Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Home Again

- about a long life lived
Rosalee sat motionless on her walker seat. She was a diminutive thing and appeared even tinier when she was hunched over her walker. She looked a little out of it, which is exactly the way Rosalee liked it. She figured the less she had to do with the care aides, the less they would pay her any mind. She liked sitting alone with her thoughts without their meddling.

As Rosalee began rearranging herself on her seat, she noticed a care aide standing directly in front of her. Rosalee crooked her neck and looked up. She got as far as a pair of squat hands. They reminded her of inflated latex gloves. She glanced up even further and met a set of pursed lips. She heard the aide mutter. She tried her best to listen, but the words sounded distorted through her tinny hearing aid. The aide tried again, this time with a little more volume. “Rosalee, did you hear me? Would you like me to help you get to the dining room?” The aide gaped around the room as she spoke. Rosalee decided not to answer. Why should she bother?

“Lunch,” another care aide announced. Lunch will be served in five minutes. Let’s all get settled into our chairs, shall we?” Rosalee watched the aide scurry around to various residents. “Walter, I’ll get your cane. John, I’ll help you with your wheelchair,” she went on in a cornstarch tone.

“Rosalee, how are you doing today, dear?” Rosalee turned her walker around so that she faced the aide. This one was all hustle-bustle. Rosalee read the name badge. Cindy. Didn’t recognize her. There were too damned many of them. How was anyone supposed to keep them all straight? All that brassy, blonde hair. All those pastel smocks. Rosalee shuffled right past the aide, shaking her head as she went.

Rosalee was smart. Her bones were delicate, and her muscles withered, but her mindit was all there. Two weeks ago, she had overheard an aide say to another that she wasnt sure if Rosalees mind was fully intact. Fully intact? Who the hell was she to decide such a thing? Did she fancy herself an expert on minds? Intact, my ass, thought Rosalee. It was after hearing that comment that Rosalee chose to keep the damned aides guessing.

Lunch consisted of cream of chicken soup and crackers. Rosalee lifted the spoon to her mouth. Her hand and the spoon shook in tandem. The soup was lukewarm. In fact, the soup was always lukewarm, and Rosalee hated that. Did the staff think they were going to burn their tongues? “Who cared if they did?” she wanted to shout. But it was easier to let it go. Why make a fuss? What difference would it make?

Rosalee had moved into the residential care home just over a month ago. She had always known the day would come but that didn’t mean she’d have to like it. The only time she pretended to like it was when her daughter, Kate, came to visit. Then Rosalee would tell her that everything was wonderful. “Yes, yes, the food was delicious. No, no, there were no problems. Yes, the aides were pleasant. Yes, her room was lovely. Everything was good. Everything was just fine.” How could she begin to tell her only child the truth? That what she really wanted was to die. She was done with living.

Rosalee had had little to say when her daughter had put her name on a waiting list for a home. And she had even less to say when the phone call came to say that there was an opening. Ever since her husband, Willem, had died of cancer she had been living by herself in the farmhouse where she and Willem had raised Kate; a tiny yellow bungalow on a small acreage. She had managed alone for just two years when she noticed her balance going. The dependency on a walker changed everything and meant it was time to make new arrangements. Kate and Rosalee had discussed care homes often enough to know it was the right long-term answer. And Rosalee had to hand it to her daughter; she had done her research. She had sized up the meals, the rooms, the residents, even the entertainment in several homes. And in her quest, she learned that with some of the homes, you didn’t choose them so much as they chose you. If you found the perfect place and it was full, all you could do was put your name on a waiting list. Rosalee knew damn well what prospective residents were waiting for, not that anyone ever came right out and said it.

Rosalee played with her soup and lifted her eyes briefly to give the dining room a once-over. There were a handful of residents sitting in groups of two or three. Some residents, like Rosalee, sat alone. A few nodded off in their chairs. But in the corner, there was a lively gathering of women. Most of them seemed to sit together at every meal. The women were always laughing and carrying on, and Rosalee liked listening to their natter from a distance. She had thought about joining them but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She worried she might have trouble hearing them. They all seemed to talk at once and she might find it too confusing.

Next to Rosalee’s table sat two portly men. She knew their names; Walter and John. She knew them well enough because she often sat at the table next to theirs. They were a funny pair, with Walter always babbling and John always fidgeting. Walter didn’t seem to notice that John paid no attention at all to whatever he was going on about.

As Rosalee ate, she noticed a stranger strolling towards Walter’s table. At least she hadn’t noticed him before, and she knew she would have paid him mind just because he stood so tall. In a facility where it was commonplace to be a little bent over, this stranger stood out because of the way he stood up. “Mind if I set down here?” he inquired of Walter and John. Rosalee stole a glance. She couldn’t get over how upright he stood. She edged her chair closer as the stranger introduced himself. She heard him say his name was Mitch, and that he used to be a long-distance hauler.

Rosalee strained to listen, but an aide interrupted her reverie. “Rosalee, I see you’re done,” she said too loudly. “Here, let me help you get back to your walker.” “You finished all your soup today. It’s good to see you eating so well,” she prattled on. As the aide helped to shift Rosalee from the dining chair to her walker seat, she added, “Shall we take a little walk together and get some exercise?”

Rosalee read the name badge. Monica. “No, I’m fine here,” she replied dismissively. The shift in focus left Rosalee feeling distracted. Suddenly she felt like having a rest. She placed her paper-thin hands on her walker handles and strode off. She took one last glance over at Walter’s table. Well, I’ll be, thought Rosalee. That Mitch fellow is hanging on to Walter’s words like he was listening to the Pope himself. As she aimed her walker towards the exit, she stole another peek at Mitch. He caught her glimpse and their eyes met. His gaze was so piercing that Rosalee was compelled to look away. She suddenly felt flustered. Gathering her senses, she nodded slightly in Mitch’s direction, and then gripped her walker firmly and shuffled off to her room.

What the hell was that all about? Rosalee wondered as she set her glasses on the night stand. Although she really wanted to rest, she wasn’t so sure she could. She needed time to think. What in tarnation had just happened? She laid down on her quilt and listened to her heart beating away. She lifted her hand to her breastbone. She was sure her heart was beating faster than normal. Her skin felt warmer than normal, too. “I blushed like a peach,” she muttered to herself. “My God, what’s wrong with me? I’m old. Old! And I blushed like a damned peach in front of a perfect stranger.” As Rosalee nodded off, she visualized the stranger looking at her with his jet-black eyes.

Rosalee napped fitfully. When she awoke, she had a vivid recollection of how riled up she had got. She was determined to forget the whole thing. “How stupid of me,” she said aloud, as she sat up and reached for her walker. “What utter nonsense!” she mumbled to herself. She hoped a good walk would settle her down. She left her room and steered her walker into the corridor.

Rosalee couldn’t walk. Not really walk. What she could do was shuffle, perch on her seat for a rest, and shuffle again. This was the best she could do. With stubborn persistence she nudged her walker along. She slid it left, then right, tacking across the wide hallway. Most days one destination was as good as another. She was as little interested in the television room as she was in the social room. Observing her now, no one would ever have guessed that Rosalee had practically sprinted at one time. How she missed walking outdoors. How she missed her husband, Willem. When the two of them lived on the farm they would often drive to town together. Willem wasn’t much for walking, so they would take the car there, and Rosalee would walk the short distance back by herself. Just the thought of the sun beating down on her back warmed her.

Rosalee spotted Mitch sitting in the social room. He was playing a card game along with three other residents. A couple of men were playing chess, and a few ladies were having tea together. Rosalee felt self-conscious. She needed to compose herself. She navigated her walker away from the social room and towards the television room. She set her walker aside and settled into an overstuffed chair. Rosalee cast an eye on the news program that was on. She tried to pay attention, but the announcer’s voice was hypnotic, and Rosalee’s eyes quickly closed. Gravity soon worked its magic and pulled her chin down. In defiance, her head jerked up, but then drooped lower as drowsiness won over. Rosalee had no idea how much time had passed when she awoke, sensing a presence near her. She looked up to see which aide might want her now. But it wasn’t an aide at all. It was him, the new resident. “Oh, hello, excuse me,” said Mitch, “I just came over to turn off the television. It looked like you were resting.”

“Oh, no. No. I’m not resting,” Rosalee exclaimed, trying her best to appear alert. “I’m just watching the news,” she caught her breath and continued, “I’m not really much for television. I’m more of a reader actually.” She felt her heart pounding. “What about you, do you like television or books?” Rosalee inquired, with the most intensive expression.

“Well, now, I tend to favor books,” Mitch replied calmly.

“Books. Yes. Books are good.” Rosalee nodded her head vigorously. She knew something was amiss, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Then she remembered. She hadn’t properly introduced herself. “I’m Rosalee,” she added quietly.

“Name’s Mitch,” he answered. “Would you like me to turn off the television?”

“Off?” Rosalee had to think for a minute. “Off?” she repeated, as if pondering the question in depth.

“Yes, off,” Mitch repeated.

Rosalee collected herself. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. I’m just heading to my room for a spell. Thank you.” As Rosalee attempted to extricate herself from the deep chair, she could feel heat rising on the back of her neck. She pressed her hands down on the arms of the chair as she tried to hoist herself up. But she barely budged. She tried again.

“Here, let me help,” said Mitch gently. His hands reached out to Rosalee. She stared at the hands in front of her as if they were the most intriguing things, with their fine dusting of black downy hair on the wrists and knuckles. How large they were! And how tanned! She grabbed on, and Mitch pulled. Rosalee felt so many things at once that she couldn’t process it all. With eyes averted, she muttered a thanks and headed off.

When Rosalee got back to her room, she let out a sigh. How thankful she was for the sanctity of her little space. It was an uncomplicated space, exactly what she needed for a good think. Rosalee replayed the moment when Mitch had clasped her hands in his. She hadn’t held a man’s hands in hers for two long years. Oh, it had felt good. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed such a thing. Mitch’s hands were warm. And so strong, Rosalee thought. She clasped her own hands together as she tried in vain to recapture the feeling. A tear slid down her cheek. And then another. Suddenly, Rosalee missed Willem. She missed Willem’s hands, all caked in grass and oil stains. She missed having someone hold her. Rosalee let the tears flow as she reached to her dresser for a small, framed picture of her and Willem. Willem was standing beside his old blue tractor, appearing as grimy as the dirt below his feet. He had one arm draped over his tractor, and the other around Rosalee’s waist. She didn’t know which he was prouder of, his tractor or his wife. Rosalee smiled. She had loved Willem.

As Rosalee sat on the edge of the bed, it suddenly struck her that she had never once blushed for her husband. How could she have? They had met in grade school, dated in high school, and married when they were both nineteen. She had never known another suitor. She had never known another life. Rosalee carefully put the picture away. She looked around the room, at her new life, at her new home. She had a comfortable bed with a floral print quilt on it that she’d made years ago. She had her antique maple dresser and matching nightstand that had been at the farm. And she had a small bookcase filled with her cherished books. She looked at the clock on her dresser and sighed. It was time to go to dinner. Rosalee was feeling hungry, but at the same time, she was feeling utterly overwhelmed. Although she had lived in solitude the past two years she had never once felt lonely. Now here she was, surrounded by well-meaning folk, and yet, she had never felt more alone in her life.

Rosalee stood up and hobbled over to the oval mirror. She peered in. If a stranger had been passing by her room, he would have noticed an elegant woman looking back from the mirror, with a radiance that belied her eighty years. He would have seen a soft blend of pale blonde and silver curls framing a lovely face, marked by high cheekbones, smooth skin, and clear blue eyes. Rosalee did not see these things on this day. What Rosalee saw was a sad, old womana woman who missed baking in her own kitchen; a woman who missed the fragrance of her rose garden; a woman who had known all along that she would move to a care home if she out-lived Willem. Knowing it was one thing. Leaving her precious home and all the memories it held was something else altogether. Adjusting was hard. Harder than Rosalee had ever known it could possibly be.

Rosalee stiffened her shoulders, steadied her walker, and set out for the dining room. When she arrived at the entrance, her eyes darted around the room. She spotted Mitch. He was with Walter and John. She didn’t want to sit at the table next to theirs. Nor did she want to eat alone. She scanned the room again. As she clutched onto her walker, shifting it left, then right, she started to panic. Mitch looked her way and she met his eyes. He looked concerned and started to rise. “Oh, no,” thought Rosalee. “Not now. Not when I’m feeling like this.” With sweaty palms and blind resolve, she steered her walker towards the big table. Towards the larger-than-life ladies that intimidated Rosalee to no end. Rosalee plunked herself down into the only empty seat at the table, smack-dab in the middle of the row of chairs. In an instant there was silence. Rosalee thought to herself, “What have I done?” She cast her eyes downward. Just as she was feeling she ought to get up and leave, Rosalee heard the kindest of voices from her right, “Hello. My name is Anne. I am so pleased you’ve come to sit with us. I’ve seen you about the last couple of weeks. What’s your name, dear?”

Rosalee turned and told Anne her name. “What a pretty name,” said Anne, as she patted Rosalee’s arm. “I’ll introduce you to the ladies,” she continued. “You may forget some of the names, but that’s okay, we all seem to forget each other’s names around here. We forget our own names, too!” she laughed heartily.

Rosalee breathed a sigh of relief. As she was introduced to everyone, she couldn’t help but notice how happy these ladies were. She was struck by the languid banter, the smiling eyes, and the infectious laughter. These ladies didn’t seem to mind being here. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves! Although Rosalee didn’t say much, she felt awfully content as she listened to the ladies speaking warmly of aunts and granddaughters and old friends. As she ate her dinner, Rosalee noticed something else. She didn’t feel like rushing through her dinner, and she didn’t feel like banishing herself to a far-flung corner of the hallway to sit alone with her thoughts. Rosalee was having fun, and she had completely forgotten how exquisite that could be!”

Rosalee slept well that night. When she awoke, she felt rested. She took her time getting dressed and she brushed her hair with extra care. When she ambled out to the dining room it was with a hint of happiness. Anne and some of the other ladies at the big table beckoned to Rosalee. As she made her way over, she passed Walter, John and Mitch. “Good morning,” she said, and then added shyly, “Isn’t it a lovely day?”

Rosalee sat with the ladies during all three meals that day and, in the coming weeks, she continued to eat with her new friends. In time, she became bold enough to add her own snippets of conversation to the joy-filled cacophony. In time, she connected the many names to the many faces at the care home. She didn’t stop with the residents. She reached out to the aides as well. When they shared their problems or frustrations, Rosalee commiserated with them. When they asked Rosalee if she needed assistance, she responded with gratitude.

Her new confidence led Rosalee to do things she wouldn’t have otherwise dreamed of. Such was the case one morning when she passed by Mitch as she passed by the shuffleboard table. Without thinking, she reversed her walker, and blurted out to the back of his head, “Mitch, do you know how to play that game? Can you teach me?” Mitch turned around and looked at Rosalee with the same piercing look he always gave her, but this time it was accompanied by a wide grin. Mitch did teach Rosalee how to play shuffleboard and she found it to be first-rate fun. She could lean one arm against her walker and push those rocks down to the other end like there was nothing to it. Best of all, the game brought the two of them together. Rosalee discovered she loved spending time with this tall, affable fellow.

One day after their game had come to an end, Mitch asked Rosalee to recommend a book to read. Rosalee began to ramble on about her favorite books. The subject of books always put Rosalee in an ebullient mood, and, impulsively, she asked Mitch if he would like to sit outside with her in the courtyard. The sun was shining, and Rosalee had a hankering to be outside. The two of them spent the rest of the afternoon together, talking books, and savoring the warmth of the day.

Every balmy summer day after that, Rosalee and Mitch took to sitting together on an old wood bench in the courtyard. Mitch was a quiet man and a gentle man in the truest sense of the word. He was a good listener and Rosalee found herself reminiscing with him about her life on the farm. Mitch told Rosalee about his life as a truck driver; about how his fellow-truckers became his family over the years, and about how hard it was to adjust to living in one place after so many years on the road.

On a chilly day in the fall Mitch brought a thick, wool blanket outside and laid it across Rosalee’s lap. Under the blanket, he took Rosalee’s hand in his. Rosalee smiled, remembering back to the first time she had felt his hands on hers. And once again, she couldn’t believe how good it felt. There was something about this most tender of gestures that made Rosalee feel completely at peace. She patted Mitch’s hands to convey this. Mitch continued to bring the blanket outside every day after that, and he continued to take Rosalee’s hands in his. They never spoke of it. They didn’t need to.

As winter set in, Rosalee and Mitch migrated to the social room for their visits. They got into the habit of visiting with the other residents in the room. They played cards and sipped tea and listened to old music on the radio. If a stranger had passed by on one of these afternoons, he might have noticed the beautiful woman, sitting tall and proud, chatting and laughing easily among her many friends. He might have noticed a woman who was completely content. A woman whose mind was surely intact.