It was the summer of 2008, and I couldn’t look at my dissertation ANY LONGER. I loathed its very existence, I despised its snarky attitude, the way in which it glared back at me from my computer screen, saying, “you gonna work on me today? Huh? huh? huh? Give me your best shot!” Like I said, I couldn’t take it anymore.
And then it hit me- why not volunteer somewhere, you know, make myself actually useful. It would put my dissertation into perspective (i.e. dissertation = pointless droning; volunteering = beneficial work). I applied to a retirement community near where I lived, which I’ll call “The Lakes.”
When I was accepted as a volunteer, I was asked what I would specifically like to do. Of course, I said, “well, something that has to do with books. You know- reading aloud, pushing the book cart, etc.” Before long, I was pushing a ridiculously heavy book cart around the hospital wing, dropping off Danielle Steele and John Grisham, as well as Better Homes and Gardens and National Geographic magazines, to (mostly) sweet little old ladies and dapper gray-haired men. Like the book-snob I was at that time (I am not that girl anymore), I would quickly scan the cart before beginning my rounds, desperately searching for anything that looked like Literachaaaahhh, and usually coming up empty. I would then say to myself, “Rachel, these people are old, and they are in a hospital/retirement center. Give them a break, for God’s sake.”
Before long, I found myself drawn into long conversations with some of these residents about books and favorite authors. We talked like old friends- they sitting on their beds or in easy-chairs, me leaning on the book cart. I even found a woman who was most certainly my doppelganger, only fifty years older and from Wisconsin.
My main responsibility, though, was reading aloud to a small group of men and women just before lunchtime. All of the residents on the floor were asked if they wanted to join the book group each Monday and Wednesday morning, and usually about seven or eight (mostly women) expressed interest. And so, before each session, I would help the nurses wheel the residents into a conference room and arrange them around a long table. I sat at the head of it and read aloud to them for an hour.
The first day, I was handed a book about World War II reminiscences (mostly from veterans or their wives and children) compiled by Larry King and I was told that the residents really liked it (they had been read about a quarter of it so far). I opened it and began reading aloud. Because I had always enjoyed doing this in school, I quickly grew comfortable in my role. The stories were pretty interesting, and before long, a half hour had passed.
Something at that point made me pause mid-story and look up. Was that?…Did I just hear…?
Yes. It was a snore.
And when I looked around the table, I saw that every single one of my listeners was asleep, chin resting on chest, hands in lap, snoring softly. I didn’t know what to do.
But then I remembered how my own grandparents would come over to watch me and my brothers when my parents went out to dinner once in a while. They were supposed to actually watch us and make sure that we didn’t tear the house down. But after the dinner and the conversation and the compulsive dusting that my grandmother did everywhere she went, we’d ultimately find them sitting in the living room, chins on chests, soft snores filling the room.
And now, here I was, but this time I couldn’t devise elaborate, evil plans for how I would wake the contented napper (i.e. kazoo, cymbals, barking like a dog). After a few minutes, I decided just to keep reading, since the residents could probably still hear me on some level, and I wanted to know how the story ended. When my supervisor came to get me after the hour was up, I saw that some of the listeners had woken up at some point and looked pleased. They smiled at me and I smiled back.
I would read books aloud and push the cart for three months before the grad school grind picked back up. After the WWII book, I was allowed to choose my own, and so I brought in the short stories of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. The ladies in the reading group loved them.
Thinking back on that summer, I wish that, when I am very, very old and even a magnifying glass can’t make the page of a book legible, someone will read aloud to me. And not get mad when I nod off.