things that greet my family and me upon our entrance to the center. An old lady who sits everyday by the door welcomes us, repeating “Hi” to all the visitors, even though none of them are ever hers.

We punch in the code to ride the elevator up and wait until the nurse pushes the lunch cart out. These bland lunches can only be fed to the elderly. But they can taste, they’re not entirely gone. We trick ourselves into thinking that they deserve lesser treatment than the rest of us but they’ve lived here longer than we have; it’s more their world than ours. We leave them to sit alone and eat soggy, tasteless vegetables, forgotten while their hearts still beat.

The elevator pulls us cautiously to the third floor. The doors pull apart to let us through and I immediately regret this thoughtless, mechanical movement. The smell is overwhelming. Tears well mysteriously in my eyes, but the smell was not the cause. It was the slow movements of heads, turning towards us, hoping we were there for them. As we walk by, they watch us sadly and whisper, “That’s George’s family.” These forgotten people, all waiting earnestly for someone who is never going to come.

We walk down the hall and can’t help but peek into the rooms of all these broken souls. Some sit and watch their televisions. Others sleep. Some talk to themselves, and many cry. Most didn’t bother to look up when they sense our shuffling feet, but once, I met eyes with an old man. The locked eyes of the young and innocent and the eyes of the old and wise, left behind by careless, busy relatives.

We find him. He’s in a chair eating ice cream. Ice cream is his favorite. Other people surround him. Contrary to popular belief, these extraordinary beings are still people, even if they need some extra love. We must not forget this just because they are disabled. We have made them feel broken when they are merely cracked. We’ve made them feel inferior.

When we enter the room, his eyes didn’t light up the way they should have. The others glance at us with mild disinterest. Finally, something very little clicks in his rusty mind, overgrown with cobwebs of memories that will soon be wiped away, and a little drop of recognition sparks a thought. As we walk towards him, he understands we were there for him, but he doesn’t recognize us. He doesn’t know who we are. He kisses us all on our faces, his unshaven whiskers scratching the smooth, baby flesh of our cheeks, and his confusion apparent and easily read, as if etched into his laugh lines.

“You’re here for me, how did you know where I was?”

“We’ve been here before, Pepe, we remember where you are.”

Even though he didn’t recognize us, he never questions our presence. He never asks us who we are or why we are here. We were here for him, and that is simply enough.

We wheel him down the hall to the piano room. “Hold your feet up, Pepe,” our cousin warns.

“Feet up, feet up, bee bop bop whee, feet up!” He sings as we wheel him down the stretch of carpeted hallway. He found more enjoyment out of this small transportation than of any other part of our painful visit. This is one of the simple joys one learns to accept as fun when locked in a ward with over-wrinkled, lonely people.

We get to the piano, but he just sits and stares. One of my most fruitful memories of my great-grandfather is of his arthritic fingers crawling across the ivory of my aunt’s piano. We would sit and listen attentively while eating dinner, even as children, because the music was so beautiful. He never ate with us, always coming over after the nursing home’s early dinner, but he would drink wine. We would water it down, and he would always say how it never tasted as good as it used to. It was our family’s trick to keeping him with us. He never comes over anymore, and when he does, we don’t let him drink. Those were the days when he knew we were Jean-Marc’s kids. Whenever I hear upbeat jazz, especially played on the piano, I always picture him, caressing the keys in the yellow rain slicker.

He stares blankly into our faces. It is up to us to create casual conversation, because we know him, but he has no idea who these people before him are, and he will never regain the secrets of our identities. My dad was the only person he used to recognize, but his Alzheimer’s has clouded the memory of his precious grandson. Now, even my father has slipped through his cognitive cracks. All of our faces are no different than any other family that comes through this building.

He looks out at the highway, talking about the white cars that are passing, barely visible though the tree cover. He only likes the white ones, speaking in full sentences when describing them to us. It’s the only time throughout the day that he can find all the words he wants to say.

He asks us three times in a row if we are in school. We answer the same every time, with patience and quiet understanding. He goes to play the piano again. He plays the same song over and over; this is not usual. Normally, he only plays a song once before arthritis claims his hands back into their dormant position in his lap, cradling the air. This time, he can’t even remember that he has just finished playing only moments before. His playing is rough and subject to change without notice, unlike the smooth melodies I can remember from years before this illness claimed his whole life. I watch my dad and aunt exchange a worried and solemn look. He is never coming back. What is gone is lost for good.

A man wheels around us and eventually flips on the light. Until now, no one realized we had been sitting in the dark. We thank him and turn our heads. We all know he doesn’t want to leave but eventually he wheels away slowly. I wish he had stayed. When the man rolled up, I realized that they wished for visitors, for something to do, besides waiting around to die.

When we leave, Pepe went back to watching television, waiting for bingo to start. His eyes once again glue themselves to the flickering screen and he has mentally dismissed us, because we aren’t as entertaining as the soap operas that screen every afternoon, even though he can’t remember the plot line. But, we’ve made him happy, even if he doesn’t know who we are.


Jess Dupon is a senior at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Titled merely Cracked, this piece won a gold key for creative writing in the recent Boston Globe Scholastic Art competition.