First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
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.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
It Always Seemed Like Autumn
Chapter 11, Part I
It would always seem like autumn in the Home no matter what the season. Inside and outside, its atmosphere was perpetual fall; not the mellow glory of an October afternoon, but rather the dying vestiges of a November twilight, when the last summer leaves, brittle and crackling, cling melancholically to the branches.
It was a tunnel of another generation, built more than 50 years before. Despite being only a few blocks from Sarah’s modernistic residence, it felt decades away and spheres apart. Its architecture was imitation English manor, although devoid of any grandeur or stateliness, its three brick stories dominating the surrounding neighborhood of tree-lined streets and neat, respectable houses.
Not an unpleasant setting, protected from the traffic and congestion so prevalent on the busy avenue edging Sarah’s tunnel. Also, unlike Sarah’s facility, it was graced by the benevolence of a prestigious board of government whose members were diplomatic and society figures (including a vice president’s wife) who might themselves someday fill one of the Home’s numerous single rooms.
And yet, by its very name, the Home was from its inception condemned to be isolated from the daily lives of even its nearest neighbors. For until the early 1980s “incurable” was an indelible part of its title and although humanely changed, was never to be truly escaped. It was an appendage tacked on at the Home’s baptism—as antiquated as the indoor plumbing and central heating of a half-century. It was as if all the residents were under a continual sentence of death, officially and unconditionally, pronounced.
But I knew little of the Home’s history that first Monday evening of my course as I walked up the curving driveway toward the main entrance. It was late September more than three years after Sarah’s death, slightly less than two years since my futile mission on the Great Mall. A long time, it seemed, without art and the challenge of teaching.
I had tried to convince myself that I could actually be content in the permanent office position that I presently held. However, the memories of Sarah and her friends kept interfering with my conscience, as if I were somehow guilty of abandoning them and their contemporaries to the sterile confinement of institutional life.
I would have returned to Sarah’s tunnel but everything had changed. Alice was gone, driven out by a new and what, she described as, corrupt administration. More of my class members had died, including Mr. Ginsburg, while others had grown sicker or increasingly disoriented.
Thus, now I was virtually beginning again, and yet, for some reason, I had never felt so alone. Though only quarter after seven, it was already night outside, the air chill and oppressive, as if I had just entered a deep void. Within the engulfing darkness, the Home stood forbiddingly—its high massive walls seeming to obstruct my path as I ventured closer to my destination.
Suddenly I heard a sharp, wailing sound in the cold stillness, reverberating through the floors and corridors of the building. What was it, I asked myself? Half-scream, semi-howl, anonymous and nameless, its source ultimately unidentifiable. For the next five years, it would both greet and assault me, relentless and inevitable—the special barometer of my own endurance and the strength I needed to pass through the entry door. For I would never be truly prepared for the world that was awaiting me, not today, nor any tomorrow.
COMING NEXT: THE FIRST AUTUMN
Photo: Courtesy of Joan Hart
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