It’s been seven years since I was put in the nursing home, which is four more than I thought I’d be here and seven more than I wanted. But I understand how life works. You live your days in as much comfort, love and bliss as you can until one day when you can’t. You care for others in the hope that one day they’ll care for you, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Luck of the draw I suppose.
I know I’ve been forgetting things: important things. Some days I can’t remember the names of my two – or is it three children. It’s becoming rare that I remember my grandchildren’s names at all. I know within a shadow of a doubt they exist, but I can’t ever be sure. It’s as if a bout of inclement weather is passing over my faculties and a leaving a perpetual mist in its path. A mist that gets cloudier with each passing day.
It’s frightening, to be honest. I’m just an old lonely woman rotting away in a nursing home. I sometimes wonder if anyone, even my kids would mourn Dolly Matthews. I’m not ready to go. I try to stave off the inevitable by paying close attention to all things related to time: when the nurse comes by at the strike of breakfast, lunch, or dinner, when the other nurse comes by for my medicine twice a day, when the sunrises in the morning and sets in the evening, when the respirator beeps and when it doesn’t. Whatever it is, I’m always watching the time.
But pish posh, I make it sound sadder than it is. I still have the company of attentive nurses and others of the same advanced age as I. I still have the quick laughs I get at whatever is on the television, the peace and quiet I always craved in my younger and more lively years – I even have the new nurse stops by my room every now and then just to act as a pretty face and keep me company. And I can’t say I mind his visits one bit.
Over the last two or three weeks – it might be a month by now really – he’s made it a point of stopping by each day. This nurse isn’t dressed like the others. He’s a young, tall and strapping gentleman in a three-piece suit with a bright smile and beautiful blue eyes. Come to think of it, he doesn’t look much like a nurse, but I know he’s there to care for me all the same. He doesn’t speak much, but when he does, his questions are precise and short. He’ll ask me “what did you have for breakfast”, “how is your daughter Gwen doing”, “are you ready yet”, and so on. Truthfully, I don’t know what he means by “are you ready yet”, but I still nod and smile so he doesn’t think I’ve fully lost it yet.
About four or seven days ago, he came in but said nothing. He still smiled with those glimmering white teeth and wrinkled blue eyes. But instead of asking questions he just played solitaire. I watched him stack row after row of cards on the floor. Eventually the rows got too long for me to see over the bed. I’ve never understood the game, but it was fascinating to watch him work nonetheless. Finally, when he was done, after God knows how long, he collected his cards, stood up, and looked at me. “Are you ready yet?” he asked.
Again, I smiled and nodded. He nodded back, slipped the deck of cards in his pocket, then filed out the room. His question perplexes me more each time he asks it. I don’t know what he means.
There was another instance a few days ago where he sat in the corner of the room in the chair Gwen used to sit. She doesn’t visit much anymore, or if she does visit I can’t quite remember. But there he sat, with his legs spread wide and his elbows positioned on his knees and his hands folded. He smiled for a while. An hour, two hours, maybe four and never faltered. This should have made me quite nervous, but for some reason it didn’t. Again, on his way out, he asked, “Are you ready?”
This time I didn’t nod and smile. I shook my head and said “no”, but it didn’t seem to change his actions at all. He still patted down his pants, nodded, and walked away.
Only today do I finally understand what he means. He came into my room a few hours ago and turned off the TV. “I was watching that,” I snapped at him. He said nothing. Instead he came over to my bedside and pulled the covers up to my chin. I felt a certain calm freeze resonating off his palms. He smiled, nodded, then sat in the chair in the corner reading a LIFE magazine. He’s been there for two hours now. Once again, a part of his presence feels unnerving, but mostly it feels peaceful. While I look into his eyes I see something I’ve never seen before in a man’s eyes: myself.
And suddenly, I’m remembering. Remembering the day we brought Gwen and Jack home from the hospital. They came just under two weeks early, and with Steven and I being serial procrastinators, we weren’t at all ready for them. Steven went out to the store to find a couple of cribs, but all the stores were closed by the time I got home with the kids. We ended up staying awake the whole darn night with Jack and Gwen in a couple of cardboard boxes filled with blankets we still had from the move. It was stressful, frantic, even quite annoying. But there wasn’t anyone I’d rather at my side.
I remember Jack’s first word was “daddy”, and not a few days later so was Gwen’s. I remember how angry this made me. I remember how inconsolable I was with Steven and how he held me and told me, “Dolly, it’s just a word. They still love you all the same.”
I remember the kids’ high school graduation. Steven and I sat in these harsh metal seats baking under the summer’s first sun. I tried to fan myself with the directory of graduating names, while Steven and my mother looked perfectly fine. I remember waiting and waiting and singing the alphabet in my head until they got to “Matthews”. And once they did and Gwen stepped up and then Peter, I stood and clapped like they’d cured cancer. It was a deep, fulfilling feeling, and I know Steven felt it too. It was like all the struggles, arguments, and tears had paid off. It was like a weight was lifting off my shoulders, but at the same time I didn’t quite want to let it go. And I remember when I looked over at Steven and he looked back at me, he took a single thick thumb to his right eye and wiped a tear away.
I remember Steven’s and my last vacation together before he passed. We were in the Poconos one winter even though neither of us knew how to ski. We thought at eighty-three years-old, there was no time like the present. But instead we both chickened out and spent the week in the lodge reminiscing, getting wine drunk, and dancing to Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not quite a little girl’s fairytale. I’d always dreamed of a trip to Paris or Rome or Athens, but it wasn’t meant to be for us. But while we swung and twisted to “Bye Bye Love”, I couldn’t think of anywhere more romantic in the world.
The man stands from the chair in the corner, pats down on his pants, then straightens his posture. He looks at me, deeply, and asks, “Are you ready?”
I breathe in and out once more closing my eyes while I do so. When I open them again, I look at him with a genuine serenity. I know what he means now. I suddenly understand something circular and massive about it all, something beautifully calculated and vibrant though always pulsating through a majestic uncertainty. “Yes,” I say. “I’m ready now.”
He nods. There’s an understanding between us. It’s not the same as when I’d politely nod and smile before. He knows I know what he means, and he knows my decision is final. I am ready. He walks over to my bed and disengages the wheels one at a time, then slowly pushes my bed down the hall. The respirator doesn’t beep anymore.