In the morning, the nursing home residents are in a good mood. By evening, the act of living begins to take its toll.
I too have started going to bed at eight o’clock. I pat lavender leaves on my face and chest and fall into exhaustion. It’s the hormones, I read once. Our clocks are aligning. We no longer have the moon cycle in common. We just have the sun.
The potatoes were overcooked this morning. Mushy. Which is how exactly half of the residents like it; the other half prefer crunchy. But the crunchy half is loud and unabashed in their kvetching.
-We only have so many breakfasts left.
-I’m so sorry.
-My day is ruined. One day closer to the end.
I go to the kitchen. I ask the cook to redo the potatoes. But then we won’t have enough for tomorrow, he says. We have to do something, I say, to placate them, please. He tips his chef’s hat at me and opens the snack pantry door. He gathers piles of potato chip bags in his arms. I follow as he delivers one to each angry resident, as the residents glare at me and smile at the chef, as he winks and says, this is our little secret, you know me, doing what I can to make each day better.
After breakfast, the morning rounds. I start with my favorite to lighten my spirits, then my least favorite to get it over with. Miss Esther smiles with her entire wrinkly body when she sees me come in. She is knitting me a purple scarf that is three times my height; tomorrow, four. She says it is for me. I imagine she says that to everyone. Miss Esther’s weight is steady, her memory still sound. I tell her to keep it up and pat her on the forehead.
Mr. Cage is another story. He was served the mushy potatoes this morning. His eyebrows never came back after chemo, even though he’s been in remission for ten years. He lost control of his bowels, which is why he’s here. But his eyes are piercing blue and angry enough all on their own. If I so much as wince at the smell in his room during my morning rounds, he launches into a tirade, or worse, complains to my boss. This morning, I succeed at holding myself in.
I ask Mr. Cage what he wants for dinner. He asks for the calamari. I tell him I’m sorry, there is no calamari in the market right now. I do not tell him, there is no calamari anywhere anymore.
In the afternoon, between lunch aftermath and dinner prep, I decide between filing paperwork, taking a nap, and going on a walk. I got the paperwork for the week done yesterday, as quickly as I could so I wouldn’t have to think. And I slept well last night. So today, I walk.
It’s misting outside with the threat of rain, just enough to scare most residents into staying inside. Weather does all kinds of things to old bones and joints, and umbrellas don’t protect from the wind. The woods out back have wide, wheelchair-friendly walkways. Stretching between and away from them are foot-trodden paths that lead into thick woods and curve around the back of the pond. I choose those paths. I like feeling crowded and pushing through. Here, under the trees, the rain has been captured by the canopy and releases as drips. It’s spring and the trees are showing off their new green. I look up, and see, behind the leaves, the memory of the sun behind the clouds—no, not clouds, just a bedpan of illuminated grey.
I look down: there is Miss Rosie. She is tall and lean and unafraid.
-Miss Rosie, how are you today?
-Better, now that I am out of that god-forsaken place.
I understand her completely. But I must remember my duties.
-You know you shouldn’t be on this unpaved path, you could fall.
-See, that’s exactly what I mean.
Linda convinces me to join her and the rest of the diet office for dinner. I have already eaten a sandwich of kitchen leftovers, and it is getting awfully close to my eight o’clock bedtime, but I agree. We go for margaritas. I drink two. I feel nothing in my head but light in my stomach. They gossip about the worst residents and the asshole bosses. I listen and smile. I tell them about the potato incident. Linda makes a joke about Mr. Cage. I tell the group he hasn’t had a visitor in five years. The table grows quiet. I don’t think I’ll get invited to margaritas anymore.
At night, my husband is my sponge and my mirror. I tell him everything and see it soaked in his skin, reflected in his eyes. He joins me in the bathroom as I brush my teeth with lavender leaves and baking soda and listens as I tell him about the potatoes. He agrees I did the right thing. What else could he say?
I’ve been walking all day. I’m exhausted. I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. My husband will join at some point in the night. I will wake up when he does. And, more likely than not, a new energy will roar into my legs, the memory of my walks, and I will grab the book on the nightstand to bring this energy away from my feet and back into my head until my legs calm and I fall back asleep.
First light. I am awake. I threw out my alarm clock a year ago. I make coffee and bring it to the sunroom, where I can be outside inside. A female cardinal is at the bird feeder, hopping away from a bright red male. The wind is clear, the sky is orange. It’s hard to believe so much pain comes from the air.
Miss Esther died last night. It was not expected, but not not. Everything was in order. Sound of mind, sound of body. Sugar levels, blood pressure, glucose, all good. It was her heart that decided not to beat anymore. It had had enough.
They remove her belongings before I arrive. They took the scarf she was knitting me, too. Everything was put into a single large box that was taken away by her daughter in the night. Miss Esther was also put in a box, taken away. I try calling her daughter. She doesn’t pick up. I don’t leave a voicemail. I get a card from the giftshop instead. Purple “deepest sympathy” flowers. Next to the cards that say “Happy Retirement” and “Congrats on Getting Old.” I write to her about the way her mother smiled with her body. Trite things, simple observances. I could write a sympathy card in my sleep.
And, by the way, if you see a purple scarf…
A mistake on the dessert service. Mr. Johnson has been receiving low-fat frozen yogurt instead of custard. He lost two pounds in one week. I don’t know how it happened. I swear I filled out his order form right.
My boss takes me aside to scream for twenty minutes. Spittle from his mouth accumulates on my cheek. I do not move.
-Don’t you understand, their lives are in our hands?
I wonder who can hear from the hallway. I whisper, I understand. I understand.
It’s approaching that time of year where we will talk about children. Whether or not we want them. Part of me wants them, but it’s an us-decision, not a me-decision. Every year I get closer to the year where we need to make a final decision, where my moon cycle will end. Every year I ask myself and my husband. Every year we say no. He fears global warming. He works through his fears at work, electing people who say they will do what they can. I do not fear so much. Wisconsin will be generally fine. Worse floods. Bigger storms. Sauna summers, polar-wind-filled winters. But we will be generally okay, I tell him.
-That’s not the point.
-There’s a lot of uncertainty. A lot could go wrong.
My biggest fear is about how little I worry for the future or the world we leave behind. What kind of mother is that?
A new batch of residents arrives today. One of them looks a little like Miss Esther. I give her a warm smile. I take the ones that can walk on a tour of the kitchen. The rest wait in the dining area as the chef and I bring a sampling of dishes out for show. Look how much we will treat you, I tell them. Look at how magnificent your final days will be.
My husband has taken to gardening at night, a just-in-case garden, a when-shit-hits-the-fan garden. I go to sleep with our backyard one way and wake up with it another. This morning it smells of peat. Soon we will have lettuce, he tells me sleepily after I wake him with coffee. Soon we can make homegrown salads, he says with pride. Very nutritious and good for you.
-A salad is never enough.
They are forecasting heavy rains. So far, the forecasts are correct. The rains are here and they are heavy. My husband and I clear out our basement. We clean the gutters and seal up the cracks in the foundation with plaster. We fortify the basement windows. We hope that will be enough. Our insurance deftly ignores floods. Our insurance agent did not read the Bible, he said with a laugh when he gave us the contract. We had no other choice.
Miss Esther’s daughter has written me back. She thanked me for the card and mailed me the purple scarf. It’s smushed from the box. The yarn is tight. I wonder if it will withstand the rain.
Miss Rosie refuses her calcium pills. I crush them up and put them in her dairy-free yogurt, as I am told to do. She gives me a suspicious eye as I stop by for evening rounds. I hope she does not complain about the taste.
I come upon Mr. Cage’s room to find it empty. He’s okay, he was moved to a different wing. His bowel problem was the first stage of a quickly advancing dementia. His body will soon forget how to do other things too. Eventually it will forget how to swallow or breathe. His mind will not forget, he will remember what it means to do these things, he will summon all his might to direct his throat to swallow, but it will not listen. I pull my purple scarf tightly around my eyes.
The rains are taking a toll on my husband’s new lettuce garden. It’s okay, he says, the trees will provide cover, their roots will hold strong. I hope he is correct. I buy lettuce at the store just in case. My contingency plan.
Today I visit Mr. Cage, though he is now in the dietary care of another. He barks at me when I walk in the door.
-What are you doing here? I thought I got rid of you.
-I’m still here, Mr. Cage. Just in another wing.
-The food here is terrible. No calamari or any other fish.
-I’m sorry, Mr. Cage. That is terrible.
I do not tell him, all the fish are poisoned with mercury or lost to acidification.
-Here, would you like some potato chips?
I think I see him smile before I leave.
A nighttime conversation, one in the morning, instigated by me:
-Please don’t die before me.
-Promise me. Promise me you won’t.
My afternoon walks are my daily rite. I pull my purple scarf around my head; its tight knitting keeps out the rain. The swans have arrived for the spring and summer. I never know if they are carted in or if this is a migratory stop. I will never ask.
I still find Miss Rosie out here, even in the rains. She gives me an angry look when she sees me, but I will not tell her secret. I understand her. I understand what it’s like to look at the same white walls every day and to feel cold no matter the temperature.
There is a creek that interrupts the footpath. It is filled with stones that provide a crossing and lead to the swan pond. The pond is always my destination. It is always different, even as I stay in one place and stare at it; the wind blows, the lily pads move, the water striders dance along the surface. It is surrounded by elm trees with bright green leaves. I grab the leaf closest to me. It’s still new: thin and soft, softer than my scarf.
When I get back, my boss praises how efficient I am with paperwork. Every day, emailed at four o’clock on the dot.
Miss Esther’s daughter comes to visit today. She brings her three tiny children as well. One of them is still gestational. Two are walking with bopping steps. They wear superhero outfits. They have come to see me in particular, her daughter says, because of how much Miss Esther talked about me, which is surprising to me. I tell her I did nothing special. But Miss Esther’s daughter is bringing her children to learn about their grandmother’s life, and I was a big part of it, near the end. I smile and give them candy. There are no more gummy bears, I say, they all died at the North Pole with the ice caps. Instead there are gummy snakes. The little ones are devilishly delighted by my joke. They clamor over the biggest snake.
I am the dutiful shepherd of death. I hope I am living up to their expectations.
Tonight, when I wake at the midnight hour, the white walls of our bedroom make me feel cold. I look and see my sleeping husband has pulled over most of the bedcovers. I pull them back around me. The coldness does not leave.
The rains have not let up. My husband nods gravely, expectantly, as I leave in the morning.
I still go on a walk during my afternoon break. I pull on my rain boots, rain pants, rain jacket, rain hat over my purple scarf. Today on my walk, the foot-trodden paths are flooded. I go forth, through the inches of muck and water. Even the swans look miserable. But I am happy and warm, bundled. The hat wicks the water from my eyes. I am enclosed in an astronaut suit.
The creek is high, its crossing stones are covered in water. I plunge my booted feet in the creek anyway, six inches deep. It is not flowing very hard. I cross through the creek to get to the pond.
I come across a strange boulder. No, it is Miss Rosie. She’s sitting on the ground by the pond with her legs to her chest and a brown poncho pulled over her head. I approach quietly.
Her eyes have no anger for me today, only fear. She tells me her foot slipped while crossing the creek to get here; she is terrified to return. Her bones are like fresh ice. One fall could mean an unfixable break.
-Are you hurt now?
-Do you need help getting back? I can call security.
I almost leave right then to continue on my walk. But the fear in her eyes make me stay. I do not know what to say. I hunch down to sit beside her, staring at the flooding creek, the water flowing over rocks in steadily translucent lines, then falling to meet itself in burbles. Beside me, Miss Rosie takes a belabored breath. Then another. I do not look at her, but I imagine her wide eyes turning the flowing creek into a river. I feel her fragile bones and wonder how hard a storm it would take to break them with rain alone. I feel her feeling her bones. She is crawling into herself, making her body very small, pulling in her arms for reinforcement. Her pelvic joints struggle with the effort. They have not bent this far in years. I feel her fear and all my frustration melts away. I ask her:
-Will you let me carry you?
I pick her up like an infant. Her arms wrap tightly around my neck. She is tall and lean but lighter than she looks. Water wicks from my hat onto her face. I place my booted foot in the water. The mud beneath me is loose. I stick my foot in further until I feel it will grip. I place my other foot ahead, stick it down deep. I pull my first foot free; the mud tries to suck it back, but it is not strong enough to hold me. I walk in this way, one foot just in front of the other, Miss Rosie in my arms, and cross the flooded creek. One wrong step could mean the end for her. A bone shatter could lead to a surgical infection that could lead to a complicated recovery that never truly fulfills itself. Somehow this fact makes me surer in my feet, makes me realize every step will be true.
Then I am on the other side. I put Miss Rosie down on the ground and hold her hand as we walk slowly back to the buildings of the Village. Her skin is softer than water.
Outside my window, the elm leaves flutter in the rain. They look like they will fly away into the sky, their home. Our home.
Miss Esther’s daughter comes to visit again, to finalize her paperwork. She brings her kids to my office, because they can’t stop talking about my gummy snakes, she says. Luckily I have more. They wear boots up to their thighs and rain jackets to their feet. Little bundles of plastic and energy. They run around the hallways like airplanes. I suggest we go on a walk outside while Miss Esther’s daughter fills out her paperwork. Outside, around the wheelchair walkways, the children ask me questions about Miss Esther, what was she like. They tell me their babysitter moved away and their mom keeps telling them to quiet down in the evenings.
When we return to Miss Esther’s daughter, something comes over me and I ask, Do you need help watching your kids in the evenings?
She says, Yes, oh thank god, please yes.
In the evening, the children come alive. They are loath to say goodbye to the sun.
I tell them gently, tomorrow is another day. The Earth grows chaotically older; every day is one day closer to the end, or something like it. But tomorrow we will be okay.
© Denise S. Robbins
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Denise’s interview]