Dr. Jan Meyer: A “bed by the window” is best

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

There are two things that can create a crisis at our house. Of course there really are more than that, but of the “everyday” sort of stuff, there are two that seem the most important. One is if I run out of Diet Coke. I think that could make me owly. Some people drink coffee; I like my morning caffeine to be cold. The second is if I run out of what I call my junk reading, what I read when I am tired, or just need to escape into some other reality for a few minutes.

That second crisis almost happened this week. To fill in the gap, I went to my little home library and perused the ones I had saved. My intention when saving these was that I will reread them in my old age, and that is now. Instead of sticking to the fiction, however, I started looking through my professional books. It was easy to pick something, because one title, and author, jumped right out at me. That was M. Scott Peck, a doctor who had previously written “A Road Less Traveled,” a book that I had not only found useful but also interesting, as the title would suggest. Others must have felt the same because it was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than six years, having sold millions of copies, and is said to be one of the best-selling books of all time.

Dr. Peck was a psychiatrist who is called the father of the genre of self-help books. He valued what are called traditional values, and advocated strongly for self-discipline, self-responsibility, respect and truth. He was not of the “I want it all, and I want it now” generation.

He is known for many down-to-earth quotes, such as “if we know exactly where we’re going, exactly how to get there, and exactly what we’ll see along the way, we won’t learn anything.” And, “the difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior.” Finally, “it is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Peck’s book that I chose for my spare reading time this week was “A Bed by the Window” (NY: Bantam Books, 1990). I would call it a case study illustrating many examples of the points he was making in his previous book, “The Road Less Traveled.”

In this book, the author introduces each of the main character’s background and entry into the main plot of the story. The action takes place at the Willow Glen nursing home, located in a small midwestern town. One of those was Georgia Bates, an older woman who, at the start, is being checked in to the nursing home by her son and daughter-in-law. She has been diagnosed as being senile, and demonstrates that by insisting that she is 37 years old, and being “railroaded into this concentration camp” against her will by her family.

As the plot unfolds and comes to its conclusion, it becomes apparent that Peck has demonstrated many of the perceptions we, as outsiders often have of nursing homes, at least until we need them! We often, even if perhaps only admit it to ourselves, see the people who are residents in these homes as castoffs from society, people to be pitied because they have nowhere else to go. And the people who work there are also to be pitied, as who would work in such a dreadful place if they could get a job elsewhere?

Peck identifies these biases very well. The young, newly-transplanted-from-New York City police lieutenant at first finds the place “creepy,” and some of its residents repulsive. At one point, one of the staff bluntly responds to him, “If you get to know Willow Glen well enough, Lieutenant, you will find that there are many remarkable people in here. The public tends to think of nursing homes as simply dumping grounds. They are a great deal more.”

I know that the first time I read this book, I held many of those negative perceptions. Some of them were passed on from prior generations: I recall that at least some of my family felt that if you had to go to one of those, it meant your family wouldn’t care for you. Back then they were called “old people’s homes.”

By the end, Mrs. Bates, who had said she was being railroaded into a concentration camp, told her son and daughter-in-law that she did not want to leave. “I am in Willow Glen because I have decided it is where I want to be.” She easily related her real age; she no longer insisted she was 37.

At one time in my life, I took my old aunt on an adventure. Sitting in the audience at a concert, I noticed that she tried to hide her hands. I know she was doing that because she thought they looked old. At the time I wrote a little note to myself saying that I won’t mind getting old if “my hands do their part.” At the beginning of this novel, Mrs. Bates had looked down at her hands and decided to keep them hidden because they looked old.

At the end of the novel, Mrs. Bates “looked down at her hands. She thought, yes, they are an old woman’s hands. But that didn’t mean that they were ugly. It didn’t mean that her life was at an end….She smiled softly to herself.”

The characters in this book had learning experiences. For me, reading it for the second time was also a learning experience.