I liked James. On good days he would smile at you and maybe remember your name. You could tell he had been a real charmer in his youth.
On bad days James was like all the rest of them: ga ga. That is a cruel way to put it, but true.
Alzheimers, the one disease we still couldn't cure. Thanks to good nutrition and the wonders of medical science a whole generation were living longer, but we forgot something. The brain. Their brains were giving up twenty years before their bodies.
Nursing homes dedicated to people who didn't recognize their own wives, daughters or sons.
People can't cope with it. The stress and horror of trying to juggle your job, family and care for your mom while she slowly goes mad is unbearable. So they dump them on us.
Top end of the market we are. Top quality care we provide. They pay through the nose and we make sure your loved one looks clean and respectable when you come for one of your infrequent visits.
I don't blame them. It's painful. It's awful. It's life.
I know 'cos my mom died of it.
Some of them never had any visitors. How had we fucked up our society so much that there was no one to care? Married to the job, not a living breathing human being who would love you and put up with you till the day you died – even when every time you coughed you farted.
State of the art coffee makers and convertible BMWs don't draw on the walls and scream the house down at 3AM, but they also didn't produce grandkids who come to see Nana every weekend and plaster her room with drawings: drawing she proudly tells you about as you clean her room.
James had never had any visitors before. No I lie. A few years ago a blonde haired lady came. Just like all the other rest: high heels and power suits. Like the rest she hadn't stayed long and she was crying as she left. They all cry. Tears shed for the person they remember knowing, not the broken down imitation they have just seen.
James was like all the rest too. A huddled up husk of a man, bundled up in an old dressing gown and left sitting by the window in his room – alone, day after day. I'd talk to him when I came, but most of the time he was left alone with whatever memories he had left.
But then suddenly he had a friend.
The first time he came five minutes before visiting time ended. He said he wouldn't be long. He said he just wanted to see James and make rude comments about his choice of pajamas.
I didn't like him at first. He didn't look trust worthy and the first thing he did was poke James viciously in the shoulder to wake him up.
But then I saw James smile in a way he hadn't for a long time. I saw James' eyes light up as he looked up at the man leering over him. So I decided that he was OK. I went off to clean room 213 and left them to it. I'd bend the rules this time. It wasn't like James got many visitors.
He came every day after that. He was fast for a guy with a cane. "Going to see Jimmy," he would yell as he barreled down the corridor past me. But although I always saw him come in I never saw him leave.
"Did you see the guy with the cane?" I asked Tom 'the idiot' orderly.
Tom looked at me blankly. I was just a cleaner. Nothing I said was important. "What guy?"
I always wondered how he got past me.
A week later, on a Thursday, he stuck his head around the corner. "You are too smart to spend the rest of your life changing bedpans and cleaning toilets," he said abruptly. "Go do something else. Look after them in a different way. Go to medical school and find the cure. Make your mom happy. Make sure that no one has to die the way she did ever again."
I just stared at him gob smacked.
He made to leave, but then turned back. "Oh – and if you can make it… 12 PM next Tuesday. He would like you to come."
At 12.15 PM the next Tuesday the Rabbi left, leaving us alone by the grave. Two complete strangers with a tenuous connection. The only two people who had turned up. Trying to do what we thought was right by a man we did not really know.
His name was James. He'd smile at me on a good day. He had a strange friend with a cane. He'd died on a Friday. I had found him with a smile on his face. That was all I knew.
"Did you know him well," said my companion at last.
"I knew him. At the home."
The silence fell awkwardly between us. I racked my brains desperately trying to think of something to say.
"I wonder why his friend with the cane didn't come?"
"What friend?" asked the woman.
"A man with a cane. House I think his name is. He's been visiting lately."
At this the woman gave me a strange look. "I don't think that's possible," she said slowly.
"He died thirty years ago, " she said simply.
Then she pointed to the gravesite and walked away.
I looked down at James' grave. Then I noticed an identical one next to it. This one was older, neglected and overgrown. I pushed aside the grass and looked at the simple inscription.
1959 – 2010
Up on the hill two figures sat watching as the two mourners left the cemetery. Stretched out lazily on the green grass. Leaning together up against the trunk of a giant old elm tree. Whole. One – blue eyes, needed a shave. The other - dark hair, brown eyes: as he had been all those years ago when his hands were as steady and as gentle as his heart. Between them lay a battered wooden cane.
"Pass the pretzels," said the dark haired one.
"No… they are mine."
"You have already eaten most of them."
"That's because I was bored. That's because I was waiting for you to finish 'grooming' yourself. Who knew the old adage 'being late for your own funeral' is actually true."
"Not much of one."
"Your little friend from the home came. I think he fancied you – you rogue. He was always hovering around your room."
The other ignored this. "Cuddy came. That was nice of her."
"Yeah, we must send her a thank you card."
"That'll freak her out."