She Used To

[This was written from the heart and experience.  Not non-fiction, though definitely taken from the real world.]

Her room is on the first floor, just past the TV and activity room.  Folks sit in recliners-on-wheels in the wide hallway, smiling and nodding, but not really seeing.  Her door is open, and I stop, looking in, watching her.

She sits at the window, a peaceful mask on her face, cheek pressed against the glass, probably watching the birds.  There is a tree just outside, the branches green, darts of red cardinals visible through the rustling leaves.  She smiles, turns her heads, and spies me in the door.

I grin and enter, like I have only just arrived.  “Hi, how are you today?”

She jumps in her chair and claps her hands.  “Oh, it’s been a marvelous day.  My friends are moving in next door.”

I look away to hang my coat over the back of a chair, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath.  “Friends?”

She points out the window at the birds.

Ah.  Those friends.  “Are they building a nest?”

Nodding, she resumes her vigil at the window.  Her fingers twist in her lap, pulling at the fabric of her cotton pants.

She used to be a teacher, at first, kindergarten or first grade, then middle school.  She retired almost ten years ago, tired of defending her grading methods and giving away passing grades to children whose parents complained to the principal, of listening to five and six years olds drop “fuck” like legos on the floors.  Tired of spending her evenings grading papers and writing lesson plans.

Maybe she was just plain tired.

“There seem to be a lot of them.”  Only the males are red, and there are several in the branches.  Standing beside her, but not too close, I look for the brown females but they remain hidden.

“Oh, they’re courting, I think.”  She points to something on the low-hanging roof of the garden shed.  “Mr. Squirrel is not happy.  He thought he had dibs on that tree.”

I laugh; it’s expected.  “You’re right, he doesn’t look happy.”  The little brown ball chatters away, its tail flicking like a fuzzy whip.  The birds ignore his scold.

“The birds will keep him away, though.  They’ll protect their tree.”  She shifts in the chair, sighing and closing her eyes.  In a moment, she is asleep, her pale cheeks slack, mouth open.

She used to have never-ending energy, running after me and my sister, my kids and her kids, the kids she taught.  Up before any of us, making breakfast, second cup of coffee in her hand.Making dinner every evening, all of us at the table, talking and sharing.  Going to bed past midnight, fingers tainted blue from grading ink.

I check over her room.  The photo of the whole family, taken last summer on a vacation family reunion to Disney, is still on her nightstand.  She stands between my daughters, my nephew in front, with Mickey Mouse ears perched over her grey curls.  A book by her favorite author, bought as a gift a month ago, lays unopened beside it.

She used to read like her life depended on it.  Maybe it did.  She taught English, stressing how important it was to be able to read.  Her parents hadn’t mastered the skill, she’d warn us, hadn’t finished a basic education.  They’d worked long hours, hard hours, and died young.

You don’t want to die young, do you?

That question had terrified me as a child, motivated me to study hard, make good grades, succeed – just like her.

Her bed is neat, the dusky pink blanket smooth.  A crocheted afghan, brought by pastor the day she moved here two years ago, is folded at the foot.

The pictures on the walls were there when she came: a seaside pastel print and a glossy poster of a meadow in bloom.  The bathroom door is closed, but I know what is in there:a shower with a seat, a toilet with arms, water that never gets hotter than 110 degrees.

Someone cleans every day.  Someone reminds her to take her medication, to eat her breakfast and lunch, though if she’s not hungry at dinner they don’t press her.  Someone talks to her every day, makes her walk around the halls as they converse, the shush-shush of the walker’s feet on the carpet a cadence for their words.

That will be me today, if she wakes from her nap before I have to go home and feed my family frozen dinner and packaged salad.  I used to make it from scratch every night, and we’d sit at the table and talk – like it was when I grew up.  But now, every other night, it’s either takeout or frozen.

A snore brings me back to the room, to the present.  Her head is canted at a sharp angle, so I grab a pillow from the bed, gently lift her head, and prop it behind her ear.

She wakes, blinking, and stared up at me.  “Are you the new nurse?”

“No.  I’m Emily.”  I know better than to ask “don’t you remember?”  It upsets her when she doesn’t and knows she should.

Her eyes drift to rest on the nightstand photo.  “From the picture?That Emily?”

I nod.  “Yes, I’m that Emily.”

But her eyes are still fogged and her gaze won’t meet mine.  Her fingers pick at her sweater.  At least she knows I’m in the photo.

“It’s a pretty photo.”  I know I shouldn’t press, that I could upset her, but my own tears threaten to spill.

“M-hmm.”  She nods and picks harder at the sweater.

I take her hands, stopping their frenetic pinching.  “Who else is in the photo?”

She shrugs and her fingers twitch in my hands.  I release them and they twist together, she shifts toward the window.

I straighten and step away.  “Do you want to go for a walk?  Go say “hi” to everyone?”  I almost hope she says no.  Some of the residents are so desperate for company, they’ll grab you, call you by an unknown name.  It hurts that I can’t help them.  It hurts worse that I can’t help her.

She looks out the window, at a swooping bird.  “Oh, look.  The cardinals have come.”  She sighs and shakes her head.  “They’ll be pooping all over the paths, I suppose.”

“Yes.  I suppose so.”  I won’t mention the walk again, and I’ll have to tell the nurse at the front desk when I leave.  “I think they’re building a nest.”

“Are they?”  She leans forward and the pillow falls.  Her eyes follow the specks of red in the branches.  “I think you’re right.”

I place the pillow back on the bed, smoothing it with one hand, blinking hard to dry my eyes.  I’ve cried before, and it doesn’t help.  I stand at the other end of the window, looking out but not seeing, the green and yellow and pink of the garden a blurry watercolor.

She used to be my mother.  She used to know me, tease me, touch me, let me touch her.

I know her as my mother, but now she doesn’t know me.

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