by Cathy Corcoran
I went to the nursing home again today. God, I hate that place!
As nursing homes go, it isn’t so bad. It’s clean, the staff is pleasant enough. The wallpaper is pale gray, flecked with blue, the curtains are color coordinated. I could be in a Holiday Inn but for the scent of disinfectant and the faint aroma of dirty diapers that lingers in the air. The place gives me the creeps.
When I walk into my aunt Margie’s room, two aides are with her, hoisting her out of bed. They ask me to wait in the day room at the end of the hall.
Only one of the eight people in the day room looks up as I come in. She wears a hand-lettered name tag. “Barbara,” it says. She sees me looking, draws her sweater across the tag. Embarrassed, I look away, to the TV mounted high on the wall. An ancient episode of “Matlock” blares, even though no one is watching.
Across the room, a woman holds a baby doll in her arms. Her hair is combed straight back, a dull gray lifeless color. Her eyes are unfocused. She rocks the doll in her arms.
Another woman sits in a wheelchair, an afghan on her lap. She looks down and begins to scream. “There’s something wrong with my legs!” she hollers.
It seems clear that she has been in the wheelchair for some time, but the woman has only now realized the horror of her situation. “There’s something wrong with my legs,” she screams again. No one comes.
“That one is crazy,” Barbara mutters.
In her room, Margie sits propped in a chair, head back, eyes closed, mouth open.
“Margie,” I shout. “It’s Cathy.”
“Hi, Cathy,” she croaks.
Her voice is scratchy, hoarse, the result of too much mouth-breathing, the aide says.
“Close your mouth!” the aide yells.
Margie is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a gifted soprano, she sang at my wedding. she had her own radio show during the war. Now, she can barely talk, never mind sing. Her left arm lies on her lap, swollen, useless since the stroke. She’ll never play the piano again.
She closes her eyes, drifts back to sleep or semi-consciousness, or wherever she goes when I stop talking.
“Margie, wake up,” I call, reluctant to let her go. She opens her eyes again.
I tell her about the weather, the flowers blooming in my garden, the Red Sox’s chances for the pennant this year. She smiles. Is it my imagination, or is the old Margie here for a moment?
“Where’s your roommate?” I ask her.
“My sister Mary,” she says. “Gone to the store.” Actually, Mary died last year. Margie closes her eyes again.
We were so happy when Margie woke up after the stroke. “A hundred to one odds,” her doctor said.
I sat by her bed with the other nieces and nephews, authorized the gastro feeding tube, thought we were lucky when the nursing home - only two blocks from her family home - agreed to take her. “We’ll put her in a wheelchair, take her home for a visit,” we said. That’s out of the question now. I see that.
I sit for a few minutes, holding Margie’s good hand. She squeezes it now and then, but she’s asleep again.
“I have to leave,” I say finally.
“Bye,” she says, not opening her eyes.
At the elevator, six old ladies sit in wheelchairs, patiently waiting for a ride. An aide stands next to the elevator, her finger on the down button. I know I could walk through the wheelchairs to the front of the line. I could assert my health, my mobility, my need to be somewhere important at noon. I take the stairs instead.
Back at home, I refuse my husband’s offer of a hug, and sit alone, staring out the window.
In the woods next to the house, I see our broken tree. Poor thing. It was struck by lightening last summer. It survived, but it was weakened. When the big storms came last winter, the trunk split open. It stands now, leaning back against its neighbor trees, helpless, a cripple.
In these long months since Margie’s stroke, I have come to realize there will be no improvement, no recovery. I can accept the idea of death, I tell myself, but this is not death. And it is not life. It’s a frightening in-between place that I never knew existed. I hate it.
As I stare out the window, I notice that a few leaves have sprouted on one of the lower branches of the injured tree. Maybe it will survive after all, but my husband says no, it’s beyond repair. “We’ll have to cut it down,” he says.
That’s when I start to cry.