Not intentionally, but you’re back here on the fifth anniversary of her arrival to this place. You’d taken one of the last available volunteering slots with the company’s volunteering day. All the pet places were taken.
It’s a nice place. They have a goldfish or koi pond, and some pleasant plants and flowers. The fountain is calming. A fake tropical bird squawks at you every fifteen minutes or so. To think that you were just down the road from this place for three years, but never came by. You wanted to come back and volunteer, to hold the hands of people dying who didn’t have a hand to hold the way your mom did.
You’d seen on the volunteer sign-up sheet that the hale-hearty software engineer named Simon was among the group. Last year, you’d volunteered with him at the zoo, and the next day at work he’d stonewalled your attempt to say hi, like you were completely unrecognizable or non-existent outside of the context where he was required to interact with you.
A bunch of software engineers are showing up to work on the project. The middle eastern guy is okay, he isn’t loud and full of some ongoing need to prove his manhood. The two of you set about quietly digging holes for trees. Other men arrive, and they insist on mucking about in the fish pond, or scooping up gravel to dump it on everything in site. The women in the group quietly settle in to planting flowers.
Then Al Gaston arrives with his new wife. He slowly maneuvers his Hummer down the back street to make sure everyone takes note of his arrival. His young bride, romanced from the accounting department and apparently quite a catch for Al, is skinny, blonde, petite, and fashionably sporting a baby bump through her volunteering day t-shirt. She will be taking lots of pictures, and attentively admiring the vigorous spectacle that is Al.
Al is no bigger than you, and has a high-pitched, nasally Yankee voice. But, he’s clearly a man of action. And, you and Massoud, the Middle Eastern software engineer, are just not cutting it at digging these holes. You are in the middle of helping Massoud hack away at an especially fat root, carefully chipping off bits of root using a dull pick-axe. Al charges in and insists on taking the pick-axe from you, and begins swinging it from high over his head. This is impressive to the other men standing around, clearly here is a man bent on getting things done. After ten of these manly whacks, the root has yet to give.
Simon arrives, and it appears that you are going to have to let Simon help you dig your hole. Simon has been outmachoed this year by Al, and he’s not nearly as hale and blustery and confident as he was last year. The engineers begin an intense discussion about how to measure the width and depth of the holes to make sure they are sufficient for holding the potted, medium-sized trees, without a measuring device available. You quietly grab an unused implement, and mark the distance of the diameter and depth of the pots with your hand on the handle of the implement, then demonstrate what is needed to finish creating the holes.
And so it goes the rest of the morning. Al is not unfriendly, and a slightly younger version of you would have bristled at all of this manly vigor being swung about. But, you have made peace with who you are–an observer, a careful recorder of the words and deeds of those more active and vocal than you. Al is generous with his manliness, not overbearing. He has a deftness, as he storms through an area of recently planted flowers with a wheelbarrow full of gravel, you expect his foot to crush one of the flowers, but he misses the flower each time by centimeters.
While most of the men continue to demonstrate their virility to their female colleagues and Al’s wife, a resident of the hospice steps out of the room to chat with you.
“I was doing this last week until I got sick,” he says. You talk quietly with him about landscaping, and the pleasant beauty of the hospice courtyard. He isn’t clingy or full of victimhood. He talks as if he’ll get better, and be out in a week or so. He doesn’t take up too much of your time, and thanks you for your efforts before returning to his room.
You begin a conversation with a joyous salesman. He speaks of all the years he’s volunteered at this place, and all the good they do. You tell him that the lady that plays the harp is especially comforting to the residents’ families, and he agrees, but you don’t mention that you were here five years ago being comforted by the harp while you held your mother’s hand. But, something about the way he speaks admiringly of the work they do here makes you very sad. You just want to be alone, and so you go and pull weeds.
You can’t seem to get back whatever courage you had to come here today, and when they invite the team in for lunch and a tour of the place, you have to leave. You miss your mom so damn much. You don’t want to throw a pity party with people, certainly don’t want anyone to see you crying and comfort you. You hate that shit. You simply miss your mom, and wish she was here on this plane of existence, being that much-needed rock.