Gray Area: The juggler and the opera singer

In the country of old age, lives are lost and found

By Elaine Jarvik and Lois M. Collins

Deseret News

Published: Monday, Nov. 17 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Early one morning not long ago, Tatyana Sokolova scurried into room 1222. "Time to get up," she said, her voice rising and falling like a song. "Breakfast time," she sang to the man under the blanket, while at the foot of the bed an oxygen machine hummed and sighed.

Once, a long time ago, the old man read three encyclopedias from A to Z, and the living room in his house on Logan Avenue was filled with chain saws and bowling balls, M-1 rifles and hedge trimmers, all of them waiting to be thrown into the air. In those days, Bill Gnadt was the world's foremost juggler of heavy objects and power tools. One night in 1957 he was the opening act at the Showboat in Las Vegas, and at the point of his routine when he had two axes in the air, three bowls twirling on a stick in his mouth and three rings on his arm and leg, the room began to sway. It was an earthquake, but he didn't miss a beat. Those were the days when his hands didn't tremble.

By the time Sports Illustrated wrote about him in 1990 ("The Utah Chain Saw Juggler: If something can slice or dice or otherwise maim you, Bill Gnadt will juggle it"), he was past his prime but still able to juggle machetes and samurai swords. It was only a few years ago, nearing 80 and suffering from prostate cancer and dementia, that he came to live at Christus St. Joseph Villa.

He lives down a linoleum hallway, on the wing known as Two North, in a room with a bed and a chair. A small shelf holds an American flag and three photos: his brother's family, himself balancing a floor lamp on his forehead and a snapshot of a friend he can no longer identify.

In the country of old age, a man can move 12 blocks from the house he lived in his whole life and end up on a foreign shore, a refugee who has left his old life behind.

Bill turns over in bed and blinks. "Good morning, Bill," says Tatyana in her lilting voice, still a Russian voice after 15 years in America. She is a certified nursing assistant, and like other CNAs on the day shift in other nursing homes across America, she begins her morning helping old people get up and dressed. She gently combs their wispy hair and pulls on their briefs and their sweat pants.

In Russia, Tatyana was an opera singer with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. But even by the time she immigrated to America she had already found something else that made her heart sing, a realization that came to her after visiting a friend from her church choir in Moscow. The friend had been hospitalized, and in Moscow if you wanted a friend or a family member to get adequate care you provided some of that help yourself. Tatyana soon found that she liked caring for people who were sick. When she moved to America, she became a CNA.

In the hierarchy of medical care, CNAs fall somewhere near the bottom, well below nurses and doctors and administrators. In the hierarchy of medical facilities, it is the hospitals, with their high-energy emergency rooms and life-or-death dramas, that inspire the TV shows. Nursing homes, with their chronically ill and wrinkled residents, aren't sexy enough for prime time. To be a CNA in a nursing home is to spend your days, like the residents who live there, in a place where most of the rest of us don't want to be, on the fringes of the American consciousness. Almost invisible.

Old age is a place we may all eventually immigrate to but that many of us prefer, in the meantime, to ignore.

At St. Joe's there are several dining rooms. Bill eats in an informal one called "Social Room," where on this particular morning he is sitting at a table with two uncommunicative women, including one who is both blind and deaf. In the feeder dining room, as it is also known, the diners are generally lost in thought, or simply lost.

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