Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Arts & Aging–Rebirth of the Artist, Meeting Mr. Lee

Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah.

Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.

The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized.  Yet, the tunnel is  a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of  our society and ourselves.

This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.



Return of the Artist

Chapter 8, Part III (Continue from June 5, 2024)

Meeting Mr. Lee

Alice wheeled him in unexpectedly at the last minute. I had just finished introducing myself to the tiny group assembled around a round low table on which I had hopefully piled a potpourri of Cezanne cards, prints, and biographies. Sarah, my helpmate in this task, sat immediately to my right, unfortunately only one of a total of six members in our gathering. The sizable class I had envisioned this morning was now a disappointing illusion.

“Here we are,” Alice cheerfully announced. as she vigorously pushed her silent passenger across the blue carpet toward us.

I turned eagerly in their direction, praying that a file of other wheelchairs would be following close behind them. But they were depressingly alone.

Where were Mr. Ginsburg and Mrs. Gerasimov? Or Mrs. Stevens and her entourage? Or the core of frailer participants and their nurses’s aides? Except for Sarah and the Maybellline lady, the faces surrounding me today were unfamiliar and I suspected, belong to those residents who had simply migrated from their usual perches in the front lobby to the Blue Room, like wintry birds searching for tropical pleasures.

“Aren’t there any more people coming?” I questioned as Alice abruptly deposited the wheelchair and its occupant at the periphery of our circle. I didn’t want to sound critical or reproachful, but hadn’t she promised to bring as many residents as possible?

“Well Mr. Lee is here!” she answered emphatically, confident that this unknown man’s presence explained all. “You’re our artist, aren’t you, Mr. Lee?”

Mr. Lee did not respond, looking stiffly ahead in what seemed his own personal horizon—an exclusive vista, definitely off limits to the rest of us. He was a gray personage, from his lank, thinning hair to his dull, monotone bathroom, to his scruffy slippers. His complexion was pasty and bland. His body, though, not physically failing, rested lifeless and inert in his wheelchair as if he had allowed himself to be placed docilely within its confines, without resistance or objection.

Yet, beneath Mr. Lee’s passivity, I sensed great anger and hostility, sublimated and volcanic, waiting to erupt. Alice had to be aware of it, too. I felt that she was playing some dangerous game that might at any moment dramatically fail. Already I could see Mr. Lee’s hands beginning to twitch, jerking upward erratically, short circuiting in agonizing frustration. Then, from deep in his throat, he emitted a high, harsh noise, half scream, half gurgle, in strangled protest of his fate.

Alice glanced quickly over at me, her smile frozen in worry and tension. Was she doubting the wiseness of her decision to bring Mr. Lee to our class? Could I be trusted? Was I strong enough to contend with him?

“Well, I’ve got to go. I’ll be back later, Mr. Lee,” Alice almost whispered to him as she soothingly rubbed his shoulders from behind, attempting to relax him. “O.K.?” she asked, cajoling and pleading in the same breath.

“O-k-k,” he stuttered, a few moist tears starting to fill his eyes. “O-k-k,” he repeated, his head bending downward in remorseful compliance.

“Good. I’ll see you real soon,” Alice said firmly, leaning over to give Mr. Lee one last hug. Then she stealthily backed out of the Blue Room, winking at me with the air of a co-conspirator. Obviously, she had tricked Mr. Lee and I was now an accomplice in her plot.


From the first 15 minutes or so, Mr. Lee did not move, maintaining the same bowed position in which Alice had left him a few feet away from the white table. I had no idea what to do. Should I ignore him, hoping that he would eventually revive himself? Or should I try to speak to him? Whatever my course,  I found his behavior disconcerting, affecting my ability to concentrate on my discussion of Cezanne with the other residents.

Later, Alice would tell me his history—a modern saga of slow institutionalization and eventual abandonment. Not long ago, Mr. Lee, a man in his sixties, had been a professional portraitist, living independently in an apartment in the city. But then he had a stroke, and his life changed forever.

For from that moment on, he was completely dependent on his daughter and her family. His existence was virtually ruled by them: their plans, their choices, and their whims. Initially, the nursing home seemed a logical solution to her father’s medical crisis. His stay would probably be temporary since the doctors did predict a reasonable recovery. Mr. Lee might not ever regain the same level of functioning as before his illness. For instance, his speech might be slightly slurred and his physical mobility somewhat restricted. The stroke, though, was considered a mild one, and the patient would probably be released from the nursing home in the near future.

However, Mr. Lee’s healing process was not as rapid as expected—or at least according to his family’s timetable. When he indicated that he was ready, his daughter and son-in-law balked. Certainly they’d be glad to have him stay with them—hadn’t Joyce their maid fixed up the guest room especially for him—but shouldn’t he wait a bit longer, just to be sure?

So Mr. Lee remained in the home for another month until his daughter relented and allowed her father to move in with them. Yet, his residence was surprisingly brief. Unfortunately, the family had to take their vacation in March—no other time was possible. In the spring, the daughter would be swamped by her charity commitments, her husband, an architect, would be in the first stages of an important shopping mall project, and the children would have final exams.

Again, Mr. Lee was admitted to the home, ostensibly for only two weeks. But two weeks became three weeks and the family was incommunicado for the entire period. Throughout each endless day of that extra week, Mr. Lee endured a voiceless hell, for he refused to talk to the staff, stubbornly guarding his silence until the family returned.

The vacation symbolized the beginning of a long series of familial excuses. In April, the house was being renovated, in May, they (minus Mr. Lee, of course) had to take an expected trip to see his son-in-law’s brother in Arizona, and in June, out-of-town houseguests would be visiting off and on for all that month.

From March through June, Mr. Lee probably totaled about seven weeks with his daughter—on the average, about two weeks a month. His days were governed by the constant fear of rejection and the insufferable anxiety of never knowing where he would be, when he would be going there, and how long he would stay.

By July, he could barely speak, not even to his family—every word seemed to begin and end in a stammer or stutter. In addition, he was unable to walk, although both the staff of the nursing home and his doctors could discover no plausible cause for this condition.

The daughter became increasingly impatient with her father, threatening to commit him to the facility permanently. One evening in early July, he began to cry uncontrollably during dinner; it was then, it seems, that she resolved to relinquish responsibility for her father and to send him back to the custody of others. They were professionals, she reasoned, and they knew how to handle her father better than she or her family ever could.

She acted quickly and decisively, and by the end of July her father was interred in the home for what remained of his life. No regrets or apologies were expressed by the daughter and her husband. Alice would recall with bitterness as she concluded her story, only relief and a sense of justification that they had simply taken the natural course of action.

Now, a month later, Mr. Lee was in my temporary care. For one short hour, I was his sole guardian in the Blue Room, my name added to the growing list of nurse’s aides, orderlies, volunteers, social workers and recreational personnel allotted to Mr. Lee. Some well-intentioned and sympathetic, others indifferent and unfeeling, even at times hostile, and a few naive and ignorant like me.




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