Friday, June 23, 2017

Happy Birthday To Whom?

They meant well. Of course they did, they’re nice people. Besides, it’s their job. But the only way I got through last night’s debacle was by telling myself what a great anecdote it would make.

Here it is:

My elderly mother is now in Assisted Living. Fabulous place, we both love it. The people are great. I can’t stress that enough. They’re wonderful. But sometimes, I question their judgment.

For one thing, they occasionally try to enforce fun. Last night was the monthly obligatory birthday dinner. Everyone with a birthday in that month is allowed one guest. This month, that included my mother (and, by invitation, me). They (we) all have to sit at a special long table. There are balloons. There is cake.

Sounds great, right?

Except that it was a long table against a wall and the people use walkers. Try getting between someone who can’t maneuver and a wall to reach your assigned chair. (Oh yeah, you don’t get to sit wherever you want. They decide.) That was fun.

Once I managed to get my butt down, I tried to make polite dinner party conversation with the nice lady on my right. That was a bit of a disaster. As soon as Emily Post would have, had she been alive and in my seat, I turned with some relief to my mother on my left. She was trying to make conversation with a tiny lady with a mischievous smile who was wrapped in a turtleneck and thick jacket. On the hottest day of the year so far. I had sweated off my makeup before I even got there.

Turns out Jacket-lady can’t speak. For discretionary purposes, I won’t describe what happened when she ate. That would be jumping too far ahead anyhow. There was no food for an hour and twenty-five minutes.

A huge, beautifully decorated cake was brought out. We waited ten or fifteen minutes for a handful of non-uniformed employees to be summoned. Happy Birthday Dear Resident was sung. Meanwhile, we watched uniformed wait staff serve meals to everyone else in the communal dining room.

Then the plot twisted. Two more birthday people showed up who weren’t on the list and hadn’t reserved seats! The long table was full, the song had been sung, and the cake had been rolled away.

Another table was shoved over, quickly and efficiently. A cautious young waiter took drink orders and brought soup. Every grandma at the table held her breath as the bowls rattled in his careful but nervous hands. Think of an ant under a magnifying glass. He was a champion. I wanted to applaud or hug him. (I did neither.)

By this time, we’ve been sitting there for about 45 minutes. Everyone else in the room was eating. Many had finished.

The others at the table had all lived there for years. The conversation centered on how it used to be in ye goode olde days, with champagne and special food for the birthday people instead of the same ordinary menu everyone else got. The nice lady across from me has memory issues, so we had this exact same conversation on about a seven minute loop, with increasing emphasis, whenever she looked down at the menu in front of her.

Eventually, the overwhelmed young waiter took food orders with the helpful guidance of the elegant and charming new Dining Room Manager who really ought to work somewhere with a galaxy of Michelin stars and a high rating. My vegetarianism was generously accommodated. Like I said, I love these people.

The cake came back out. By this time, pretty much everyone else in the room was done. They all got slices of cake. It was a really big cake.

It’s now been an hour and twenty minutes. The non-food service employees have all gone home. The room slowly emptied. My truculent neighbor on the right got up, squeezed unsteadily past the late arrivals, grabbed her walker and left. I think she was convinced that she’d already eaten.

A woman across from me had gone through an entire oxygen tank and had to switch to her emergency back-up one.

Eventually, the food arrived. Except for my garden burger, it was the exact same food everyone else had gotten. There was more discussion about that. There was also a mix-up because one of the ladies had been sitting for so long she’d forgotten what she’d asked for and took someone else’s entrĂ©e. A fresh one had to be ordered. You can imagine how well that went over.

Jacket-lady was wheeled away. The process of getting her back into a wheelchair involved three people (two worked there, one lady at the table tried to be helpful but got in the way) and an equal dollop of tragedy and comedy. Even when she stiffened her body like a little surfboard to avoid the wheelchair, Jacket-lady smiled that same sweet, twinkly smile.

The remainder of the cake was wheeled back out. One of the late arrivals insisted on being sung to. Repeatedly. Since the employee choir had long gone, the Manager did a solo. In Italian. In an operatic baritone. (I kid you not. He was amazing.) On further request, he even brought out champagne and sparkling cider for the handful of remaining celebrants. I had cider. It was good.

After we left, my mother apologized for having invited me. I assured her that it was much better this way. Now, it’s a story.