Beverly is my dad's aunt, so she would be my great-aunt. She always had a great sense of style. Her ensemble of choice included a long-sleeved, satin dress shirt with a large bow at the neck and always the knee high, nylon stockings with tennis shoes, giving a touch of femininity to the dark, denim, men's overalls she liked to wear. Her and uncle Henry were great outdoorsman, going fishing and taking hunting trips. She regailed us with tales of slaying a deer and slicing open it's gut, then being up to her elbows inside it to "clean" it. She also had a story of eating squirrel brains, fresh from the squirrel's warm, little noggin. Needless to say, she wasn't quite what you would call educated in the world of culinary arts. At family gatherings we always shied away from Aunt Bev's "creations", never really knowing what it contained. But she was so sweet and generous. If she were sitting, you would find her with crochet hook in hand, crocheting something frilly and beautiful for someone. I am the proud owner of fruit-shaped coasters, lovingly made as a wedding present.
What a lady.
Aunt Beverly had a stroke a couple of years ago, leaving her almost completely incapacitated, only barely able to speak. While she was in the hospital, Uncle Henry, who was not used to being alone and doing things for himself, fell and broke a hip. Since he could not take care of her, Aunt Beverly went to a nursing home.
Saturday, after visiting the cemetery, my parents invited us back to their house. But first, they wanted to visit Aunt Beverly while they were in town.
The nursing home is situated in a very old neighborhood, right across the street from a trailer park. The trailers were shoddy, at best, with signs of life, but barely a pulse. The windows, broken, with tattered curtains, seemed to be sad eyes, looking back at us hopelessly.
The nursing home wasn't in much better condition. I vaguely remembered the long, red brick building. I was there a couple of times with my Camp Fire Girls group. We would go and sing songs for the elderly to earn community patches for our red and blue felt vests. I left Hubby in the van with Brother and Sister while I took Baby with me. "We'll just be a few minutes," I said, closing the door and hoping it really wouldn't be long. Honestly, I didn't want to go in, but my dad is a master of guilt. So I obediently followed him and Mom into the building.
The smell is always the first thing that gets me in a nursing home. It's an old, musty smell mingled with mediciney disinfectent. We pass the lobby, where an elderly man is seated on a couch alongside a younger couple, probably his relatives. He is very thin and very somber. They are engaged in conversation around him, but he isn't involved. His eyes stare blankly ahead, his lips curve downward in an involuntary frown. I notice he has straps around his chest to hold him upright in his seat. An old, black and white movie is playing on the TV.
Now I remember why I don't like nursing homes.
Three little ladies in wheelchairs are outside the lobby next to the desk where we sign in. Their eyes light up at the sight of Baby. They don't have to speak a word. You can tell they are suddenly transported to a time when they are young and strong, holding their own babies on their hips and kissing their soft, baby cheeks. One of them waves to Baby, who returns the greeting with a curious stare.
We walk down the hall to Aunt Beverly's room where she is watching "Cheers" on her TV. Her room is marked by a Happy Easter plaque and a purple construction paper flower, with her name written in black magic marker. It was obviously made by a child. I notice all the rooms have the same flowers, in different colors, with different names. She is overjoyed to see us and greets us with hugs and kisses. I wasn't expecting her to seems so...herself. She was in a wheelchair, and her mouth sagged a bit on the left side, but it was still her. Mom and Dad chatted with her about what she had for dinner. She said she had mashed potatoes, but she didn't want them anymore because she'd had them three times a day and she was tired of them.
But what impressed me most was my own parents.
I stood back a bit and watched them. As they talked to her her roommate began speaking, too. Her voice was very raspy and low. Mom turned to her with a smile, put a hand on her arm and asked her how she liked the potatoes. She patted her arm and even got her to laugh. Dad talked to Aunt Beverly about her new therapist and listened to her complain about the old one. We all raved about how well she looked and how the new therapist must be doing a great job. She told us Uncle Henry and her children had taken her home for the day earlier in the week. She said she didn't usually mind when they brought her back. But on that day she cried. And she was worried she had upset Uncle Henry. Then Dad asked her if she'd like to go to the lobby and she, of course, was ready to get out of her room. My dad got behind her wheelchair and gently pushed her down the hall. Mom and I followed.
We sat and chatted while I tried to keep Baby in my lap, but she was antsy. Aunt Beverly offered to hold her, but Baby wouldn't go for it. So I let her wander the room, with me close behind. She flitted from place to place, glad to break free from my arms. I was worried at first, that she might disturb people. But that wasn't the case. The residents were delighted to watch her, and I suspect, me chasing her.
What is it like? What is it like to be still and quiet, with nothing but your thoughts and a TV to pass the time? What is it like to depend on someone else to bathe you and tend to your every need, no matter how personal or intimate? What is it like to know you will probably never go back to the place you called home? What is it like to be separated from your family...to look forward to their visit but know it will never be long enough? What is it like to know your body is shutting down and tomorrow may give way completely?
That will be my parents one day. That will be me one day. No more noise. No more laundry. No more baby cheeks to kiss.
I scooped Baby into my arms and held her chubby little form close to me, drinking her in. I wanted to savor that day. That day that I would be with both of my parents, who were healthy enough to hold my children, who were still small enough to be held. I wanted to laugh with my family and forget the stupid, petty things that had been keeping me from being close to them.
And that is exactly what I did.