More Than She Knew

More Than She Knew

She sits by a bright, bare window
in a chair that has seen too much wet.
She is picking on days in her past,
fingers digging nervously into scalp.
Her nails are unkempt and bloody.
It’s an old habit, this searching for answers
in any place her palms can reach.

Last month it was a sore on her knee;
the month before, she became convinced
a bone was coming through her ankle.
She felt for it continuously, with vigor,
until a round bloody hole was dug.
The dirty bandage is still there,
though no one will ever visit to see it.

Sometimes she can do nothing but scream.
Her voice carries down hallways to haunt
the dreams of someone else‘s company.
Strangers wonder what torments her so.
They walk by her door; see the frail body,
eyes closed, mouth open, hands searching.
They look away, and walk away, quickly.

The young doctor comes every Tuesday
to perform a cursory update in her chart.
Depression. Obsessive. Compulsive.
Possible history of post traumatic dementia.
But, when the hall lights go down at night,
she remembers a happy house on Crystal Lake,
and a girl who searched for answers in her palm.

Shirley Alexander


I was a volunteer in a local nursing home for several years. I would help with baths, do manicures, brush hair, clean dentures, read books out loud, and (more often than not) just sit and listen. I saw so much pain.

This poem is really a compilation of many characters. There actually was a lady from a place called Crystal Lake, or so she said. There were screamers, women who scratched holes in their scalps, and one man who dug for bones in his feet. It always seemed to me that they were digging for answers, mostly as to what had happened to bring them to this place in their lives. It broke my heart every time I went, but I went, because most of them expected me.

All of the women, and sometimes the men, I talked with told me they were going home soon. None of them knew their houses had already been emptied and re-occupied by other people, usually the very family members who never visited.

I quit going to the nursing home when I started taking care of my brother. I have not been back, and most of the people I knew there are gone now. I doubt I will ever do it again. I am getting older myself, and I have already seen too much pain for my years. Still, it worries me when I think of myself, and of Dude, and where we might be, not so many years from now.


Filed under death, life, poetry

22 responses to “More Than She Knew

  1. belfastdavid


    This is exceptional – scarey in the accuracy with which it describes the lady. I too have nursed some of those people and it always broke my heart too.

    In some ways too it reminds me of my mother who, in her latter years, spent too much time “picking on days in her past”

    A truely moving poem for I can have those worries too and you touched right into them.

    Much love


    • David, I suppose it is scary, a bit. The description is accurate because it is written from true experience. This is the way most of us will end, unless we die young.

      The thing that is not said, but should be understood, is that there is a lot of really wonderful living between that house on the lake and that stained chair.

      Thank you for taking time to read.

  2. Elaine Randall English

    I am so neglectful of reading my friend’s work because I’m not able to write anything myself since last year and it makes me terribly sad to see that others are able to work. However, at your request, Shirley, I did read this bit….sadder than sad….but I swallow that because I’ve seen so life that I’m jaded….that’s probably why I can’t write….life is SO sad….terribly sad and unfair….everywhere I look and in everyone I know, there are the symptoms of that…..what can I do?…not a thing….but sometimes I can rise above and hopefully inspire someone when the Muse is willing…..God grant us all inspiration.

    • Elaine,

      I do miss your writing. I’m sorry if this post has made you sad, especially with all that is going on in your life. I certainly should have thought about that before I asked you to read.

      There is still much happiness and joy to bee found in life, and I do hope some of it comes your way soon. I look forward to what words that experience will inspire.

      I hope the weather up your way is as brisk and lovely as it is here. I have just returned from a short run, and the cold air was wonderful until it started feeling like knives in my throat. LOL I’ll go again when it warms up a bit more.

      Much love to you, and thank you for reading.

      • Elaine Randall English

        I’m not UNhappy Shirley…..just without inspiration….which makes me sad…my actual LIFE is fine…..but my core person needs the well to fill up…….so that I can overflow….you know?…I’m LOVING this cold weather, sister! SO much! Love ya back!

      • The older I get, the more I like summer and fall, Elaine. I get colder than I used to. I still love winter landscapes, but I have to bundle up so much to get outside! It all feels very confining.
        I do hope we will have a good, cold winter this year, though. We need it. The durn bugs like to have eat me up (LOL) on my walks this year!

        Love you,

  3. Shirley,

    Exceptional is my response as well. In the past few years, I have watched older relatives go through the aging process,some rather well right up to their death and others not so well as they were plagued with one form of dementia or stroke…and now realize that I am within 15 or so years of facing the same realities…discomforting at best.

    Thank you for allowing me to read…I will subscribe as well…I have created a blog here on WordPress and welcome your visits when you have a free moment.


    • Thank you, James. I really appreciate that you took time to read and comment.

      The older I get, the more I worry about having to depend on other people someday. That will be very difficult for me. I expect whatever caretaker I am lucky enough to land will not like me very much. Of course, my brother said the same thing when he found out he had ALS. I wouldn’t trade the time we had together while I was his caretaker for anything in this world. I suppose love gets us through anything.

      I have subscribed to your blog.

      Thanks so much,

  4. If at all possible I will never wind up in one of these places. I’m almost positive my aunt was murdered by another nursing home patient. She told me she was afraid of her less than a week before thy found her dead. Besides that, there is rampant abuse which goes on in these sad, sad places. Even without the abuse and out and out neglect it is an awful place to be. I applaud you and those like you who tried to make a difference for these sad people.

    • There are some good ones around, Jerry. Or, maybe it is more accurate to say “good floors” in some of them. What most Americans don’t realize is that there is a wide discrepancy between the care given to insured and self-pay residents, and the way Medicaid residents get treated. The same is true of hospital stays.
      I knew one couple who had a lot of money. All the property was in his name, so the children put him in a good facility and he was completely Medicare and self-pay. The woman had no property in her name. The children put her in another home with Medicare/Medicaid footing the bill. The government takes property for re-imbursement on Medicaid patients.
      She went quickly, with lumps and bruises, and rusty ankles. I went to see her one time, and she was being served her dinner. There was a beige gelatinous lump of something cold on her plate. I asked the aid what it was, and she smelled of it and flatly announced; “chicken soup”. Yep, cold right out of the can, with no water added.
      Everyone says I am stingy with myself. I’m not stingy with other people, but I try to save all I can. I am determined that if I do go into a nursing home someday, it will be as a fully insured, or self-paying resident!

      Thanks for reading, my friend.

  5. Hi Shirley,
    I’m with those who deem this an exceptional poem as well. Your insight and ability to tell some of the story of these individuals is moving.
    The truth hurts with a clarity that’s wrenching.
    I’ve seen people similar to this myself in my travels. i’ve spent far too much in hospitals.
    I also spent most of last year gripped in the fear of the inevitable of ageing and dying too aware of mortalility.
    What you’ve wirtten is my greatest fear for myself and those i love. It took me all the year to rip myself away from that potential vision of the future.
    We owe it to ourselves to live our lives in the best manner that we can. It’s certainly one of the cruelties in life that we have no insight into the latter years of our lives. All we can have is compassion and empathy towards those ageing around us and live our lives as much to full as possible. We can’t avoid the inevitable, there are no answers but we can’t freeze in fear of reality either.
    Your words remind me to keep a big heart open and not close my eyes, your words also remind me to keep on embracing all the is wonderful and beautiful in life and never loose sight of it.


    • Tikarma,

      Thank you so much for braving this blog and leaving me such a wonderful comment.

      I’m glad you are no longer in that place. Please don’t let reading this get you down. As I said to David, there is a lot of wonderful living to be done before we reach anything like this. These memories we are making might be what keeps us going someday.

      I used to say I could bear to lose anything, so long as I was able to keep my mind. After watching my brother die of ALS, frozen to his bed, with his brain still alert as ever (he was very smart), I have just about decided I would rather be crazy as a loon on a steady diet of Jack Daniels than to go that way. At least I could be a source of entertainment and laughter for the folks who were watching me. I’m sure I could put on a good show, given the right set of “certified credentials”. *trying to laugh*

      The thing I really worry about most is Dude.

      Take care of yourself, keep a sunny disposition, and have a REALLY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!

      Much love (((BIG HUGS)))

  6. Jim Turnerr

    The more I learn about you, what you do, what you have done, and the more I read of your poems, like this one, the more amazed I am by you and happier to be a friend. Jim

    • Jim, I am really touched by your comment. Thank you.
      I am not a perfect person. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I know a lot of people who can and will accomplish more than I ever could. The two things I have, I think, are empathy and acceptance. I believe we all have a certain amount of natural empathy for other people, but most of us are too concerned with our own lives to notice what is happening to people around us. Poets seem to have a little more than most folks, which is probably a large part of what inspires them to write.
      Accepting the inevitable actually frees us to enjoy the time we have. We will all end the same way–ten toes up, deflated lungs, and soiled underwear (that’s why they never give it back to the family). One of the truths behind this poem is that it isn’t really the end that bothers us…it’s how we get to the end.
      I am reminded of a scene from a movie: Grumpy Old Men. Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathieu’s characters are discussing the death of a friend, and how lucky he was to die so quickly, of a heart attack. It’s meant to be funny, and very human. But, it is sad how near it is to what we all feel, but can’t say aloud. “I want to go softly”.
      I have seen a lot of people who did not go “softly”, at least by appearances. Maybe their thoughts were somewhere beautiful, away from the reality around them. That’s what I like to think. Meanwhile, all we can do is take care of those who need us most, and hope someone does the same for us someday.
      Now I’m rambling. “sigh”
      I am blessed to have you for a friend, Jim. And, I will never forget the day I read about your life on your Myspace profile. I was, and still am, so impressed. I remember thinking how much I wish I could have known you all my life.
      Take care of yourself. I hope we both (someday, not so soon) find a soft place to land when we get ready to stick our toes up and call it a day. And, if there is anything to re-incarnation, look for me! *grin*

      Much love,

  7. christine


    I hope you don’t mind my commenting on this wonderful but sad poem. I read your poetry from time to time and love it all, but this one really hit a very raw and open wound which is so deep inside it may never be able to access the air it needs to heal. My mum. very sadly, spent her last two years in a nursing home. Myself and my sisters tried so hard to keep her at home, taking it in turn to do this at our respective homes, until it knawed away to the core of us and became impossiible. She was often sitting in a ‘chair that has seen too much wet’ .
    We spent many hours with her to make her feel as though she was at home, but every time we left her, for however short a period, she would ask the staff if we were dead.
    I don’t think saying it was a relief when she passed away is cruel for I could alwys see in her face a puzzled, pained expression which seemed to be pleading for relief.
    I dont often talk about this and it is good to do so.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this



    • Christine,

      I am always delighted to discover a new reader. Thank you for reading, and especially for taking the time to comment.

      Christine, you need to appreciate yourself. Not everyone is in charge of their own time enough to be able to take care of someone at home full-time. Not every patient is manageable in a home environment. You were there for your mother all you could be. You did everything you could do. She had to know you loved her. She might have gotten off track sometimes, but when it mattered, when she was coherent, she knew. It was a selfless act of love. That says a lot of good about you. I’m sure other people in your life see that and appreciate it.

      I’m thrilled to get to know more about you. I value David‘s friendship, and it is good to know he has someone like you in his life. I recognize that you are a wonderful person, and it’s good also to know you have someone like him in your life.

      Please don’t hesitate to express your opinion on any of my poetry. I always appreciate feedback. I’m sorry if this one touched you in any way that made you sad, but I’m glad if anything I’ve said has helped you realize the good you did for your mother.

      Take care, and God bless.

  8. Having worked in back wards of psychiatric hospitals I know how accurate this is. Excellent portrayal, Shirley!

    • Thank you, Pris. It is, sadly, accurate. But, I’ve seen a lot of good communities in nursing homes too. Some of them have groups of residents who meet to play games like poker and chess, or to make music together, watch movies, etc. I think all of these activities, especially in a group setting, helps keep them involved and their brains active. But, it’s the ones who have lapsed beyond the point of being able to interact with others who are the most in need of having others interact with them. This is true of all people, regardless of where they reside.

      I love that you came to my site here to read. I respect your opinion very much. Thank you for taking time and making the effort. I know things aren’t always easy for you. I hope this weekend will be a really good one for you.

      Much love,

  9. Shirley this had me on the edge of my chair; raw and real and very moving…but also disciplined which gives it even more power!! More please….

  10. Thank you, James, for reading and for leaving such a nice comment. I always look forward to your opinion when I post. It isn’t often anything about me is described as disciplined. *grin* I rather like it. I might strive to make a habit of it. 🙂

    Take care,

  11. Doris Emmett

    What can I say Shirley…my mother could have been the woman you speak of (all of them actually)…the saddest memories I have are of the place where she was…can’t erase them from my head. She eventually died (Divine mercy?) by choking on a piece of meat…which she was not supposed to be given since she had no teeth…I never quite knew what to make of the “cause of death”. I supposed perhaps a “human angel of mercy” decided to take
    her out of her horrid life and put her in a “better place”…there are ghosts n those places…My God if they could speak…the river of tears would be never-ending.

    Your poem, I know, was real and it spoke volumes.

    • Doris,

      I am so sorry about your mother. My aunts Thursday and Vivian both died in a nursing home. Neither of them would have been manageable in a home environment, so I have no guilt over their passing. I do miss them terribly, and feel much sorrow for the way their lives ended. But, as I said to another reader, I like to think they were somewhere else, in their minds, and unaware of a lot of what was happening to them. Both of them had Alzheimer’s.

      The more I know about you, the more I identify with you. Thank you for reading, and I hope you find great peace in the warmth of happier memories with your mother.

      Much love,