Holly was a slithering, slouching, sliding woman of rubber. Sometimes she sat with her legs folded beneath her on the chair seat; sometimes she sat with her feet on the seat and her knees pointing up; sometimes her legs were sprawled over an arm of the chair; but most of the time she just slid slowly down the seat, eventually arriving at the half-prone position she preferred. When sitting in the lunchroom, she didn’t talk to anyone and she didn’t eat much; often she threw her food away or gave it away. Some days during lunch she’d go into the nurse’s office and lie down; other days she’d talk to herself in a growling tone of voice; but mostly she just slumped in her seat.
Holly was 5’2” and skinny, with stringy, lifeless, red-brown hair. At her group home, she wouldn’t shampoo or bathe or brush her teeth without repeated prompting. She had a pale complexion, thick slab-like lips, and a wide nose covered with scar tissue; another resident had bitten it repeatedly when she lived in Boulder from ages thirteen to eighteen. She also had a congenital skin malformation—a series of translucent nodules running down her chin and neck, like little bubbles of flesh.
From age five on, her life had been riddled with epileptic seizures. Sometimes at work she’d moan, then collapse on the floor and jerk convulsively. One day her head hit the floor hard enough to require stitches. After that, the Center bought her a bicycle helmet, which Holly then wore every day. Another time, lying on the floor after a seizure, she seemed especially disoriented, twisting the sleeves of her shirt and squeezing the nurse’s hand; in the next few minutes she had two more hard seizures. At twenty-three years old, her language skills surpassed those of most clients—she read at a third-grade level—but she had an “intractable seizure disorder” that would probably, in time, lead to cognitive deterioration.
All of us are bored some of the time; all of us are listless some of the time. Eventually these temporary states give way to periods of energy and engagement. For Holly, though, they didn’t, at least not that I saw; she seemed permanently mired in ennui. Lethargy for her was not a passing mood, it was a chronic condition. She dragged through the hours, dragged through the days. Life was not a gift she had been given; it was a sentence she had to serve.
“Did you have a nice weekend?”
Shrugs. “Yeah. It was okay.”
“What’d you do?”
“Oh.” I looked at her, hoping for more.
“Tot,” she said finally.
“You tot? Oh, you talked? You talked with somebody this weekend?”
“Yeah,” she said, then walked away.
Only once did I sense any vitality in her speech—and that time, she left me dumbfounded. She walked up, looked me in the eye, and said with a sneer, “You’re cute”—then departed with a burst of laughter.
Holly never got too excited about her work. When she got tired of steelwooling, she’d stop working and look through her glass like a telescope, peering across the table at pudgy, bespectacled Horace, who would giggle nervously. If she was scheduled for a thirty-minute period in grouting, she’d spend the first fifteen minutes putting her coveralls on, the last fifteen taking them off. Sometimes she’d stop to look at herself in the mirror, then break out in the loose, silly laughter that always suggests fatigue.
One day she wandered into the Spanish/Florentine room and asked me, “Where do I go now?”
“Well, Holly, what area do you work in these days?”
“Don’t know.” This was a common response of hers, when even the act of thinking seemed to demand too much effort.
“Well, I think you work with Molly in grouting, don’t you?”
“I guess,” she said, her voice tired and resigned. She drifted off in that direction.
A few times when she was working for me, Holly rose from her seat, silent and unnoticed, then floated about in a daze. For no reason at all she might load a tray with glasses and glide around the room with it. Eventually I’d glance over and see this glass-carrying phantom, who had enough of a tendency to drop things when she was at her seat. Racing over, I’d whisk the tray from her hands, waking her from her reverie.
“What are you doing, Holly?”
“You don’t know? Well, what were you doing with all these glasses?”
Work never held Holly’s attention, but the workfloor radio sometimes did. When a lyrical song like the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” came on, she’d remain slumped in her chair, but would provide accompaniment by fading in and fading out with low, vaguely melodic moans.
I never saw anything that was important to Holly, anything that really mattered. Along with several other supervisors, I once spent a day at her group home. While the other residents saw this as a rare opportunity to show off their rooms and their prized possessions and their expertise in cooking, Holly found it all rather dull. Curled up in one of the living room chairs, she spent the day in her robe, wearied by the endless parade of TV shows she was doomed to watch.