If agoraphobia is the fear of public places and xenophobia of strange people, then what is the fear of fogies? Elena mashes her own term: geriphobia — fear of strange old people in public places.
Although the institution is modern and clean, nothing can camouflage the medley of disinfectant, urine and the kitchen’s next meal. When she rolls Poppy outside and into sunshine at the front of his building, they sit in silence.
He finally speaks: “What do you call these places?” “It’s a personal care centre.”
“Who comes to these places?”
“People who need extra help with bathing and eating.”
That seems to satisfy him, without spelling out that he is one of those people.
A passing aide notices that Poppy’s slipper has fallen off. When the woman crouches to brush away crumbs from the bottom of his bare foot, Elena’s throat tightens. What if I can’t do this? What if I can’t be a good daughter?
Moving inside, she sits next to him in the foyer with a handful of silent residents who wait: for meals, for medications, for visitors, both real and imagined. She watches the vacant faces of those who slow-shuffle past. Poppy smiles, seems to enjoy the aimless ebb and flow around him.
She tells him that a bird flew into her bed-room window this morning, and he nods.
“I’ll hang something in that window later. I’ve got the tools.”
“Thanks, Poppy,” she says. “You’re always so handy.”
Elena longs to shove through the front door that requires a security code. Otherwise, resi-dents will wander. Instead, she boards the shut-tle bus with five other volunteers who roll half a dozen men in wheelchairs through Home Depot, to let them cradle screwdrivers and gardening tools in their blue-veined hands. At first it seems cruel, to remind them of what they can no longer do, those who built bird houses in hobby shops or trimmed wisteria in landscaped yards.
She pushes Poppy’s chair down aisles, search-ing for hardware to kickstart the memory of his former life. Nothing.
But during coffee at Second Cup, she listens to scraps of conversation. The sight of a trowel reminds one man of fragrant sweet peas that grew along his fence. Another recalls a robin that lived an entire winter in his leaf-less apple tree instead of flying south.
Suddenly, Elena feels less anguish for these old people who have received their gift of time, enough time to prune borders of memory. She finds Poppy’s hand, fingers cool and thin, and gently squeezes. He stares into middle distance, his lips moving.
“Good sprinkles,” he says, taking another bite of his glazed doughnut.
Elena leans over and kisses his cheek. I can do this, she thinks, her new mantra, over the wall. I can do this.
Shannon Kernaghan writes and creates visual art just outside of Edmonton. She enjoyed life as a ‘digital nomad’ for many years, travelling and writing from her RV. Her work appears in books and journals and she continues to tell her stories at shannonkernaghan.com.