Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel-The Artist Inside-Erica & Capricorn Soul Mates Forever

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.



The Artist Inside

Chapter 12, part 1

 Soul Mates in Flight

Erica was the artist inside—the Home’s chief painter and connoisseur. A direct descendent of European civilization, its cultural richness and vitality, now locked within the sterility of the institution’s boundaries, indefinitely imprisoned by her own disability.

But during the first months of the course, it was Erica who sustained me through the often soundless hours I spent with her peers. She quickly became my partner and equal, the other half of a continuous dialogue in which we dominated each session, mutually exchanging ideas and knowledge about our common field.

I was no more her teacher than she my student, the distinction between our roles increasingly blurred. She symbolized the only link in my class with art and its traditions, the countless centuries of visual images and their creators. Van Gogh, Matisse, Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Modigliani, she knew every one of them, truly a living encyclopedia of art history at my disposal.

Perhaps unconsciously, I planned and wrote all my lessons with Erica’s voice echoing in my mind. A memory of Europe, genteelly accented, pleasantly refined, though sometimes too low, nearing a whisper, at times inaudible in class—a failing for which Erica frequently and contritely apologized.

I learned early that she was Viennese, a birthright of which she seemed proud. She had studied art since she was a child, practicing professionally but, I surmised, never seriously. Her career overall was checkered, including some unexpected callings—beautician, real estate agent, fashion consultant. “A jack of all trades,” she once gleefully christened herself, apparently relishing her versatility.

World War II was the pivotal event of her life. Now in her fifties, she had experienced its hardships as a teenager, surviving first the Germans, then the Russians, and finally the Americans, However, ten years ago, multiple sclerosis had stricken her, a diseases as formidable as any battle in any war. Yet, she remained resilient and undaunted, bearing her illness not in a saintly way, but with humanity.

Our relationship matured rapidly beyond the class. I began to visit Erica on the weekends, usually every other Saturday, a habit that extended through the Christmas season and well into the next year. A friendship developed between us, though, ultimately, an uneven bonding governed by the circumstances and realities of the nursing home.For I naturally held the advantage as the privileged visitor from the outside. Healthy and still mobile, I was free to come and go, while Erica, invalid and confined was unfairly dependent on me, forced to adjust to my schedule and convenience.

I normally called on Erica in the morning, walking up the side stairway around 11:00, my customary route to the second floor where she would always be waiting. The Home seemed like a tomb then, the entire lobby devoid of any activity or movement. The adjoining hallways were deserted, too, except for a random nurse or solitary resident wheeling back to bed.

The only occupied space would be McDonald Hall, the Home’s auditorium which was adjacent to Lady Hancock’s room. As I passed through its expansive doors, I could see Erica and three or four residents scattered across the vast interior. Sometimes conversing but more likely separate and uncommunicating, wayfarers in wheelchairs and walkers, floating on an empty sea of loneliness and alienation.

Erica was inevitably engaged, chatting with one of the residents, often Isabelle, the English lady from my class. However, upon my entrance, she immediately broke away from her companion, whizzing over to me in her high-tech electric wheelchair.

“Let’s go,” was her urgent greeting, as if she were fleeing from some imminent pursuers. “Quick, quick, before she follows us!” she would gesture anxiously back toward the resident she had just abandoned. Her actions were jerky and fractured, the result of her disease. Reminiscent of a bird, her elbows flapped outward at frenzied angles, while her head cocked sharply to the side, flicking in erratic sync with her upper limbs.

“Quick, quick, into Lady Hancock’s,” she beseeched me, as we sped past Sue, the gray-braided woman also in my group, slumped comalike in the corner. Should I try to revive her, I thought guiltily, but Erica was driving relentlessly toward her beckoning haven.

“Shut the door before she finds us. Yes, yes, that’s right,” Erica would instruct me as we propelled ourselves into the room. Then she would attempt to relax.

“Could you fix my feet?” she would ask plaintively, a slight whine in her tone. “I’m sorry they hurt….yes, that’s good,” she signed as I carefully moved one foot a few inches to the right.

“No,” she would scream, when I barely touched the other foot. “No, please, just leave it,” she pleaded. I backed hurriedly away from her, assuming my own seat. Would she forgive me for my transgression?

“It’s O.K…’s O.K., now,” she uttered hoarsely, the pain starting to abate. “I’ll be fine…thank you,” she said finally, both exhausted and relieved. For a brief instant all her energy seemed to have ebbed away, depleted by that one second of excruciating suffering, I had caused.

Then we would talk—in the beginning mainly about Erica’s past. I, the avid listener, fully concentrating on every syllable, for she was generally difficult to hear. Not really a long story, nor a boring one, its most dramatic episodes enacted almost prematurely in her youth.

At 17, she had gone temporarily blind, recovering her eyesight after a year of total darkness. Then the war years, with their bombings, slaughter, fear and death: the loss of her soldier brother, the evacuation from Vienna, the hideout in the mountains with her mother and sister, and her encounter with an American tank.

The remainder seemed mundane and ordinary by comparison—at least what she told me. I suspected that certain pieces were missing or swiftly skipped over. The ex-husband, for instance, who, according to Erica, she divorced merely because of tedium on her part. She spoke of him with nonchalance and lack of interest, alluding once or twice to his more romantic replacement, who also had since disappeared.

Everything was behind her—at least that precious existence on the other side of the Home’s brick walls. If individual biographies were written on each resident, they would be divided into two distinct halves, before and after entering the Home. A line had cut into their lives, and only the strongest like Erica could preserve both selves equally, connecting the one to the other—the former Erica with the present Erica.

Within the Home, Erica would not allow herself to be overlooked or forgotten, as if she were the star attraction, a standout among the other residents whom she mostly ignored. Instead she focused her attention on either staff or visitors like me.

She seemed to consider the Home and its inner environment her private domain. She delighted in giving me a grand tour, guiding me through its drafty passageways and musty walls, wheeling down the interminable rows of doors that appeared to lead nowhere, her itinerary unchanged: first her room, a favorite view of the garden from an enclosed porch, the grand piano, invariably concluding with Capricorn.

He was the institutional bird, a richly plumed gray and yellow cockatoo. His cage was often set in an alcove off the second floor, where he would sit on his perch, busily observing his wingless counterparts. Like Erica, a bit of a show-off, singing and whistling non-stop, his repertoire including Colonel Bogie’s march and a wolf whistle aimed indiscriminately at both sexes.

Erica adored Capricorn, adopting him as her personal treasure. But always intermingled with her love and sheer joy of seeing him was her own despair. For Capricorn was her mirror image, her twin. He in his cage, she in her wheelchair.

“Oh, they never leave him in peace,” she fretted to me during one of my initial visits. “They keep him up all night. He shouldn’t be out here off the hall. It’s too noisy, everyone passes by. And they forget to put the cover on, too. Look how he keeps shutting his eyes.” I peered closely into the cage. It was true. He was obviously tired.

“Why don’t they leave you alone, my Cappie,” Erica cooed to him, her voice high, inflected, imitative of baby talk. “I wish I could take you out of here with me. Just the two of us. What do you think, Cappie?”

I realized then that, above all, Erica wanted to escape from the Home, her entire being, and energies were fixated on this goal. And Capricorn was the personification of this driving need, her soul mate forever in obsessive flight.





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