Silently Swaying in Room 302

The David Manor Hotel, located on the outskirts of New York City, was once a glamorous venue that hosted the city’s greatest big bands and cabaret singers. Having fallen into disrepair, it found a second act as a nursing home, but now, again, it was well past its prime.

Rose too was well past her prime. Diagnosed with dementia, Rose could usually be found alone in Room 302. The room had heavy curtains which obliterated most of the sunlight and it smelled of disinfectants. On the wall was a single framed and very faded poster of the David Manor Hotel from six decades ago, advertising a New Year’s Eve big band performance. 

Sitting in a frayed high-back chair, swaddled in blankets which engulfed her small and aged frame, Rose sat with her eyes closed, swaying and rhythmically tapping her foot, possibly lost in thought. Rose’s physician attributed these behaviors to the progressive nature of her dementia.

The silence of Room 302 was interrupted by a soft knock on the door frame, followed by the entrance of Jeffrey and Sarah, Rose’s son and daughter. 

Jeffrey, wearing a contemporary suit that contrasted with the room’s dated decor, was uncomfortable being around the infirmed and elderly. Unwilling to address his mother’s end-of-life issues, he limited his interactions with her physician and intended to perfunctorily fulfill his familial duty of visiting his mother and hoped to quickly move on. 

Sarah, Rose’s designated healthcare proxy, had promised her mother she would never put Rose into a nursing home. When Rose’s dementia progressed to the point that it was no longer safe for Rose to live alone, Sarah felt that her familial and professional obligations left her no option except moving her mother into the David Manor Hotel. Her brother’s unwillingness to participate in this decision, and all of Rose’s other healthcare management issues, repeatedly irritated Sarah.

Immediately after entering the room, Jeffrey sat down on Rose’s bed and began to sort through the messages on his phone. 

Looking at her mother’s closed eyes and swaying body, Sarah walked around the bed to place a small vase of flowers on her bedside table and picked up a well-worn photo of her mother in a tight red dress, from a long time ago.

Jeffrey looked up from his phone: “Mom, it’s us. How are you doing?”

Sarah walked over to her mother and planted a kiss on her cheek and whispered, “I love you.” 

For a moment it appeared as if Rose was tapping her foot more rapidly and the swaying was more pronounced. But it only lasted a few beats. And then there was silence, again.

Attempting to quell the silence, Jeffrey began “Did you notice that Mom’s tapping her foot again, the dementia must be getting worse.”

This professed interest in Rose’s health annoyed Sarah “Yah, I saw that.”

“Maybe it’s her medication,” Jeffrey continued.

Again, the room fell silent, save for sounds generated by Rose’s swaying and foot tapping.

After some additional small talk, Jeffrey dropped his phone into his pocket and said “Sarah, we should go. Let’s not disturb her anymore.”

Sarah approached her mother and took her hand, “Mom, if you can hear me, I want you to know that we love you but I have to leave to pick up the kids.”

As Sarah and Jeffrey departed, Rose’s foot tapping and swaying again accelerated. In her mind’s eye, she was a cabaret singer at the opulent David Manor Hotel. In the glare of the bright lights, adorned in a resplendent skin-tight red sequin dress, horns and drums blaring, Rose sang, danced, and waltzed her way across the stage and amongst the audience’s tables, effusively celebrating life, exactly as she had done six decades ago.

With her audience in the palm of her hand, Rose was again happy, in her world.

Hayward Zwerling

6 September 2023


Addendum 9/7/2023:

I changed the title from “The Cabaret Singer in Room 302” to “Silently Swaying in Room 302” so as to avoid prematurely giving away the final plot point.

It might interest some that this essay was written with the assistance of ChatGPT 4. I started by creating a paragraph which described the characters and the overall plot of the story. I gave that paragraph to ChatGPT and asked her (interesting that I referred to ChatGPT as “her,” I won’t do that again) to write the story which did not exceed 1000-1500 words. ChatGPT wrote version 1 of the story and I used that version as my first draft. I serially revised and revised and revised the story. After a revision was as good as I could get it, I gave that last revision to ChatGPT and asked ChatGPT to critique the story and recommend ways to improve the essay. Eventually, after many iterations, the essay developed into what you have read.


Addendum 9/10/2023: Why did I wrote this short story?

A few months ago I read David Sedaris’ essay HAPPY-GO-LUCKY which was published in the August 9, 2021 edition of New Yorker. The essay was based on David visit with his father who was then living in an assisted living facility and celebrating his father’s 98th birthday. In his younger life, David’s father was an IBM engineer and likely had dementia at the time of this visit.

My story about an elderly woman, who had been an entertainer when she was a young adult and developed dementia late in her life, popped into my mind after reading the Sedaris essay. I do not know why.

I carried the broad outlines of my story in my mind for a few months but it kept crying out to be written into a story. When an idea/thought/musing serially recurs in my mind, the only way I can expunge the thought from my mind is to write it into an essay. Then my mind is free. 

I know that sounds bizarre, but it works for me. I don’t know why.

I was unable to motivate myself to put my imagined story to “pen and paper” until I stumbled upon the idea of using ChatGPT4 to assist in the writing process.

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