I lean back against the walls, trapping my hands behind me at the small of my back so I can hide the restless tapping of my fingers.
It seems the health care team is in the middle of something with Wayne no matter what time of day I come- bathing, changing, moving him into his chair, trimming nails…..
It’s a good sign, I guess. I remind myself it’s a good sign. A nursing home that takes care of its patients is a very good thing.
Still. His room is so small I feel awkward just standing there waiting, so I generally excuse myself and wait in the hall. It feels better than just staring at them while they train the constantly-new staff.
High turnover rate probably isn’t a good thing.
I shake my head, pushing the thought out of my head. It’s not my place to say anything. I’m the help – or rather, was the help. I suppose I’m just a friend now, since my last day working for the family was last Tuesday. I guess I don’t really need to be visiting when Wayne calls my phone late at night, but I can’t help myself.
Six months, nine hour shifts, sometimes as much as forty hours a week with Wayne… how can you suddenly shut it off when you’re no longer paid to care?
You can’t, which is why I am here, tapping out my hidden sorrow against a freshly-painted wall.
One of the residents approaches me in a wheelchair. The hallways are a slowly busy place, although the residents foot-pedal their wheelchairs on their circuitous routes at such a glacial pace that it’s not hard to avoid the traffic jams. I tense as she wheels closer, preparing to step out of her way as she drifts from barely moving to not moving. Eventually it becomes obvious she’s stopped, so I relax again, fingers still tapping quietly.
From the way her watery brown eyes glance around I’m not sure she’s aware where she is, much less why she’s stopped. I wait for her to move her eyes to mine, then smile and nod. It’s a fake smile – all tight lips and no teeth, but it’s better than nothing. I hate small talk and the fake social niceties that make the world go around, but for them, for these lost, forgotten founts of wisdom, I make the effort.
It feels like the least I can do.
“Hello,” I say, and nod again.
Her eyes focus in on mine, and her brows pull together. “Why?” She pauses, then asks again in a voice laced with pain. “Why?”
My heart sinks. It’s her. It’s the “Why” woman.
A couple of weeks ago I stopped making my night visits to Wayne, even though it was really the best time for both of us. He was always more alert at night, and by 8 my kids are sleeping in their beds so I don’t feel pressed for time. It was working out surprisingly well for us – I would bring him a coffee, and the two of us would talk as I decompressed from my day, sharing stories until he tired . Sometimes I rub talc onto his back – being bedridden makes the skin so itchy, and it has always relaxed him.
I didn’t mind the late bed time or shortened sleep. I didn’t even mind the howl of the “Help” man from the end of the corridor. Help Man never sounded like he needed help – he just sounded argumentative. The few times I’d peeked in on him he’d been perfectly fine, just angry. He probably had his reasons, but there’s only so many concerns I can shoulder at once.
But the “Why” woman. The “Why” woman tore at my heart.
It was a quavering, hopeless sound, and the implications ripped at me until I felt raw and bloody. When she would start up I would excuse myself and go home after only 10 minutes of visiting with Wayne. I couldn’t take it any longer than that.
Evenings were easier for my schedule. They were easier… but they were hard, so hard I stopped visiting at night. And yet, despite my careful planning, there she is in front of me, gaze boring into mine.
“Hi. I’m Becky,” I say, trying to change the subject, and this time I try a little harder with my fake smile.
She waits, eyes looking into mine. I break first, my gaze skittering off to the side as I fake the need to look around the corner, chasing after an interesting sound that doesn’t exist.
She pulls me back with her despair. “Why?”
A million answers come to mind, all of them truthful….. none of them kind, none of them helpful. I should be able to do this. I’ve worked with the elderly for years. If you have your defenses in place you can sing a song of conversation, tripping lightly from sadness to a happiness, although the joy is usually too-soon forgotten. All you need to do is redirect the conversational stream. It’s a dance I’m skilled at, but today… today I’ve forgotten my props, and all I have left is raw honesty.
“I don’t know.”
She shakes her head, not surprised. The silence falls between us. I want to flee, but I promised Wayne I’d wait and return, and it seems rude to run away.
Besides, if she has the strength for her reality then I should be able to handle it for longer than thirty seconds, right?
The silence stretches between us, and I can feel her growing restless with the need to ask again, so I try to redirect her.
“That is the most beautiful ring,” I say, motioning at her hands. It is, too – a deceptively simple double band of silver that twists on itself, reminiscent of the infinity symbol.
She stares at it, thumb twisting the band.
“It’s amazing. Where did you get it?”
She looks up at me, and I can see her mouth open, ready to ask again, so I cut her off. It’s rude, I know, but maybe she’ll just think I have no class.
“Of course, maybe it’s just your hands. I’m starting to wish I brought gloves,” I say with forced cheer, looking down at my cracked nails, the horse dirt shining from under each nail – brown rings of courage lent to me from Caspian that very afternoon. “My hands are a mess, but yours are gorgeous. Did you get a manicure? Your nails are gorgeous.”
She looks down at her hands, at the paper-soft skin with soft wrinkles. Her well-shaped nails with their fresh red nail polish seem out of place in a home where “a night out” means scooting yourself with your heels through fluorescent hallways to watch tv in the common room instead of by yourself.
“Well, I think I’m going to go check on my friend. Have a great afternoon!” I flash another bright, too-fake smile and turn away. I know they won’t be done with Wayne for another few minutes, but I’m hoping in vain to for enough space between us so I don’t have to hear her soft, hopeless voice when it calls out again.