She was sitting in her rocking chair facing a large picture window overlooking a wide field with a break of trees in the distance.
The late afternoon sunlight traveled from sky through window, spilling over the pale, green floor which had been polished to a high glossy sheen by the kind janitor with his buffing machine.
There were clean linens on her bed, and the top sheet, blanket, and quilt were folded at the end. Clean incontinence pads, used to protect a bed’s mattress from bodily fluids, were stacked on the lid of the potty chair at her bedside.
“Aunt Mary, how are you today?” I pulled up a chair. “I’m Lisa, your sister’s grand-daughter.”
“Hello Mildred,” she said.
She raised one of her hands to her brow, as though she was trying to grab the tail of a thought before it flew away.
“Donnie and the boys better come in from the field. There’s a bad cloud moving in.”
* * * * *
It was the summer of 1979, and I had completed my first year of college. The beakers and bunsen burners in a college chemistry lab, and the cultivation of bacteria in petri dishes were prerequisites for a nursing degree. I longed to interact with patients—human beings—who were more than sodium, potassium, Staphylococcus, or Clostridium.
Though I did not have the credentials to work in a hospital setting, an administrator at a local nursing home was willing to interview me. She struggled to maintain a consistent staff of caregivers. The work was hard and the wages low. She may have been desperate for help, or perhaps my stories about growing up with my maternal and paternal grandparents convinced her of my regard for the elderly.
The following week, I arrived to work the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, dressed in a freshly pressed uniform, hoping to present an image of a confident caregiver. The only registered nurse who worked those same hours—the rest of the staff were L.P.N.s and aides—gave me a brief tour of the facility, showed me the hall of patients for whom another aide and I were responsible, and sent me on my way. She walked backwards away from me, rubber-soled shoes squeaking, and told me to holler if I needed help. With a quick turn, she waved and trotted to the nurse’s station.
* * * * *
I stuck my head in the door and called: “Mr. Charlie, did you have a bowel movement today?”
“Come in here, pretty girl,” he replied. I stopped the beverage cart at his door.
Mr Charlie treated me like I was his daughter, using affectionate names and grilling me about the boys in my life. A short conversation.
His room was dark except for the flickering fluorescent light above his bed. Mr. Charlie was seated in his brown, suede recliner with his walker stationed nearby. He was clad in a two-piece set of men’s pajamas and corduroy, sheepskin-lined slippers.
As I checked his water pitcher, we chatted about the events of the day: bingo in the activity room, another patient’s fall—and the death of Mrs. Sally.
Mrs. Sally was a spunky presence on our hall. Her hair was a fluffy, white coiffeur spritzed daily with Aqua Net hairspray stored in the top drawer of her bedside table. In the afternoon, I often used a pick to fluff her hair, heeding her instructions to cover up the thinning spots on top. We’d giggle like teenagers as I guided her trembling hand while she “painted” her lips with her favorite color.
She walked the hall by steadying herself with the handrail on the wall and a cane. Her laughter drifted into every room, and I wondered if the bedridden patients—knees drawn to chest in a fetal position, diapered, and fed with a tube—heard it.
Earlier, I had found her during rounds, unresponsive on the floor. My supervisor came running after I pulled the emergency cord and called for help. Mrs. Sally had loved to talk about the “stepping over” that was ahead for her. I imagined she had died with an easy, girlish step.
Sadness shrouded the room. I squeezed Mr. Charlie’s shoulder, placed a Styrofoam cup of water on his side table, and pushed the beverage cart to the next room.
* * * * *
Aunt Mary sat on the side of the bed as I pulled the flannel gown over her slight body, then guided her matchstick arms into the sleeves. We sat in the silence; I took her small hand, put it in mine, and gave it a kiss.
The soft, shallow lines on her face seemed like the delicate stitches of her quilt, wrought by hand when her fingers were nimble, unhindered by degenerative disease. As I tucked her into bed, her blue eyes, still unclouded by age, looked into mine. I was not Mildred, but she knew I was someone who loved her.
After securing the bed’s side-rails, I walked to the window and closed the blinds.