Melody of Carpe Diem
by Susan Sage
As Melody packs her suitcases, she practices saying the town’s name—Carpe Diem—over and over. There she’ll learn how to seize time better than ever before. She’s looking forward to getting a fresh start by moving to a new area. Nice at any age, yet nicer still, when you’re seventy and have dealt with so much loss and have become nearly buried beneath all the dust and memorabilia. Not only is she moving, but a new job’s waiting for her, as well. She never thought she’d be working—or would want to work—at this point in life. Also, she’s going to sing every morning like she once did.
Before starting work on her second morning here, Melody attends a new employee reception at which she receives a packet of information, her name tag, and also a deliciously fresh donut and coffee. She has decided to revert to her birth name: Melpomene – though her name-tag just read ‘Mel,’ – which will be easier for the residents to read (those who still can, of course). If anyone asks, at least she’ll be able to tell them that she was named after the Greek goddess of memory.
Seven others, besides herself, had been hired at the same time. Katrina, their supervisor (also a nurse), makes them feel welcome and stresses the importance of working together as a team. Her ‘ice-breaker’ activity is one Mel had played before. Each of them says their name to the group, preceded by an adjective describing some aspect of their personality. Her group consists of: Loving Lenny, Busy Becky, Likeable Lisa, Truthful Tara, Charismatic Ken, Entertaining Ella, and Memorable Mel. The tricky part is first introducing everyone else before oneself. In no time at all, everyone had it down since it’s such a small group. This is followed by the lilting laughter of the relieved: their memories are in working order (or at least well-enough) for what next needs to be accomplished.
They ride together in a small open-air bus (the kind you see on zoo tours) through the town. Likeable Lisa and Entertaining Ella point at some of the signs on residential street corners: Forget-Me-Not Lane, Recall Avenue, Reminiscences Road, and Memory Lane. Besides the usual businesses along Main Street stood Memory Bank, and at the edge of town Memory Motel (the only motel where visiting family members can stay).
Ten years earlier, an ailing family farm stood on the land where Carpe Diem now thrives. A clean, attractive town of a few thousand residents…Hanging baskets of pink and purple wave petunias proudly line Main Street like fancy bridesmaids. Cars are banned; the business district only allows bicycles, golf carts. Manicured lawns and bird baths so clear you can drink from them – not that you would, though Harold Winters had, not once, but several times. Not especially strange behavior considering that most residents are seventy-plus and suffer from dementia. Certainly a state-of-the-art place to live for those losing their memories… It could have been designed by Walt Disney…Not merely due to the scads of vibrant flowers, but the many balloons and colorful storefronts. Even medical clinics and facades of apartment houses are painted in both vibrant and pastel hues. Even clothing of local inhabitants glow in the dark… (Mel will soon discover that much of the apparel does – in case a resident was out roaming in the middle of the night, they could easily be spotted.)
That first morning, before shops open, and only a few residents are out walking, she notices that each person they pass stops—dead in their tracks—to get a better glance at the group of new workers riding by them on the bus. They wave and smile as if those on the bus are celebrities. Such a friendly town! Once their initial five minute tour is over, Katrina begins driving the route again, in order to drop them off at their various jobs: Loving Larry at the pet store; Truthful Tara at the bank…
It perplexes her that there isn’t a bar in town; everything looks perfect, too perfect…so white-washed. Still, life here—hopefully—will be way better than before. In the past couple years all five members of her family died (her husband, parents, and older brother) – both accidentally and from cancer. “You’re way too young to be a widow,” everyone had said. Her two closest friends had moved south, and the city which had once dazzled her, now dizzied and confused her. Some nights she woke up unable to breathe, and on others she couldn’t sleep at all. So she’d downsized by selling or giving away most of her possessions. A simple lifestyle helped, as did a couple of prescribed medications, but nothing could bring back her former life. The cacophony of the city nearly drove her insane. Always one for delving deep into her memories, but now she could no longer capture them. Time for her to do something…move somewhere else…It was then she saw the curious online ad about caretakers needed for Carpe Diem. Only two days after filling out a long application form – she was hired. Strange that the form asked for her medical history and specific questions about whether or not she had ancestors who’d suffered from dementia). She hadn’t believed her good fortune at landing the job at such a difficult time. Maybe at last she’d found her true calling.
What she can’t figure out is why the night sky’s never all that dark, but full of twinkling stars. Some nights, the moon appears much larger than it ever has before. Blue skies are never that anemic blue, but a brilliant sapphire. The only clouds—at least those she notices—are always fluffy. What are those called? Cumulus? Or is that a math term? She finds herself singing at night and in the morning – folk songs from her teens and twenties. She doesn’t know any of the new and popular ones.
Unlike the others, Mel has two jobs in one: First, to put up signs, and then to assist residents with grocery shopping. In the following weeks and months, it turns out that putting up new signs and repairing old ones, takes up the better part of her mornings. The signs are merely single words for objects, places, or simple commands. Do NOT swim in pond! (One of the most ignored signs in Carpe Diem.) Katrina encourages her to make up some of her own signs. (Cry if you feel like it was one she felt particularly proud of, but Katrina wouldn’t let her post it.) Still, the sign-making and posting feels a little too labor intensive; she much prefers shopping for those who could no longer do their own. She so enjoys those startled yet grateful faces, after they open the door to find her standing there with a bag of groceries. All the customers and clerks at the various stores now know her by name. She begins to feel like a definite asset in the workplace world of Carpe Diem.
In no time at all, she becomes friends with Lisa and Tara. The three frequently get together for meals and movies, or strolls through town. Tara is less content with life than the other two. As pleasant a place as it is, don’t they want to occasionally take a drive somewhere else? Maybe the next town over, or the city, for an afternoon…Tara insists that she’d be happy to drive. (There are a few rental cars available for workers wishing to visit family or friends from their previous lives.) However, Lisa and Mel shudder at the thought of even temporarily leaving their little oasis. Boring old biddies! Tara doesn’t talk to them for the next few days, and when she finally does so, she tells them she believes there’s something “not quite right” about Carpe Diem. Increasingly she’s felt like Katrina and other higher-level managers are watching her. Do they ever feel like that, too?
“No different than at any other job,” Mel replies, adding how she truly enjoys living up to the town’s name. Now that she knows how to enjoy time, she only sometimes grieves for those she’s lost. Still, she wonders about her own disinterest in ever leaving town. Maybe she should be suspicious like Tara. If so, Mel doesn’t lose any sleep over it. In fact, she rarely loses any sleep.
She sings the old tunes in the morning, but no longer much at night. Days and months go by, one pretty much the same as any other. That is, until she notices that with the exception of Lisa and Tara, she hasn’t been seeing the others from her training group. While they hadn’t gotten together often, they once exchanged pleasantries on the sidewalks, or in the stores, or restaurants. Doesn’t Lisa and Tara find that a bit odd? They both shrug and Lisa giggles in that irritating little way of hers. Now that she thinks of it, the ‘free’ courses she’s been encouraged to take have been rather unusual, too. So many memory quizzes and guest speakers who lectured about memory loss. Some of the memory games, she must admit, are fun and she’s been playing them with those she shopped for in the afternoons (usually after helping them put away groceries).
Next, follow several incidents of forgetting to turn off the coffee pot after heading out to work in the morning…Sometimes she’s even forgotten to shut the front door. Twice now there have been complaints about an odor coming from her apartment. On both occasions, she’d forgotten to take out the garbage. But then comes a day when she can’t find her wallet. She knows it’s in the apartment—somewhere—she’d put it someplace for safe-keeping; however, this time she’d out-smarted herself.
In the mail arrives a relocation notice: she must move into another building – with assistance, of course. She hadn’t put in a request and now realizes how much she likes her small apartment. She’ll miss her lovely view of the courtyard with its many plum trees and Forget-me-nots…Why? Katrina’s unable to give her a satisfactory reason and doesn’t look all that surprised. Seeing how distressed Mel is, she makes an appointment for her to see a doctor who can hopefully explain it better.
But Mel cancels it.
Lisa and Tara don’t blame her for doing so, and come over with dessert the evening following her move. Lisa claims she likes Mel’s new place better than the old one, though it’s a little smaller and she, too, finds it curious about the wall buttons to be pressed for assistance. “Look at it this way – it’s kind of like room service in a swanky hotel!” Tara’s quick to nod in agreement, though she has a harder time seeing it with the same rosy glow. How important it is to have friends, Mel thinks and gratefully squeezes their hands, telling them how much she appreciates them in her life.
Then a day comes, which began well enough, but has turned out making her feel like she’s on a different planet. In the morning, after forgetting to sing, she’d sauntered down Main Street giving her signs a once over, reading aloud so well all the words. Then she’d mistakenly placed the ones that read ‘building’ and ‘hedge’ in front of a store. She recalls the doctor visit she’d cancelled, and then what had led up to the relocation. It hits her like…like plywood – no, not plywood, but something heavier – oh, yes: a ton of bricks! The bottom line: she isn’t an employee but a patient in Carpe Diem. Here she’s been one the entire time and just not smart enough to realize it. Every time she’ll get a little worse, they’ll relocate her, until the day they put her in a place where the occupants are imprisoned and treated like the old-people-babies they’ve become.
She knows what she has to do next, but must wait until dark before she can pull it off. Good thing her belongings are few…She pockets the little cash she can find into a backpack with a few other personal items. No get-away car or taxi waiting – she has no choice, other than to walk away from Carpe Diem.
She doesn’t encounter a solitary soul as she attempts her escape, except Harold. Harold whose last-name she can’t recall. There he is, drinking water from a bath for birds (oh yes, a birdbath…) No way will she ever wind up doing something so ridiculous, even if her mind isn’t working as well as it once had. This is the first time she’s been out at night…So much nicer than in the day – kinder on the eyes (though some of the brightly painted storefronts glowed in the dark). She passes the stores, Memory Motel and Memory Bank…Turned left from Main onto Recall Avenue. It’s when she turns on Memory Lane – almost to the Carpe Diem outskirts that she sees them waiting for her: three policemen and Katrina. Katrina looks so disappointed and there’s no point exclaiming about the lovely evening or how she’s simply out for a walk. It will take some doing to get back in Katrina’s good graces, but Mel knows her to be a boss worthy of impressing.